Comedy·MR. D

From the first day to the last: Gerry Dee reflects on being 'Mr. D'

By his own admission, Gerry Dee doesn’t remember much of his first day on the set of his CBC series.
(Illustration by Kagan McLeod)

By his own admission, Gerry Dee doesn't remember much of his first day on the set of his CBC series, Mr. D.

"I wish I took it in more. It was such a blur," he says, days before the premiere of the show's eighth and final season. "There was so much going on and now it's been ten years."

With that in mind, when it came to wrapping up the series this past summer, the show's star and creator was determined not to make the same mistake.

"I remember every little detail of the last day," he boasts.

And if you've got a good 30 minutes, he'll be happy to tell you all about it.

There's a pattern that repeats constantly in the 49-year-old's life: learn a craft, find yourself in a situation that's adjacent to that learning, turn that into gold.

It's how, in 1999, after nearly a decade of teaching at a Toronto private school, he discovered a hidden talent doing for stand-up. And how, four years later, he was successful enough to quit his day job.

"I had a phys-ed degree and I was teaching geography, history and world religions. At the time, I couldn't tell anyone that I was faking my way through it," he recalls.

"I realized there were a lot of teachers that were in my boat and they couldn't tell anyone or they'd lose their jobs. When I got onstage I started opening up about how out of place I was."

Dee says he always planned on translating this experience to television, but it would take almost another decade for Gerry Duncan, the buffoonish social studies teacher at the heart of Mr. D, to come to Canadian screens.

I realized there were a lot of teachers that were in my boat and they couldn't tell anyone or they'd lose they're jobs. So when I got onstage I started opening up about how out of place I was.

After meeting co-creator Michael Volpe on the set of the CBC miniseries Canada Russia '72, the pair envisioned a series where Dee played a heightened version of himself, surrounded by a relatable motley crew.

"The plan was to try to pinpoint what every school has. You start with the extremes: the anal teacher who has her masters in education and is exactly what a faculty of education wants to produce, and me. Then you find all the things in the middle which you hope relates to every student, so they say, 'I had a teacher like that.' All of those teachers were based on someone I know or someone I'd heard about."

Next, the pair cast a who's who of established and rising Canadian comedy talent for Dee to play off of, including Jonovision's Jonathan Torrens, Picnicface's Mark Little, Rideau Hall's Bette MacDonald and rapper-turned-actor Wes Williams a.k.a. Maestro Fresh Wes.

"My thought was, 'Let's get funny people who can act,' not actors and make them funny," Dee recalls.

"I knew who the funny people in Canada were, stand-up wise. Most of our cast dabbled in stand-up or improv at some point. Everyone's got something in that world of performance."

"Except Maestro," he laughs.

"I thought it was so cool he was auditioning."

After two failed pilots in 2010 and 2011, Mr. D landed with an exclamation mark in 2012, drawing 1.23 million viewers for its debut.

Six years and eight seasons later, Dee says both he and Duncan have evolved tremendously.

"I think my character went from being a bit harsh to being able to see flaws. There were a lot of things in his world that he wanted and he didn't have: a wife, kids, friends. Then you start feeling a bit sorry for him. You earn that," he explains.

"I've also changed a lot. This is a different industry than the one I came from. I didn't grow up in it."

"Mike and I manage 100 people. I've never been in that situation so you learn. There's things I would have handled differently over the years, and I think I've learned that you're managing different personalities than the ones in the education or sports industries. I've learned to work at that better. Not get caught up in some of the personalities that are in this world."

With that learning also came a maturity and understanding. So when CBC renewed the series last year, Dee felt it was the right time to wrap it up on his terms.

"I felt creatively it was getting harder," he admits.

"It's easier to drive a show into the ground than end it, obviously. But you got to be disciplined. I thought I wasn't sure what season nine would look like, this feels like the right time to get out."

"Ironically," he adds almost wistfully, "it's probably our best season. We made Gerry principal and it gave us a whole bunch of new story lines. A whole different tone because he's now the boss."

When audiences last saw Dee, he was headed to Japan in the hopes of starting a new life away from the public shame brought on by a TV exposé.

"That felt like a series finale," he laughs.

"But we came up with a creative way [to bring Duncan back] and it's basically the failing upwards model, which we're seeing a lot in the world today. In the real world there are principals that shouldn't be principals, so it's not a long way away from reality."

How will he feel when the actual finale airs? Dee says he doesn't know just yet.

"I don't think any series finale is what everybody wants, so you do what you think works best," he demurs.

Instead, he prefers to remember the "special times" he experienced over the last decade as Mr. D: meeting his real life sports heroes like NHL star Nathan MacKinnon and Canada's sweethearts Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and having the cast and crew's families around.

"Our families are so important behind the scenes. They allow us to take 14 hours a day, so it's always special," he says.

Perhaps it's not surprising then that when he's pushed to choose his favourite moment of them all, Dee points to an extremely personal one.

"My kids getting to be on the show. Those are very special memories for a parent: of seeing your kids do something with you and excel at it," he says.

"My kids grew up on that show. They're 11, eight and five now. Seasons one and two, we walked to the airport with a baby; Season three they ran through security themselves. It's moments like that where you take it in and really realise how lucky you are."

The final season of Mr. D premieres Wednesday, November 7th at 9pm on CBC Television.

About the Author

Jonathan Dekel is a writer in Toronto. A former contributing editor at the National Post and CBC, his work has appeared everywhere form The Globe and Mail and Toronto Life to Spin Magazine.