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Maybe a Billion Laughs - Eric Nicol

 Eric Patrick Nicol
When Eric Nicol died in February 2011, obituary pieces talked routinely about his shyness and penchant for privacy. Some said that by the 1970s, his proclivity for puns and sense of the absurd were viewed as dated and an echo of a bygone era with little connection to post-1960s modern readers.  None of this resonates with my encounter with him, my recollections of his work, and what I consider the evidence.  
Nicol remained popular and kept writing, laughing at himself, and publishing to the very end of his long life despite a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease in his final days. He was building on a mountain of humorous achievement. 
Nicol was born in Kingston, Ontario in 1919; yet it is hard to think of him as anything other than a citizen of B.C. and Vancouver where he lived almost his entire 91 years and where he achieved icon status as an extremely popular newspaper columnist.  

I read his pieces religiously when I lived in Vancouver in the 1970s.  His column came out a few times a week, making the days without it a little darker than those when it appeared to sweeten the coffee and lighten the morning routine. He once estimated his newspaper career output at around 6,000 individual columns.  When his readership in the many tens of thousands is applied to a very conservative multiplier of two or three laughs per published column, it is easy to suggest that Nicol induced hundreds of millions of human laughs. Maybe a billion when you insert the impact of his plays, radio scripts, and books and the recalling and retelling of his quips and jokes.  It is not a bad legacy and illustrates why Nicol was and is someone to admire. 
Nicol was not a satirist in the sense that most of us know the term. Proudly apolitical, he was cheerful in the execution of his wit and avoided anything mean spirited. He managed to be engaging, amusing, and enlightening by using his humour for emphasis and illustration as he communicated the simple truths of the everyday with thoughtfulness.
But more than a humorist, he was an erudite master of many techniques and a multi-layered practitioner of the craft of writing. He defined himself as a writer writ large. Despite his addiction to whimsy and comical musings, he did not want to be remembered as solely a humour writer and took pride in the impact of his serious pieces which included a well referenced history of the City of Vancouver and high profile advocacy against capital punishment. The latter effort brought him a journalistic badge of honour in the form of a contempt of court ruling and fine. His talent as a writer manifested in other formats including plays, notably Like Father, Like Fun, which was well received in Canada despite an unsuccessful brush with Broadway in 1967.
A few of Nicol’s forty or so books such as the one published just months before his death, Script Tease (2010), are cast as reflections upon the profession of writing and a guide to young writers. 
This last book presents some of the standard fare of creative writing courses in an effective Nicol-like way.  But those looking for a comprehensive handbook or roadmap to a writing career might be disappointed.  The premise of a textbook on writing serves primarily as another prop for Nicol’s humour.  His only instructive messages are that a career in writing is not an easy way to make a living, that writers are in general a boring, introverted, sorry lot, and that commercial success often falls upon the vile.
Still, his thoughts on writing are worthy of study. In fact, reading his books can be among the best exercises for aspiring writers if only it reminds them to not take themselves and their craft too seriously, to keep their pecuniary expectations in check, and to try to have fun.
Eric Nicol was the first person to win three Stephen Leacock Medals for Humour, and he was awarded the Order of Canada in 2001. In 1995, Eric Patrick Nicol he became the first recipient of the annual George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for an exemplary literary career in his beloved British Columbia.
This link is among the best of those that reviewed his life and career after his passing.