America’s most popular comedian since Mark Twain
Stephen Leacock (1869-1944) shared Mark Twain’s gift for public speaking, had as good a sense of the absurd as Twain, and, in fact, was described as the most popular comedian in America since Twain.
Leacock’s family moved from England to South Africa and then to the United States before settling in Ontario, Canada. While at teacher training college, an event occurred that would stay with him for the rest of his life and had a profound influence on the humor displayed in his writing. He had a natural gift for mimicry and when, during an English lesson, the main instructor invited him to take over and continue the lesson, he imitated him so well that the class was very amused.
The friendly instructor, who was embarrassed, said softly to him when he had finished, “I’m afraid I admire your intelligence more than your manners.” Leacock tells us in his autobiography that he learned “the need for human kindness as an element of humor”.
He was a professor of economics and politics at McGill University for 30 years, but it was for his humorous writings that he became famous. Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912) is his literary masterpiece, based in part on the many summers he spent in Orillia, Ontario, and his childhood experiences. He gently depicts the incongruities between how things are and how they should be.
A biographer said that Leacock found much of his pleasure “in the little man beset by advertising, fashions, conventions, sex, science, malice, machines – social and industrial – and many other tyrannies impersonal”. It reflected the social anxieties of the early 20th century and the absurdities of man’s relationship to technological advances and growing institutions. British comedian John Cleese credits Leacock with the Monty Python skit “Four Yorkshiremen”, in which several old geezers try to outdo each other with stories of childhood poverty.
He also set a model for Canadian humor that endures to this day.
“All Canadian self-mockery – mocking oneself first, gently reprimanding oneself, a familiar, unbiting sense of humor – is very much the Canadian tradition,” observed Fred Addis, curator of the Leacock Museum in Orillia. , on the occasion of the centenary. from the publication of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.