08/16/2012 04:48 EDT | Updated 10/16/2012 05:12 EDT

Stephen Leacock's enduring humour

Prior to the Second World War, there were few Canadians better known than Stephen Leacock, the writer whose Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town celebrates its 100th anniversary this weekend.

Leacock was a professor and department head at McGill University in Montreal, but his humorous stories, beginning with his first collection Literary Lapses in 1910, made him an international name.

“He was huge – he did a tour of speaking and readings in England in 1921 and he did about 56 speaking engagements in 42 days from Scotland right down to the south of England and he had huge crowds in London and Tunbridge Wells, Glasgow, wherever he went,” Fred Addis, curator of the Leacock Museum and national historic site in Orillia, Ont., said in an interview with CBC News.

Sunshine Sketches was the book that put him on the international stage, a collection of stories capturing the quirky characters and gentle incidents of life in the small fictional town of Mariposa.

Addis estimates one million copies of the book have sold to date and a new edition was released by publisher McLelland & Stewart in July. In February, CBC marked 100 years of Sunshine Sketches earlier this year with a new TV version of the comic classic, starring Gordon Pinsent and Jill Hennessy.

“Sunshine Sketches in particular holds up that idol of small-town Canada that people pine for,” Addis said.

Leacock always asserted that the stories were about many small towns, not just Orillia. But the serious McGill professor of political science spent every summer in the town, buying a house in 1908 and keeping it until his death in 1944.

Leacock did more than immortalize a town full of good-natured characters, Addis said. 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 and a lot of Canadian comedians pay tribute to that,” Addis said.

The annual Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour pays tribute to that tradition and Addis cites winners such as brothers Will and Ian Ferguson and Stuart McLean as writers who owe a debt to Leacock. 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.

Leacock himself had a difficult background, the third child of 11 in a family with a ne’er-do-well father who'd failed at farming in South Africa before he went bust in Ontario. As a boy, he loved the writings of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, both filled with gentle humour. Leacock always said he would rather have written Alice in Wonderland than the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica, whose volumes he did contribute to at 2 cents a word as a way of earning a little money.

He wrote humorous stories for periodicals from an early age and was able to bridge the chasm between academia and popular culture, despite warnings from colleagues that his silly stories would detract from his reputation. In fact, Leacock had another bestseller with a textbook, Elements of Political Science, that was devoid of any comic element.

After Sunshine Sketches, his writing made him richer than his teaching. Leacock went on to publish more than 40 books, including biographies of his favourite writers, Twain and Dickens, and guides to writing humour. He also wrote Arcadian Adventures of the Idle Rich, a darker volume of satirized city life and rampant capitalism.

The residents of Orillia were somewhat bemused by the professor up the road who made them famous. Many professed to recognize themselves in the endearing characters of Mariposa and they flocked to Hatley’s grocery where they could buy leftover produce from Leacock’s summer garden.

In 1912, the town had about 6,000 people and ambitions to move into the modern age. It had machine shops and lumber operations, catered to the tourist trade and was the proud designer and builder of the Tudhope automobile. That’s the legacy that Orillia is celebrating this weekend, as Sunshine Sketches turns 100, Addis said.

“He [Leacock] always said that there was no Canadian sense of humour but what he underestimated was the degree to which he was starting it himself," he added.