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Shy and mild-mannered architect professor by day, Derek Drummond periodically transforms into a fearless moderator, boldly zinging anyone who stands before him. OK, maybe he's not really shy or mild-mannered, and umm... he has no secret identity, but Drummond has developed a reputation for humour since he became the Leacock Luncheon's toastmaster about 15 years ago.
The annual lunch features Drummond and guest speakers not normally known for their sense of humour, such as Preston Manning who showed his funny side to a thousand McGill alumni in Montreal two years ago. The Leacock Luncheon expanded from Montreal to Toronto in 1991 and is now an annual event in Vancouver and Calgary as well, with Drummond as the cheeky host of each.
Honora Shaughnessy, executive director, Alumni Relations and Advancement, McGill Alumni Association, says the Leacock Luncheons have always been humorous and lighthearted. "It allows the McGill family to laugh together and feel good together... We've been blessed with Derek Drummond. He was willing to take the Leacock Lunch on the road and it's proven to be a great signature event for Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver, as much as it is for Montreal."
Drummond has shared stage time with high and powerful guests and has never been awed enough by anyone to spare them from his cutting comedic lip. "I've skewered three different principals, the chancellor, the whole works. Humour is a wonderful thing. If delivered without any malice, you can say virtually anything about anyone... Also if you do it very quickly you can say more outrageous things. People gasp, but you're on to the next one so fast that it seems to work."
Humour can be culturally quite specific and he notices that there is no one formula for inciting chuckles. "Montrealers have always had a tradition of laughing at themselves. There's no problem poking fun at Montreal and at Quebec, here, and people enjoy it. Toronto was a harder nut to crack until I realized in Toronto you don't make fun of Toronto, you make fun of Montreal."
Leacock Luncheons feature Drummond and a special guest speaker in every city. Shaughnessy says Montreal draws the largest crowds since many alumni are based here. Toronto attracts the second largest number of around 400 or 500; Calgary and Vancouver get audiences of about 250 each. She says that while the Montreal lunch is organized by McGill, the other cities rely heavily on volunteers who suggest speakers local audiences would enjoy. Toronto's McGill office is assisted by volunteers, in Calgary and Vancouver the luncheon is organized entirely by the volunteers in consultation with Montreal. "We have incredible volunteers. They support us so much in those cities and we rely on their judgment." In fact, Vancouver volunteers drew McGill's attention to Manning's gift as an entertaining speaker.
"The news is out that this man is very, very funny," says Drummond about Manning, adding that the June 11 Toronto lunch featuring the politico is sold out partly because of the buzz Manning generated at the Montreal luncheon. He was also impressed by Bob Rae, another politician with a penchant for humour. While he enjoys the guest speakers, Drummond finds his role as host very rewarding. "You get an incredible high if you have the opportunity to stand in front of a thousand people and have them all laughing."
Drummond says students appreciate his use of humour in his class lectures, but that there is a downside to developing a reputation for being an entertaining speaker in academic circles. "There is the danger that you get better known for your humour than your academic work." And there is definitely a need for humour in the classroom: "If you lecture at 8:30 in the morning you better have something other than your [course] material," he laughs. He has proven so popular as a moderator that he was invited to host the literary humour Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal Award presentation on June 11 in Toronto.
While Drummond's technique includes quick quip delivery, he says that every minute of presentation takes at least an hour of writing. "I often joke that I show it to my wife but she always says, ‘You can't say that!' When she says that, I know I've got it right."