Stephen Leacock: Most popular humorist in America since Mark Twain

The comedic writer inspired the Monty Python ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch

Stephen Leacock (1869-1944) is known for his literary masterpiece Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. Photograph: Picture Post/Getty Images

Stephen Leacock (1869-1944) is known for his literary masterpiece Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. Photograph: Picture Post/Getty Images

 

Stephen Leacock (1869-1944) shared Mark Twain’s gift for public speaking, had as good a concept of the absurd as Twain and, indeed, was described as the most popular humorist in America since Twain.

Leacock’s family moved from England to South Africa and then the US before settling in Ontario, Canada. While at teacher-training college, an event occurred that would remain with him for the rest of his life and had a profound influence on the humour displayed in his writings. He had a natural gift for mimicry and when, during an English lesson, the senior instructor invited him to take over and continue the lesson, he mimicked him so effectively that the class was very entertained. 

The kindly instructor, who was embarrassed, said quietly to him when he had finished: “I’m afraid I admire your brains more than your manners.” Leacock tells us in his autobiography that from this he learned of “the need for human kindliness as an element in humour”.

He was professor of economics and politics at McGill University for 30 years, but it was for his humorous writing that he became famous. Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912) is his literary masterpiece, based partly on the many summers spent in Orillia, Ontario, and on his childhood experiences. It gently depicts the incongruities between how things are and how they ought to be. 

One biographer said Leacock found much of his fun “in the little man beset by advertising, fads, conventions, sex, science, cussedness, machinery – social and industrial – and many other impersonal tyrannies”. He reflected early 20th-century social anxieties and the absurdities of man’s relationship with advancing technology and growing institutions. British comedian John Cleese credits Leacock for the Monty Python “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch, in which several old geezers try to outdo one another with stories about their childhood poverty.

He also set a pattern for Canadian humour that endures to this day.

“The whole Canadian self-deprecation – poking fun at oneself first, gentle chiding, a sense of humour that’s familiar and not biting – is very much the Canadian tradition,” Fred Addis, curator of the Leacock Museum in Orillia, observed on the centenary of the publication of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.

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