The next time a TV sportscaster jams his microphone in a player's face and asks "Has the team improved?" here's how the player should reply: "Not only that, but I'd say it's improved for the better."
The line is Eric Nicol's. He wrote it in the Vancouver Province close to 50 years ago in a piece poking fun at football commentators. I stumbled across it in Space Age, Go Home, a book of Nicol columns that my dad bought in 1965. "Improved for the better" isn't the wittiest of Nicolisms, but it's one that's been rattling around my head ever since, popping out of my mouth every time some sideline Einstein poses the question.
Nicol died in Vancouver last week at age 91- which is about 90 years after I first vowed to send him a letter to say thanks for the memories and sorry about the plagiarism. When I write the occasional (attempted) humour column today, it's because two of the best - first Nicol, then Jim Taylor - showed how it's done. ("It doesn't bug me that you're always late," one of my Kamloops paper route customers once told me, "so much as it bugs me to look out the window and see you sitting in the snowbank, reading Eric Nicol and laughing.")
Nicol wasn't just good. He was good for a long time, like Gordie Howe (as opposed to being along for a good time, like me). He not only cranked out 6,000 columns for the Province between 1951 and 1986, but also wrote stage plays, radio scripts, magazine articles and close to 40 books, including three that won the Stephen Leacock Medal For Humour and one, Script Tease, that was published just months ago.
He was a smart writer with an everyman quality, finding humour in mundane life. Witty without being mean, he always seemed to have a cheerful sense of the absurd. (In the 1940s, while working on the Island as a spark-chaser for Port Renfrew Logging, he turned away a pair of black bears by singing O Canada and God Save The King.)
Nicol's disarming, self-deprecating satire is echoed today by the likes of Rick Mercer and fellow Leacock winners Will and Ian Ferguson. "Eric kind of invented a particular Canadian style of humour writing and was a huge influence on myself and Will and other funny writers like Mark Leiren-Young and Drew Hayden Taylor," says Ian, who now lives in Victoria. "Pick up any of his writing - I'm partial to Shall We Join The Ladies? and Anything For A Laugh - and you will enjoy the read. And laugh. A lot."
They say Nicol was never the life of the party, though, not in real life.
"He was so shy," says Taylor, who was to speak at Nicol's memorial service in Vancouver on Sunday.
Vancouver sports columnist Taylor got to know Nicol not in the newspaper but beside the soccer fields where their eight-year-old sons played on the same team. Taylor would pick the older man's brain. "I would go to school," he says. "He taught me that it was OK to be funny."
"That's my complaint with newspapers now: Nobody laughs anymore."
Apparently Nicol felt the same way. Two years ago he did an interview with the Province's Marc Weber, told him today's newspapers are too homogeneous, too careful not to offend: "Back in the day, columnists were allowed to be wild and woolly. They're all tamed down now. They all seem to be coming out of the same mould - politically correct and stylistically pretty humdrum. I have a feeling they'd rather die than split an infinitive."
Yeah, well, you can say that of dulled-down newsrooms in general. People used to drink gin at their desks, now they feel like drug mules if they smuggle in a peanut butter sandwich. I don't think there's anyone left in my entire office who was ever caught having sex on company property, unless you count the delivery vans (the cars are too small). But I digress.
The best writing-for-deadline advice I ever got was from Taylor, who got it from Nicol on that rain-soaked soccer field: "Sometimes all you've got in you is garbage. Just give them the best garbage you've got." Never give less than your best, even if it ain't that great. Keep trying to improve for the better.
Eric Nicol, gone at 91. RIP. LOL.