The Rick Re­port

Canada’s favourite one-man road show has a brand new rant: he’s not re­tired

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Jim Slotek Photography by Paul Alexan­der

SO, THERE’S RICK MERCER, the big phony. Cul­ti­vat­ing a straight-off-the-Rock ac­cent so thick they prac­ti­cally of­fered him an oil rig job sec­onds after he landed in Fort McMur­ray, trav­el­ling around, greas­ing the Rest of Canada with flat­tery and self-ef­face­ment.

Mean­while, he lives in Toronto and drinks Pinot Gri­gio with his elite friends in the cen­tre of the freak­ing universe!

And there ends my at­tempt at a rant. Rule No. 1 of Rick’s Rants is that there should never be “faux out­rage.” And I’ll dis­close that I like Rick Mercer and the show he and his long­time part­ner Ger­ald Lunz cre­ated – which puts me of like mind with the 1.6 mil­lion peo­ple who tuned in the se­ries fi­nale of CBC’s Rick Mercer Re­port in April after 15 sea­sons.

But be­yond that, even if I felt it, the hard­est thing would be main­tain­ing the out­rage. “The most im­por­tant thing about the rants is how suc­cinct they are,” Mercer says over a glass of, yes, Pinot Gri­gio and chow­der at an East End Toronto res­tau­rant pa­tio (I would be the Toronto “elite” lunch­mate in this sce­nario, which de­val­ues the word some­what).

“My very first one-man show was com­plete folly be­cause I didn’t un­der­stand that. I just ba­si­cally stood on the stage and lit­er­ally vented for 70 min­utes. A lot of vit­riol. You couldn’t sus­tain that. Nor would I want to. I think I got away with a lot be­cause of my age, and peo­ple thought I had a re­fresh­ing point of view. But I knew noth­ing. I had no voice.”

As Mercer talks about his ca­reer, one that put him in the na­tional spot­light while still in his teens, a cou­ple from New­found­land po­litely ask if he’d mind pos­ing for a photo. They men­tion that they’d seen him a few nights pre­vi­ously at the city’s Roy Thom­son Hall host­ing a Q&A with Steve Martin.

They leave, thrilled. Mercer is happy. For one thing, they didn’t ask him how he’s lik­ing re­tire­ment.

“Every­one on the street keeps say­ing I’m re­tired. I’m not re­tired,” says Mercer, 48. “When I left [ This Hour Has] 22 Min­utes, it was a huge story be­cause I left the best job in show busi­ness,” he says of the news par­ody se­ries he started in the ’90s with a bunch of fel­low New­found­lan­ders with names like Mary Walsh and Cathy Jones.

“Not one per­son ever said, ‘How’s re­tire­ment?’ They were like, ‘What show do you have?’ Now every­one’s say­ing, ‘Happy re­tire­ment!’ Not ‘What do you have up your sleeve?’

“Not that I have any­thing up my sleeve,” he adds.

Of course, when he left 22 Min­utes, Mercer had barely turned 30. It’s ex­pected be­ing a fa­mous Cana­dian TV star, he’s squir­relled away enough money to call it a ca­reer. Call it Free­dom 48.

“I know for a fact, there’s a lot Rick could be do­ing right now if he wanted to. It’s not for lack of op­por­tu­ni­ties,” says long-time CBC exec Ge­orge An­thony, who has at­tended ev­ery tap­ing of the Rick Mercer Re­port and whose fa­mil­iar­ity with Mercer goes back to a hit one-man show he per­formed at Ot­tawa’s Na­tional Arts Cen­tre at age 20.

Back then, Mercer ad­mits, he was an an­gry young man. There was noth­ing ap­par­ently dys­func­tional about his up­bring­ing in St. John’sad­ja­cent Logy Bay-Mid­dle CoveOuter Cove, New­foun­dand, to ex­plain it. He is still close to his fa­ther, now in his 80s, who took early re­tire­ment from a job in the provin­cial fish­eries min­istry and re­mains busy in a dozen dif­fer­ent ways, from writ­ing a chil­dren’s book to act-

ing and vol­un­teer work.

“I had no idea that my fa­ther didn’t par­tic­u­larly like his job or was un­sat­is­fied with it. He’s just an in­cred­i­bly de­cent guy who left the house ev­ery day and came back and never once said, ‘I had a ter­ri­ble day.’

“There’s not a lot to say about my early life,” Mercer says. “I didn’t fin­ish school. And when I was a younger, cock­ier man, I would say, if some­one asked me, ‘Yeah, I didn’t fin­ish high school!’

“And then I re­al­ized that was a bad ex­am­ple. There was a thing in el­e­men­tary school called a Liv­ing Wax Mu­seum, where kids had to learn about some­one, like, say, Wayne Gret­zky. And they’d have to stand up and give a lit­tle speech like, ‘I’m Wayne Gret­zky and I played for the Ed­mon­ton Oil­ers.’

“And dur­ing 22 Min­utes, this mother sent me a note say­ing, ‘My son is hav­ing a re­ally hard time at school, and he did you as his Liv­ing Wax Mu­seum, and he wrote, ‘I’m Rick Mercer. I thought school was dumb. So, I got a TV show, and now I’m fa­mous.’’” (Mercer sent a note urg­ing him to fin­ish school be­cause “You can’t just get a TV show.”)

But his limited time in high school did of­fer Mercer the chance to run for stu­dent coun­cil pres­i­dent sim­ply for the op­por­tu­nity to cut up on­stage with a mi­cro­phone. A drama teacher saw po­ten­tial in him and pointed him to a one-act the­atre fes­ti­val where he could write and per­form his own jokes with oth­ers. “We were a very re­bel­lious group,” says Mercer, who soon made his com­edy ex­tracur­ric­u­lar, form­ing a troupe called Corey & Wade’s Play­house (whose play­ers in­cluded An­drew Younghus­band, who went on to be­come the host of Canada’s Worst Driver).

Still hav­ing a lot to say, Mercer also per­formed one-man shows in St. John’s, an ac­tiv­ity that brought him to the at­ten­tion of some per­sonal he­roes – the col­lec­tion of comic ac­tors on na­tional TV who first per­formed in The Won­der­ful Grand Band and later formed Codco. They in­cluded blaz­ing tal­ents like Greg Malone and Tommy Sex­ton (al­ways men­tioned as a duo), Jones, Walsh and Andy Jones.

Lunz, a former ac­tor who as­so­ciate pro­duced Codco, made it his busi­ness to know who was funny on the Rock. Says An­thony: “I re­call be­ing on the set of Codco one day, and Ger­ald men­tioned Rick to me, this young guy who was mak­ing quite a splash on the Rock. So, I said to Ger­ald, ‘Is there any footage of him?’ And Ger­ald got me some­thing Rick had done on cam­era. It was him sit­ting in a chair with a steer­ing wheel. I can’t re­mem­ber if he was driv­ing a cab or a bus, but he was do­ing this mono­logue that was very funny and very im­pres­sive.

“The next time I saw him was in Ot­tawa, I think when he was do­ing Charles Lynch Must Die.”

The full ti­tle was Show Me the But­ton, I’ll Push It (or Charles Lynch Must Die), and it was def­i­nitely born of out­rage.

“Ger­ald Lunz was work­ing with Codco, and the NAC was un­der the im­pres­sion that every­one in New­found­land had a one-man show,” Mercer re­calls. “So, they asked Ger­ald to bring in a show, he asked a num­ber of peo­ple, and they all passed for one rea­son or an­other. And then he asked me.”

“And I had just started do­ing th­ese screeds about Meech Lake and how Canada was treat­ing New­found­land. And [the late news­man] Charles Lynch had writ­ten a col­umn that said, ‘If it comes down to New­found­land be­ing the sole voice of dis­sent in the Meech Lake Ac­cord and New­found­land is the rea­son why Que­bec sep­a­rates, then we should throw New­found­land out of con­fed­er­a­tion. They’re just a drain any­way.’

“So, I went and did this show and called it Charles Lynch Must Die. And of course, Charles Lynch came to the show, sat in the front row and then we went on [CBC’s] Mid­day to­gether and got into an ar­gu­ment. I was, like, 20 years old, and there I was yelling at this old guy, who was the former head of Southam News, who was very re­spected and a war cor­re­spon­dent.

“But he l oved it. He called him­self the Sal­man Rushdie of New­found­land. And as the show be­came big­ger, ev­ery­where I would tour, he would do me­dia with me. I came to Toronto and he did the CBC morn­ing show with me. He would do any show I was booked on.”

Former Toronto Sun the­atre critic JohnCoul­bourn­re­calls,“Ifhe­hadn’t heeded the siren song of TV, I think Rick Mercer would have be­come an in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­claimed mo­nolo­gist. He was that good. His stage shows had all the en­ergy and pas­sion

of his very best rants, but he man­aged to keep a firm rein on things, so his au­di­ence never felt hec­tored. “The thing I re­mem­ber best was that, after a re­ally pleas­ant in­ter­view with him, I showed up for open­ing night. And when I opened my press kit, there was a five-dol­lar bill and a note, say­ing ‘En­joy the show,’ which was, I re­mem­ber think­ing, per­fectly in tune with the bratty bad-boy im­age he was cul­ti­vat­ing.

“I turned the note over, reat­tached the five spot and wrote: ‘Think you should do­nate this to the Fac­tory The­atre [where he was play­ing]. Hope I en­joy the show!’”

When Codco fin­ished its run, Mary Walsh and Michael Dono­van pitched An­thony on what would be­come This Hour Has 22 Min­utes. “It was a news-desk com­edy idea, and Mary was very keen on Rick tak­ing part. I ob­vi­ously knew who he was at that point and thought it was a great idea.”

But Mercer was the odd­man out in a cast full of char­ac­ter-comics. “The other three (Jones, Walsh and Greg Thomey) re­ally em­braced the no­tion that the news an­chors would be char­ac­ters. I was sup­pos­edly ‘J.B. Dixon.’ They raised that, and I hated it. And even­tu­ally I just stopped say­ing J.B. Dixon.

“But the fun­da­men­tal thing was that 22 Min­utes had no money – lit­er­ally no money. So, my idea was I leave and come back with a twominute rant. And I don’t need a cos­tume, I don’t need makeup, I just need me and the cam­era­man. Essen­tially, it’s free con­tent. So, of course they went for it. It was the most af­ford­able two min­utes on tele­vi­sion.”

Mercer ad­mits he was hedg­ing his bets on a show he felt was doomed. “It [ 22 Min­utes] was such a cre­ative whirl­wind, with so many dif­fer­ent vi­sions, go­ing so many dif- fer­ent places, that for a long time I thought, ‘This show is go­ing to hit the rocks. Six episodes, and it’s go­ing to hit the rocks.’ And when the dust set­tles and it’s all over, I wanted to be able to point to some­thing and say, ‘This is what I do.’”

Of course, 22 Min­utes is still on the air, with a cast that’s changed mul­ti­ple times. But in the sixth sea­son, Mercer took on an­other job as the star of Made in Canada, a very funny, Mar­itime-pro­duced spoof of the Cana­dian TV in­dus­try. Mercer played Richard Strong, a crass and am­bi­tious pro­ducer at a com­pany that made I-think-I-know-whatthey’re-spoof­ing shows like The Sword­ofDamo­cles and Beaver Creek.

For the first few sea­sons, Mercer split his time, shoot­ing Made in Canada in the sum­mer and 22 Min­utes in the fall. “The funny thing is be­fore 22 Min­utes, I never had a job for more than three or four weeks,” Mercer says. “And since then, I’ve never not had a job.”

The Rick Mercer Re­port be­gan in 2004 as Rick Mercer’s Mon­day Re­port – “and pretty much was a hit out of the gate,” An­thony re­calls. “But what hap­pened was Slawko [Klymkiw, CBC’s then head of pro­gram­ming] needed the Mon­day back be­cause he had th­ese minis­eries CBC had done. And they were play­ing those on Sun­days and Mon­days. So, Rick got pushed to Tues­days. Rick and Ger­ald just called it the Rick Mercer Re­port be­cause who knew if they’d end up on Wed­nes­days next?”

A lot of RMR fea­tures came and went. There was the Celebrity Tip, with the likes of the late Pierre Ber­ton demon­strat­ing how to roll a joint or Rush’s Geddy Lee giv­ing to­bog­gan lessons.

And there were the po­lit­i­cal cameos, skinny-dip­ping with Bob Rae, a sleep­over at 24 Sus­sex with Stephen Harper. The lat­ter, Mercer ad­mits, had him re-think­ing be­ing a critic of pol­i­tics while cosy­ing up to politi­cians.

“I al­ways called it a mu­tu­ally par­a­sitic re­la­tion­ship be­tween me and politi­cians. And then as time went on, I reached a point where I wasn’t as com­fort­able with them any­more. So, de­cided to con­tinue talk­ing about them but not to them.”

And when did he make that de­ci­sion? “Prob­a­bly about five min­utes after the sleep­over at Stephen Harper’s house,” he says with a laugh. But the pro­gram­ming shift that turned Mercer from a merely fa­mous co­me­dian into a beloved na­tional fig­ure was his de­ci­sion to do re­mote bits in ev­ery corner of the coun­try and vol­un­teer to do (in­vari­ably badly) the things or­di­nary Cana­di­ans did in the course of their work or play.

Rid­ing a buck­ing bronco, de­mo­li­tion der­bies, wheel­chair bungee jump­ing, jump­ing out of air­planes … there seemed noth­ing he wouldn’t do and nowhere he wouldn’t go to do it.

“Very early on, we went to Nu­navut,” he says. “And it was

sug­gested to us, ‘Th­ese are the early days of your show. The GTA has mil­lions and mil­lions of peo­ple. You should fo­cus on the GTA.’

“And I thought, ‘No one in the GTA wants to see me gal­li­vant­ing around the GTA. But they want to see me in Nu­navut be­cause who goes to Nu­navut?’ It was a gam­ble, but I think it set the tone that I was go­ing go off the beaten path. It’s kind of a vi­car­i­ous ex­pe­ri­ence for view­ers be­cause Cana­di­ans don’t see their coun­try enough. If you live in Hal­i­fax, it’s cheaper to go to Paris than Calgary.”

It would be eas­ier to list places the show didn’t go to in 15 sea­sons. And things he didn’t do.

“I al­ways won­dered if we would kill him be­fore we got to Sea­son 7,” An­thony says with a laugh. “We got to Sea­son 10 and the num­bers were so good, and he was still game to jump out of a plane and do the crazy things he was do­ing. He had an un­usual phys­i­cally strong con­sti­tu­tion.”

Says Mercer: “I al­ways tried. I re­mem­ber when I did what­ever it is you call it when you’re on skis and there’s a gi­ant sail. I went sail­ing on ice. And it was re­ally dif­fi­cult con­di­tions, and I re­mem­ber a kid wrote on my Face­book, ‘Wow, you were re­ally bad, even by Rick Mercer stan­dards.’

“I never faked my in­abil­ity to do some­thing. I al­ways gave it a shot. I re­mem­ber paraglid­ing and I just nat­u­rally some­how got the hang of it. I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘Wow, if this guy has a heart at­tack, I could land this thing.’ I was quite pleased with my­self.”

But back to the rants. As it be­came a fam­ily show, Mercer re­al­ized: “I’m less an­gry now. There’s lots of rea­sons for that. But as time went on the rants evolved. I re­al­ized they didn’t al­ways have to be an­gry. They could be just ironic, they could be silly, they could be se­ri­ous, they could be lots of dif­fer­ent things. They were just called rants.”

Even so, An­thony says the rat­ings showed a pe­cu­liar spike dur­ing the rants, sim­i­lar to the one that hap­pens on Hockey Night in Canada dur­ing “Coach’s Corner With Don Cherry.”

When Mercer was look­ing back on bits for his best-of fi­nale, he ran across one of his all-time favourites. “It was about the tra­di­tional def­i­ni­tion of mar­riage [Canada le­gal- ized gay mar­riage in 2005]. I hadn’t looked at it in a long time, but it was my No. 1 choice. And it just didn’t play any­more. It was in­ter­est­ing.

“I could just see some­one who’s 21 or 25 watch­ing that and go­ing, ‘What’s that about, ex­actly?’”

Be­ing gay was not some­thing Mercer ever hid, nor did he talk about it much. “At one point, I was in that quasi-out place, where every­one in my fam­ily and all my friends and every­one I worked with knew I was gay. So, by any nor­mal per­son’s stan­dards, I was cer­tainly out. But by some­one-who-had-a-pub­lic-life stan­dards, I wasn’t out.

“Since then, I have come out in in­ter­views two dozen times. And peo­ple still say, ‘Re­ally? I had no idea.’ The vast vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple who’ve come out th­ese days, any of the fears they ever had, I would say were ir­ra­tional.”

As for his non-re­tire­ment, Mercer says, “I am back on the road [on­stage]. I did two shows this week, in North Bay and Bar­rie. And I’m go­ing away but I’m bring­ing my lap­top and my printer be­cause Pen­guin Dou­ble­day’s pub­lish­ing the com­plete se­lec­tion of rants. And I’m go­ing to write a se­ries of es­says about my ex­pe­ri­ences on the show. So, there hasn’t re­ally been any down­time yet.

“One of the ex­cit­ing things about step­ping away from the show is that for the last 15 years, any time an op­por­tu­nity to do some­thing else came along, I’d have to say ‘Sorry, I have this show I’m do­ing.’

“But last week, when I got to in­ter­view Steve Martin on­stage, I knew I couldn’t pass it up. My in­ter­views on the show have never been more than three or four min­utes. And just like that, some­body says, ‘Would you like to in­ter­view Steve Martin on­stage for 70 min­utes in front of peo­ple?’ ”

By ex­pe­ri­ence, I know Martin can be a ret­i­cent in­ter­view. It could have been the great­est mo­ment of Mercer’s life, I sug­gest, or a dis­as­ter. “I’d heard that too. I’m happy to say it worked out re­ally well. I want to work on those skills more, now that I have the op­por­tu­nity.”

Well, one door closes and an­other opens, I tell him, one out-of-work older dude to an­other. I pass on my per­sonal motto from when I quit my own full-time job – my lap­top is open for busi­ness.

“My lap­top is open for busi­ness,” he re­peats, with a laugh. “I will be us­ing that.”


Mercer and part­ner Ger­ald Lunz back­stage circa 1990 when he was per­form­ing his one-man shows

Mercer with the orig­i­nal cast of This Hour Has 22 Min­utes

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