Frontlines

Eric Nicol’s joys and pains-of humor

Paul Grescoe November 19 1979
Frontlines

Eric Nicol’s joys and pains-of humor

Paul Grescoe November 19 1979

Eric Nicol’s joys and pains-of humor

Frontlines

Paul Grescoe

Eric Nicol’s first play ran 28 years. The 1942 premiere at the University of British Columbia starred the likes of Lister Sinclair, Norman Campbell and Arthur Hill (who all graduated to prominence in the entertainment world) in the raunchy sex farce that pitted engineer Joe Beef against English Professor Brackish for the hand of the heiress Cassandra. With lines that stood up surprisingly well, Her Science Man Lover was performed at the university once a year, every year, to raise booze money for the Players Club. A few years ago the club sent the author a cheque for three decades’ worth of royalties—$10.

The amount didn’t surprise Nicol,

who once wrote: “A beginning Canadian playwright is a depressing sight—like watching a caterpillar set off across the freeway.” Since then the Vancouver humorist has written seven professionally produced plays, most of them comedies, and he still believes that the lot of the domestic playwright is no laughing matter. His Like Father, Like Fun was well enough liked in Canada but when it played Broadway as A Minor Adjustment in 1967, the New York critics declared it a major disaster. In 1973 Pillar of Sand proved as tenuous as its title: it started crumbling at a National Arts Centre run in Ottawa before collapsing altogether in Vancouver. And earlier this month the New Play Centre and Westcoast Actors’production of his latest comedy, Free at Last, was playing in

Nicol’s home town to good reviews.

Fortunately, at 59, with a couple of strikeouts behind him, Eric Nicol still considers writing plays a diverting game that he can treat as a hobby. His real work is in print, on bookshelves, and there he is Canada’s longest running wit. In 40 years of comic writing he has scattered millions of words in countless newspaper columns and in 24 books, three of which have won the Leacock Medal for the year’s best work of humor. His thrice-weekly column appears in the Vancouver Province and five other Canadian newspapers. His latest book, The Joy of Hockey, has sold 26,000 hard-back copies and is still moving briskly. The New York Times described an earlier work, Russia, Anyone?, as “unapologetic slapstick that shows no sign of shrinkage.” Fellow jester Robertson Davies (The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks) once wrote of Nicol: “He has made all of Canada laugh — that part of Canada, that is, which can laugh—by tossing the lightest and most prettily turned jokes at us from the farther side of the Rockies.”

Admittedly, many of the jokes he w tosses fall flat on their farce (“The girl’s K name was Phyllis, but she was known as ^ Phyl—a challenge I was eager to 3 meet”). When he connects he can be quietly silly or disturbingly satirical. Wielding puns (“In Central Park you can’t see the hoods for the trees”), aphorisms (“Nothing infuriates a drunk more than an overt display of tact”), and lampoon (“Canada chased its identity in ever-diminishing circles till it finally disappeared up its own aspirations”). Like his hero, American humorist Robert Benchley, he is a chronicler of Everyman’s crises: the escape artistry of the pet tortoise, the social menace of the savage onion, the utter dispensability of the first-time father. Like another of his favorites, Washington columnist Art Buchwald, he can also be trenchantly political without being partisan, as in a recent column where he mocked those businessmen who don’t want Canada to criticize her influential trading partners for human rights violations: “When the monster has money jingling in his pockets, it drowns out the bells of St. Mary’s, the Peace Tower chimes, and Joe Clark’s Jiminy Cricket watch.”

Nicol’s column has mellowed since the time he was sued successfully for libel and charged with contempt of court after writing a capital punishment parable about jurors “planning the murder” of a condemned man. That

1954 case is still cited in free-speech debates. However, his kind of catchall humor column is dying, he says, as its practitioners age and the younger comedy writers prefer the rush of television. “I’m not sure my column is even understood by younger people, because of the language problem. I write in English,” wide-gapped teeth emerge as he smiles, “and they’re trained in the visual medium.”

In several best-selling books he has

collaborated with some of Canada’s finest cartoonists—Roy Peterson, Sid Baron, Peter Whalley. His own long oval of a face is a cinch for caricaturists with its conspicuous ears, sunken eyes and a nose he refers to as a Roman aqueduct. Working out of his white stucco house hidden behind evergreens in residential Vancouver, Eric Nicol has the lowest profile of any professional humorist in the country. His idea of a good time is gardening or cycling. He’s

excruciatingly shy, refusing to promote his books on talk shows, blanking out on people’s names and faces at the parties he so seldom attends. “I’m a monster,” he says with a straight face. “I’m so egocentric, so involved with myself as an introverted personality that I’m subhuman.”

At the University of British Columbia, where he majored in French (honors), Nicol would slink into the student newspaper office, hand his humor column to editor Pierre Berton, then scuttle out. The column—still remembered as one of the funniest ever to appear in the Ubyssey—was signed with a pseudonym, Jabez, which he translates from the Hebrew as “he will give pain.”

For three peaceful years in the RCAF during the Second World War, Nicol was a sergeant with the job of producing and writing servicemen’s variety shows for a Calgary radio station. After the war he worked on an MA at UBC , then moved to the Sorbonne, and from there sent columns home to the Province. Radio personality Bernie Braden of Vancouver invited him to London to work on a new BBC radio show—a gagstrewn series that became the immensely popular show Breakfast With Braden.

A year later a lonely Nicol came home to become a staff columnist and a shameless free-lancer who would write anything from funny restaurant menus to sketches for Spring Thaw. In 1955 he married a lab technician named Myrl and their nine-month, 21-country honeymoon produced his third Leacock award winner, Girdle Me a Globe. After raising two daughters and a son in the turbulent ’60s, Nicol wrote his boldest book, Letters to My Son. In it an alcoholic, divorced PR man details his sexual escapades and tries to deal with a wild teen-aged son suffering from the excesses of the decade. Doubleday wouldn’t touch it—“all those nice old ladies who’ve been buying your books for Christmas will be upset”—and although Macmillan of Canada published Letters, the dust jacket carried the warning: “Contents may prove hazardous to any preconceived idea of an Eric Nicol book.”

Two years ago Nicol and his wife separated. His most recent play, Free at Last, is about a forlorn, middle-aged, separated man desperately seeking a relationship with “today’s woman.” Nicol now has his two grown daughters and 16-year-old son living with him. He has toyed with the idea of writing a play about the phenomenon of grown children returning home to live with their parents. As Eric Nicol, humorist, says: “I know whereof I scream.