Canada's hottest TV comic can't resist that blood sport, politics
JONATHON GATEHOUSE | Feb 16, 2004
RICK MERCER is staying cool in a crisis -- in this case a hostage drama. Sheila Copps has been dragging us around her Hamilton stomping grounds for almost six hours now as the camera rolls. We've met her mother and seen the house she grew up in and the park where she learned to skate. She's taken us on a tour of the harbourfront and brought us to a local auto-body shop. In full campaign mode as she bare-knuckles with the Liberal leadership over the right to run in the riding she's owned for the past 20 years, Copps has stopped to admire each child, shake every hand, and introduce the visiting TV celebrity to any voter who will listen. Crammed into the rear of the minivan with a producer, a cameraman and a political assistant who puts the grate back into ingratiating, I have been ready to seize the keys for hours. But up front in the passenger seat, Mercer just keeps feeding out line waiting for the moment. It's a long haul for a clip that is set to run two minutes, 2 1/2 max, when his new show, Monday Report, goes to air the following week.
It's not until the sun has started to set and we're thawing out in a smoke-filled donut shop near one of the city's steel plants that Mercer finally lets fly. As the camera rolls, he peppers Copps with questions about her demotion from cabinet, her threats to join the NDP, and her true feelings for the new Prime Minister. "Is it possible, that behind closed doors, Paul Martin is a vindictive prick?" he asks. She blinks, hesitates, and offers a polite, political answer. Mercer presses on. The Liberal party has never been a good fit for such a strong-willed woman, he suggests. "Maybe you're too uppity." You can see the angry response forming on Copps's lips; she's rising to the bait. Mercer leans into the frame, turns to the camera and sinks the hook with a wicked grin. "Have you ever considered a burka?" Sheila Copps at a loss for words, caught on tape -- the type of payoff Canadians have come to expect from their official court jester. It's the shtick that has made Mercer one of the country's most bankable television commodities. Track-proven. Reliable. He may earn a living speaking truth to power, but the ratings prove he's nobody's fool.
RICK MERCER is a public figure, but he's not on display. You will never read the type of confessional, misspent youth, tears-of-a-clown profile that we have come to expect from our celebrities, even Canadian ones. At least, not if he has anything to do with it. This is not to suggest he's not nice, or helpful. In fact, as you might expect from his television persona, he's the kind of guy who's fun to hang around with: bright, articulate, with a sly sense of humour. It's just that for a man who has built a successful career out of putting famous people on the spot, he politely, resolutely, refuses to be paid in kind. Want to know what makes Rick tick? Fine. Good luck to you. Oh dear, look at the time.
Over a pleasant lunch at a restaurant near the CBC's Toronto broadcast centre, the 34-year-old comedian delivers the type of on-message performance that political handlers dream about. Why the return to a weekly satirical news show, a format he abandoned just three years ago when he left This Hour Has 22 Minutes? "If you view politics as a blood sport, and there are suddenly coups within the Liberal party and there are changes of government and things start heating up again, it's like you're heading into playoff season. You suddenly want to get back at it." His relationship with politicians? "Mutually parasitic," says Mercer, reprising a line that he has trotted out frequently in past interviews.
The question of who is funny in Canadian comedy elicits a long list, seemingly everyone he's ever worked with. Who isn't? "Why would I answer that?" Is there anyone you've patterned yourself after? "No, not particularly." What do you think your good qualities are? "That's a trap. How can you talk about what your good qualities are without sounding like a raging egomaniac, which is one of the worst qualities anyone can have?" His bad qualities? After prodding, he allows that he was a rude smoker, often lighting up in forbidden places, but it's a habit he kicked more than a year ago. Why do all of the articles written about Rick Mercer over his 15 years in show business read like they were created from a template? "That's probably because the story doesn't change that much. I think a lot of people in my business trade off of difficult upbringings and stuff," he says between bites of a seafood salad. "There's no doubt that there's a fair bit of that in comedy. I just had a fairly normal childhood, maybe that's the problem." Even that is just a variation of something he's said before.
He was raised in Middle Cove, Nfld., near St. John's, one of four kids. His dad was in the fisheries, his mother, a nurse, and he's been in the public eye since his teens. The first thing he ever helped write, a one-act play entitled The 20-Minute Psychiatric Workout, won Newfoundland's high-school drama festival. It featured a lot of ranting, a punk band and songs so obscene that Mercer is still reluctant to divulge their titles. "They played them so fast that thankfully, nobody could understand what they were screaming," he says. The core of the production went on to form a comedy troupe, Corey and Wade's Playhouse, named in honour of their drug dealers, that found critical and popular success in their home province. Mary Sexton, a St. John's filmmaker whose late brother, Tommy, was one of the founding members of CODCO, remembers being shocked by the teenage Mercer's provocative comedy. "Rick was a shining talent," she recalls. "He could dissect something so quickly and make it so funny. And the group was so far ahead of its time, so risky. A bunch of high-school kids taking on sexuality, the Church, the fishery -- things that needed to be attacked."
In his early 20s, he scored national hits with a pair of angry one-man plays showcasing his fierce humour. As high executioner of Newfoundland in I've Killed Before, I'll Kill Again, he put to death Canadian icons who had overstayed their welcome -- Burton Cummings, Farley Mowat, Sharon, Lois and Bram, the entire cast of Front Page Challenge. He joined the cast of the new show This Hour Has 22 Minutes in 1993, and quickly won fans with his on-the-spot interviews and arm-waving editorials. In eight seasons, Mercer provided some of the show's signature moments: lunch at Harvey's with Jean Chrétien, an Internet petition to force Stockwell Day to change his first name to Doris, getting George W. Bush to talk about our Prime Minister "Poutine" during the 2000 U.S. elections.
There have been other projects. Talking to Americans, a special that mined the rich vein of U.S. ignorance about Canada, attracting 2.7 million viewers, CBC's highest-rated comedy special ever. Made In Canada, a satire of the television industry he co-wrote and produced that has just ended a five-year run. Still, it's his pointed, on-camera encounters that have made Mercer a celebrity. "Canada's leading political satirist," the New York Times proclaimed in a recent front page story -- cross-border validation that the CBC publicist includes in Mercer's bio material, highlighted in red.
Of course, the Canadian television version of fame is more like being consigned to a demimonde than put up on a pedestal. Back home in Newfoundland, Mercer can't walk 30 paces without being stopped by well-wishers, but that's the exception. In Toronto, he rides the subway to and from his new home in the city's east end(he relocated from Halifax last summer with his partner)in relative peace. During our day in Hamilton, people on the streets do double takes, or nudge their friends, but few work up the nerve to say hello and ask for an autograph.
Still, one can't help but wonder if things are about to change. Mercer was part of an ensemble on 22 Minutes and Made In Canada, earning just a few minutes of screen time each episode. On the new show, it's all Rick. The company he co-owns with executive producer Gerald Lunz is making it, his name is above the title, and CBC has launched a promotional campaign that has plastered his sardonically smirking mug on billboards across the country. On the air just five weeks, it's drawn close to 900,000 viewers and is one of the network's top shows.
There has already been a breach in the wall that Mercer has so painstakingly built between his public and private life. A recent Globe and Mail feature put his homosexuality on the record. Mercer doesn't exactly bristle when the subject is raised, but it's clear that he was none too pleased. "I don't view it as an outing -- my personal life is my personal life -- but there's nothing in my personal life that my friends and family aren't privy to," he says. His long-standing romantic and professional partnership with Lunz is not a secret, but something he chooses not to discuss publicly. Is he worried about how his fans may react? "Some people who are younger and starting out might have different concerns than I have. I've been at this a long time. I don't worry about those type of things hurting my career." That's it. The small window into Mercer's life outside the footlights is slammed shut. We're finished with specifics, back to general principles. "I'm not going to help anyone look backstage," he says. "Looking backstage doesn't help anyone."
THE AUDIENCE packed into the bleachers of the sixth-floor studio is ready for some Friday night fun. More reassuring for the CBC executives in attendance, the spectators are young enough not to be heart-attack risks if things get too hilarious. They're clapping along to the CanCon classics -- Raise a Little Hell, Roxy Roller -- that are thumping over the speakers. When Mercer, clad in his trademark funeral director black suit and tie, jogs out to the glass news desk, they turn positively giddy. Jokes about Sheila Copps being tougher to get rid of than back hair, and the parallels between Belinda Stronach and another "snappy dressing" politician of Austrian heritage, generate real guffaws. Pre-taped bits of Canadiana featuring our peacekeepers in Kabul, and Rush's Geddy Lee giving tobogganing advice, get warm applause. It all moves along at a nice clip. In just under an hour, the audience is heading back out to the street, murmuring happily.
Surprisingly efficient for a brand new show, but then again, Monday Report isn't exactly reinventing the wheel. Many of the key team members -- including Lunz and three of the four writers -- are veterans of 22 Minutes. Monday Report's format -- the dissection of the week's headlines, political interviews, parody commercials, the rants -- is largely identical. The new show even occupies 22's old time slot, Mondays at 8 p.m. Mercer pooh-poohs suggestions that he's treading on his former colleagues' turf. "I've been away from that show for three years. Everybody moves on," he says. "I don't see why anyone would have any hard feelings because I'm continuing to work." On the phone from Halifax, Mary Walsh says she's been meaning to watch Monday Report, but hasn't yet found the time. The question of whether the audience is big enough to support three comedy shows -- Mercer's, 22 and Air Farce -- riffing on the same news events, on the same network, is one better answered by CBC executives, she says.
Mercer is hopeful that his new show, which ends when the NHL playoffs start in April, will be picked up for another year. He's a bit fuzzier on his longer-term ambitions. The Bob Hope-ish Christmas special he did with peacekeepers in Kabul, and an earlier trip to visit troops in Bosnia, were "incredibly personally satisfying," and something he'd like to do again. Movies, at least Canadian ones, don't make much sense, he says, because he'd probably be decreasing his audience size. Following the well-worn path to Los Angeles is out of the question. "You have to know what your act is, and be careful about thinking you can do other things, just because you do one thing well. I've only ever really wanted to cover Canadian politics."
Fifteen years ago, as a punk kid, Mercer made his name by mercilessly skewering cultural icons. Now, he is one. Age has a way of smoothing our sharp corners, and for edgy entertainers, TV just seems to accelerate the process. Is there a young comic out there ranting about Monday Report? "I'm not going to worry that somebody will come along and use me as a punchline -- I'm sure that's already happened," he says with a wry grin. Rick Mercer knows that big fish in small ponds make great targets. It's how he got to be famous.