Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Arts Profile: Rick Mercer

Published in Post City Magazines. [October 2008]

When Stephen Harper announced the upcoming election set for Oct. 14, many politically aware Torontonians cynically wondered about its curious timing.

As the election south of the border shapes up to be a historic one full of titillating twists (Obama's reverend is crazy!) and turns (Palin's teen daughter is pregnant!), Canada's election is a little less inspiring - but one rife with comic gold.

The fall is shaping up to be a ripe time for comedic political satire, and if you are Toronto comedian Rick Mercer, host of CBC's political satire show, The Rick Mercer Report, there has never been a better time to give Torontonians exactly what they want: jokes about the people we choose to decide our fate.

"Political satire is a huge genre," Mercer says. "(Stephen) Colbert and (Jon) Stewart are on the covers of every magazine across America, but (the genre) is still bigger in Canada. It's more mainstream here; I think that's just our sensibility - Canadians are just a little bit more of political junkies."

The numbers prove it. During this election The Rick Mercer Report is expected to draw more than one million viewers.

It's not quite the audience that rockstars of satire Stewart of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report's Colbert draw. A recent poll shows they are the primary news source for over 20 per cent of North Americans between the ages of 18 and 29. But, if those guys are rockstars, Mercer is more like Rush - a longstanding, critically and commercially acclaimed Canadian entity respected around the world.

Since coming to national attention with his 1991 one-man stage show Show Me The Button, I'll Push It, (Or, Charles Lynch Must Die), Canadians have turned to Mercer for his irreverent take on the nation's politics.

In 1993, the St. Johns born Mercer, teamed up with fellow Newfoundlanders Cathy Jones, Mary Walsh and Greg Tomey to create This Hour Has 22 Minutes. The pioneering mock news program was met with shock and controversy; reactions that seem quaint in a society that now loves its fake news.

"It's hard to believe but it was actually considered really radical when we started This Hour Has 22 MInutes," the 38-year-old says. "There was even discussions on whether the CBC should even have this show because of what we were doing to news footage."

Those early critics would lose out. The show became a hit that continues to this day and it turned Mercer into a Canadian institution. A cast member until 2001, he provided many of the show's funniest moments.

Who can forget the way he rallied the country on Nov. 13, 2000, when he launched his online petition calling for a federal referendum that would force then-Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day to change his first name to Doris (a petition that had over 600,000 signatures within a week).

He also breakfasted with Jean Chr├ętien at Harvey's and his recurring "Talking to Americans" skit was retooled into a 2001 comedy special that drew in 2.7 million Canadian viewers. It remains the highest rated comedy special in CBC history.

With The Rick Mercer Report entering its sixth season, Mercer gets to enjoy a few perks. While headset-adorned public relations flacks scurry around dodging Alex Trebek autograph-seekers at the CBC's glitzy Fall Preview for the media this summer, Mercer is free from the chaos in his private interview room.

It's precious real estate - one reserved for him and David Suzuki. "I'm not being coy," he says. "But I really don't know what we will be doing for this year. The exciting aspect of the show, and also the terrifying aspect, is that every week, it's TV without a net. So much of it is a reaction to current events and much of it is contingent on the guest's schedule. I didn't know I was going to be swimming naked with Bob Rae until an hour before it happened."

Coming off its highest rated season (one that took him diving in a mini-submarine and competing against
Chr├ętien in Nintendo Wii boxing), Mercer is clearly relaxed. It could be his confidence in his fellow Report writers, a group he describes as "the best comedy writers in the country for this type of work that we do."

While he may not know the details of the upcoming season of the CBC's Tuesday night staple, he understands the basic blueprint of The Rick Mercer Report.

"Our show is an amalgam of so many different genres: physical comedy, political satire and there's a sketch element," he says. "At the same time, I'm also going out and visiting a demolition derby or jumping out a plane with (former Chief of the Defense Staff) General (Rick) Hillier, so you have to be able to write from a lot of different comedy styles."

One part of the show that remains solely his is his popular segment "Streeters," which are essentially two-minute rants. Explaining that he comes "from a place where a lot of people ranters, I just do it in shorter bursts than most people in Newfoundland." Mercer's rants are what gives him that common touch.

However, his enduring popularity as a political comedian has spread to other mediums: books (Mercer's 1998 collection of rants in Streeters was a national bestseller) and sitcoms (he starred for five years in the critically acclaimed Made in Canada). This political provocateur has turned into a figure as large as the ones he's satirizing.

That change means that he's able to lure some of the biggest names in the country into his goofy world of comedy. From convincing Conrad Black to tell viewers that, "you can call me Connie," before giving detailed instructions on pressing maple leafs with wax paper ("It's a very uplifting activity," Connie explains), to playing floor hockey with Stephen Harper's kids during a sleepover at 24 Sussex Avenue, The Rick Mercer Report has become a viabe forum for these larger than life figures to counter public perception and showcase a different side of their personalities.

"I think it's more of a challenge to make Stephen Harper look good," he explains. "I think anyone can make him look like an (jerk). He can do that on his own, too. But I would have regrets if I felt someone regretted doing the show. If I'm going to have someone on the show and convince them to do something out of their comfort zone like going repelling, I have a responsibility to make sure that works out for them moreso than me."

Happy to say that "nobody has regretted doingthe show," Mercer is aware of the paradox of working with these sacred cows that he slays so often. However, he recognizes the mutual benefits.

"People always learn something new about the person on my show," he says. "They get their opportunity to talk about whatever they want, but at the same time we are doing something unique, which allows the public to learn something that quite often, the subject matter wasn't even aware of themselves."

While some bemoan a generation that reveres its class clowns, Mercer has consistently shown that he's a man with a code. He requested that the multiple Gemini Award nominations for Talking to Americans be pulled, feeling it would be insensitive to be awarded for a program poking fun at Americans so often after the September 11 attacks. He also filmed a successful Christmas special in 2003, Christmas in Kabul, which detailed his visit to Canadian troops stationed in Afghanistan

"Coming from Newfoundland, it's hard to not know a lot of people in the Canadian Forces," he says. "They're doing a dangerous job so it's nice to do a show for them or hang out. Since the special, I've been to Afghanistan twice. I've managed to travel to various operating bases outside the main base and hang out all day. They're happy to see anybody coming in and it's one of the most personally satisfying things I've done."

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