TUESDAY MARCH 28, 2017
 
Blog TALKING TO
RICK MERCER
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Comedian, television personality, political satirist, author, humanitarian, blogger and the world’s most famous Newfoundlander, Richard Vincent Mercer needs no introduction to most Canadians. He’s become as familiar and iconically Canadian as hockey, beavers, Don Cherry, or Tim Hortons coffee. Now with the Canadian election at hand, many fellow Canucks will be closely watching, listening, and laughing at Mercer’s take on the proceedings. He has secured the satirical privilege of having the last word on Canadian political matters. And during this time of high political drama and economic uncertainty, it’s comforting to know that we can turn to Mercer for a lighter look at the issues.

Mercer first came to national attention in 1990 with his one-man act Show Me the Button I´ll Push It, or Charles Lynch Must Die, a sharp satirical commentary on Canadian life after Meech Lake. But what really vaulted him to national stardom were his contributions to This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Mercer, together with fellow Newfoundlanders Cathy Jones, Mary Walsh, and Greg Thomey, conceived and executed an innovative and uniquely Canadian comedy program. The program aimed its satirical darts at the foibles and absurdities of Canadian political leaders, and offered an irreverent, inward look at Canadian culture and national identity.

In the first eight seasons of This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Mercer provided some of the show´s signature moments, including lunching at a Harvey´s fast-food restaurant with former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, and running an online petition to force Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day to change his first name to Doris. Mercer also gained notoriety for his hilarious and acerbic two-minute political rants. His book Streeters (1998), which compiled many of the most famous of these rants, quickly became a national bestseller. Another of his trademark comedy routines on 22 Minutes was “Talking to Americans,” where he traveled to American cities and conducted on-the-street interviews with average Americans about Canadian matters, often with preposterous results since many interviews demonstrated a blanket ignorance of Canada.

At the end of the 2000-01 season Mercer announced his departure from This Hour Has 22 Minutes, and continued flexing his comedic muscles in Made In Canada. In 2004 he launched his own show, Rick Mercer’s Monday Report, similar in format to Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. In 2005, CBC moved the program to Tuesday night (despite its being the highest-rated comedy on the network), which caused the show´s name to be changed to Rick Mercer Report. Notwithstanding the puzzling shuffle, it continues to be one of Canada’s top-rated comedy programs, and given the impending election, promises to start its new season with a bang.

Mercer took a few moments out of his mad schedule to speak with TORO about politics, the elections and sundry other matters.

Q: I know you’re busy as hell so thank you for taking some time to answer a few questions.
A: No problem.

Q: Let me just start right up – do you think the Conservatives will win a majority?
A: You know, I have no idea. I’m not making any predictions, although I have a bet with a friend of mine and I bet the Tories would win a majority. That was about a month ago. And I believe I get double my money if the word LANDSLIDE is on the front page of the Globe and Mail. Now that was a month ago and that looks like a very bad bet right now.

Q: What if they do win a majority, any feelings about that one way or the other?
A: Sure I have personal feelings about it, but I don’t really go into those things. I’d like to, you know, remain a little non-partisan. And I think, if you believe the polls, and people like to say they ignore the polls – they go up and down and all that’s true – but if you ignore the polls I think a majority is off the tables right now for anyone in this country.

Q: Damian Thompson has written a book entitled Counterknowledge, which debunks creationism, a belief associated, wrongly or rightly, with Stephen Harper. Should we be wary of a leader who holds or espouses bizarre beliefs?
A: Well, I’ve never heard Mr. Harper say word one about creationism. I’ve never heard him actually discuss his religious beliefs at all. I know he apparently goes to church as do, I think, the majority of Canadians, they worship one way or another. So that doesn’t really seem to be an issue in Canada. There’s certainly U.S. style politics here in Canada, and it’s practised by Liberals as well as Conservatives to a certain degree. I mean, there have been relationships between the Liberals and the Democrats, and the Conservatives and Republicans going back decades. But one of the good things about our system, I think, is that religion generally doesn’t become an issue and I think that goes two ways – Stephen Harper is not making religion an issue. I don’t know why people who disagree with religion would make an issue.

Q: Maybe we’re being influenced by the Americans when it comes to this.
A: If he has never discussed his religious beliefs, or been photographed kneeling in a church, or hanging with his minister ... then I think it’s hands off, quite frankly.

Q: Fair enough. This generation of Canadian leaders, how do you compare them with leaders of the past? I mean, we hear words like “bland” being bandied about – is the current crop beyond satire?
A: I think everyone looks back fondly. Everyone has nice memories – just like suddenly everyone has nice memories of high school, like it was wonderful. You forget that you couldn’t wait to get out of there.

Q: I’m thinking of guys like Chrétien, larger than life somehow, and even Mulroney, who seemed easier to parody.
A: Well, it depends on what you’re talking about. Chrétien was easy to imitate, or at least was often imitated. But I don’t think that’s really ... I mean it’s something I don’t think about, quite frankly. I like politics and I like satirizing politics, and I just like everything about politics. And I don’t really think about the leaders in terms of "Oh this one is easy to make fun of" or not.

Q: Do you ever feel in danger of crossing some sort of line by getting too chummy or too familiar with politicians? After all, a lot of Canadian politicians consider it a badge of honour to be satirized in The Mercer Report.
A: I never think about that because I’m not friends with anyone. I mean, there’s one politician that I am friends with, and I think that after 15, 16 years in this business that’s a pretty good attrition rate. And that person is no longer running. So actually, I would say that none of them I’m particularly friends with. You know, I’m acquaintances with a lot of people – but I’m also acquaintances with everyone who works on this floor in the building. After years of crossing paths with people you become acquaintances with them, and it’s no different than anyone who covers politics. You know I was just on the Liberal plane and the Tory plane and the NDP plane and there’s not a journalist in the back of any of those planes that’s not on a first name basis with the leaders sitting in the front. Anything else would be strange because they find themselves stuck in airplanes and standing around hallways and elevators going on years and years and years. So I mean, anything else would be strange.

Q: What do you make of our American friends these days? I mean, just your general impression of the presidential race, the never-ending war, and of course the meltdown of the American economy. Should Canadians be worried?
A: I think there’s only one issue right now and it’s the economic meltdown. That is the issue that trumps all other issues. No one knows what’s going to happen. There is no playbook and I can’t even begin to understand it but you know, there’s just no playbook, and no one knows where this is going to go. So that’s the only issue, and yes, Canadians should be very concerned.

Q: If you were to air another episode of “Talking to Americans,” what would you ask them?
A: Well, you know, I wouldn’t for starters. I haven’t done it in quite a long time. And it would all be the same. That’s why I stopped doing it. [laughs] That was a fun job, a fun show, but I never saw it as something I wanted to continue doing, for that very reason. My position hasn’t really changed – my feeling hasn’t changed. It would be the same. Which is the reason I don’t do it.

Q: What do you make of the fact that an entire generation of young Americans turn to The Daily Show to understand what’s happening in their country? The same might be said – though perhaps to a lesser degree – about young Canadians watching The Mercer Report.
A: I don’t really believe that. I think people who watch The Daily Show are interested in his take on the news. But I think it’s a small percentage that are interested in someone’s take on the news but who don’t watch the news and don’t get that information somewhere else. That would be like saying someone gets their news from an editorial cartoon. I mean, the editorial cartoon can certainly draw your attention to something, and comment on something, but it’s the punchline that’s set up on page one of the newspaper. The editorial cartoon, the punchline, is on page three. Without page one, page three doesn’t make any sense. And I think for the vast majority of people who watch The Daily Show or watch my show – we’re not the primary source.

Q: How do you feel being called the Canadian Jon Stewart?
A: People say that all the time – it’s one of the compliments people give you. But it’s kind of like, “You look fabulous.” I think it’s a part of their news habit. Just like the editorial cartoon is part of a newspaper reader’s habit. So I just don’t think that they’re getting their news only from comedy shows. We’re not a primary source. And I certainly wouldn’t suggest that it be a primary news source.

Q: Who’s your favourite politician of all time?
A: Oh, I don’t have one.

Q: Your favourite to lampoon?
A: I’ve never even thought about it – but no, I don’t have a favourite.

Q: What are you reading these days?
A: I just picked up a new book by a Canadian author called Entitlement. I’m about three chapters into it. The author is Jonathan Bennett.

Q: What do you see in your crystal ball for Canada in the next few years?
A: Well, goodness, I don’t know. I wonder who would want to be Prime Minister right now, just because of this looming economic uncertainty, as Harper calls it. Maybe it will all work out, but you know, it’s one of those things, you don’t want to be the guy on deck if it all goes to shit. [laughs]

Q: What’s next for Rick Mercer? What do you have on the agenda for the next while?
A: Well, we’re just putting the finishing touches on our election show which is going to air election night.

Q: Which we’re all looking forward to –
A: Thank you. And then I’m doing ... well, the show. That’s it. When I’m doing the show that’s all I do. I don’t take any other gigs at all. I just focus completely on the show and that’s the way I’ve got to do it.

Q: Will Montreal finally win a Stanley Cup in this decade?
A: [laughs] I’m not touching that. There’s a few things in this country you don’t touch. Personally, you don’t make predictions like that because you just upset too many people.

Q: So you don’t have a few words of comfort or optimism for long-suffering Leaf fans?
A: Oh, you know. It’s why I don’t criticize a person’s faith. You know? It’s just not fair. And I admire and respect an individual’s faith, and so I would be loathe to say anything to upset Leaf fans.

Salvatore Difalco is, among many things, senior writer for TORO and the author of Black Rabbit & Other Stories.

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