Entertainment·The Interview

'It's a tricky time to have an opinion,' Rick Mercer says as his show wraps up

The host of the Rick Mercer Report, which ends Tuesday, is notorious for delivering heated rants from a graffiti-emblazoned alley, putting politics into thought-provoking perspective, and exploring the nooks and crannies of the nation's landscape and contemporary culture.

Rick Mercer Report ends April 10 after a 15-year run of rants, satire and cross-Canada adventure

Comedian Rick Mercer ends his 15-year run as host of the political satire show The Rick Mercer Report on April 10. Mercer is seen here on his set at the CBC Broadcasting Centre in Toronto, reflecting on the show's legacy. (Albert Leung/CBC)

Rick Mercer will deliver his final rant Tuesday night, ending a groundbreaking era of uniquely Canadian political TV satire that captured Canadians' hearts coast-to-coast.

"I really do love politics … as frustrated as you may get at your subject matter, you still have to love it," Mercer says.

"It's like, you may disappoint me, but for some reason I still love you. That's the way I feel about it."

The Rick Mercer Report's final episode airs on CBC April 10. The show visited hundreds of locations across the country during its 277-episode span, giving Canadians an opportunity to live vicariously through its host.

"If you want a career in show business, this is what you want your entire life," he says. "You know, this is as good as it gets, and the fact that we've got 15 years is tremendous."

Mercer became notorious for delivering heated rants about Canadian issues while storming through a Toronto alley emblazoned with graffiti, for putting politics into thought-provoking perspective, and for exploring the nooks and crannies of the nation's landscape and contemporary culture.

He also kept people laughing, whether petitioning to have former Opposition leader Stockwell Day's name changed to "Doris," or jumping into a northern Ontario lake naked with former interim Liberal Party leader Bob Rae.

"He was a good sport that day, to get naked and jump in a lake," Mercer laughs.

"It was because we didn't catch any fish. We had to do something, otherwise people would have looked at us and said, 'those guys are morons, they went to Northern Ontario and couldn't catch a fish.'"

He adds that besides playing off things in the news, "Occasionally we did things that, you know – they became the story itself."

On Tuesday night, the Rick Mercer Report becomes the story one last time when its final episode airs. The National's Rosemary Barton sat down with Mercer to talk rants, politics, Canadiana, and what comes next for the host who is "not retiring!"

Politics and comedy

Rosemary Barton chats with Rick Mercer in his show's studio in Toronto. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Rosemary Barton: The thing that you and I have in common is politics. A love of politics. How do you feel about political satire? When you started 15 years ago there weren't a million people doing it at that time, and there are now.

"I think there are a ton now, yes. And when we started 22 Minutes it was groundbreaking in a lot of ways ... People were freaking out, because people were saying, 'They look like a news show. They can't look like a news show. People are thinking it's the news, and where did they get that news footage?'

"... I think there's an argument now that a lot of political satire is preaching to the choir. I don't know if that's true or not, I hope it's not true.

"But you know, political satire is only getting bigger. It's amazing and it can only be a good thing, because it's just adding to the discourse. And more conversation's good.

"Anything that brings eyeballs to politics or engagement to politics has got to be a good thing."

'The media has become so fragmented that if someone likes Donald Trump, they're probably not tuning in to see what Bill Maher is saying about Donald Trump every night. So they decide 'I don't watch them,' and they've got their own person that they watch. And I think there's a bit of that going on,' Mercer says. (Albert Leung/CBC)

Q: You say a lot of people worried about it being looked at as news. You could argue that lots of people, particularly in the States but here too sometimes, just watch these shows and that's their only source of news.

"I always felt that people who say their only source of news is political satire, they're not actually telling the truth.

"I think they're saying that because it's clever. I think they're saying it because they want to discredit mainstream media.

"... The setup is delivered by the news, the punchline is by the satirists."

'There were certainly times,' Mercer says, that he thought perhaps he'd gone a bit too far with things he said on the show. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Q: Did you ever think that you'd stepped over a line, or maybe that something you said was too much?

"When I was a much younger, angrier man, everything was black and white, boom boom boom. And so I probably had opinions in my 20s or 30s that I would look at now and say 'that's really quite harsh.'

"There were instances where I said things that I regretted.

"There were, like, one or two times where I contacted people afterwards and said, 'I probably shouldn't have said that,' and that was received OK.

"I've always found that cabinet ministers and prime ministers ... they have a thick skin and that actually it doesn't bother them. It bothers the people around them — in Ottawa every candidate has a number of young people working with them, and those young people think that this minister is the greatest gift to democracy since Nelson Mandela. And they're convinced it's only a matter of time until the entire world sees what a great man or woman that person is, so they are sensitive."

A rant about rants

Mercer gets ready to rant in Graffiti Alley off Queen Street in Toronto. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Q: Let's talk about the rants. I've heard these are things you write yourself, in your office by yourself, and you decide what you want to talk about. How did they evolve over the 15 years?

"My opinions certainly evolved. Sometimes they're more personal, and I realized over the last number of years that I didn't always have to be funny.

"I think when I started they were commentary, but I was a little more focused on being clever. And I realized that wasn't necessarily what was important.

"I never lost track of the fact that it was a huge privilege to be able to do this, because so many Canadians rant and have an opinion. To get to do it on national television every single week, it's a gift. And you know, that's the greatest thing that's ever happened to me in my career, that I get to do that.

"In many ways I view the whole show as wrapped around that moment. That's why I always write it myself. Because you can't write commentary by community.

Graffiti Alley can be a challenging place to shoot a rant. Mercer said he regularly had to dodge everything from delivery trucks to dead rats. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Q: Is it the thing you'll miss the most?

"I don't know. I mean, in theory if I want to rant I can do it on an iPhone now, or I can find another place.

"I think right now it's a tricky time to have an opinion, or for those who have an opinion, because there's so many other people. They also have opinions, but their opinions are about people who have opinions. And it seems like people have much less of a sense of humour than they ever did.

"I'm not particularly worried about what I say every week. But I think people are walking on eggshells.

"There's an expression in Newfoundland, quick to hurt — you know, 'So-and-so is quick to hurt.' It seems like society is quick to hurt right now.

"Hopefully it's just some sort of phase we're going through, and then everyone will stop being so sensitive. But yeah, we're a sensitive bunch."

Mercer wrote his own rants, and delivered them to the camera from memory. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Q: Do you memorize it?

"Oh yeah, no teleprompter."

Q: Do you do it once, in one take?

"I have done it once on occasion, but I've often had to do it 15 or 20 times because, well, it's an alley.

"There's delivery trucks. There are people that work there. Art students are taking photos nonstop now because of the artwork.

"And then there's other trade that goes on. And you have to dodge dead rats. And there's ice trips and falls, and a lot of things that can go wrong."

Q: You said rants were what you built the show around, and there were some that were very, very powerful. The voting one resonated really deeply at a moment where people needed to hear that. The bullying against gay kids turned into a news story. That was the power of your moments and your voice.

"I know they're not all going to resonate. But occasionally they do.

"I mean, the anti-bullying rant travelled all around the globe. There was something somebody sent me, an article, and it said, 'This man in Canada has this to say. Why he's walking around in that alley we have no idea.' They were like, 'what is he doing?' But yeah, that travelled all over the world.

"And occasionally I got to rant about something that wasn't in the media at all, I just thought that people should know about it."

Crisscrossing Canada

The staff of the Rick Mercer Report 'stuck to our guns' when some people initially said the show should not travel to out-of-the-way parts of Canada. (Albert Leung/CBC)

Q: How did you get to that point where you said, 'I want to go to all these places that nobody's heard of, that nobody goes to'? What made you do that in the first place?

"Right off the start, that was part of the idea for the show.

"You know, I was on This Hour Is 22 Minutes for eight years and I got to do a bit of travelling on that show, and I always loved that. I always wanted to go to Nunavut, but there was always a reason not to go to Nunavut — 'Oh no, it's too expensive, it's this or it's that.'

"And so when I got the [Rick Mercer Report] show, one of the very first places we went to was Nunavut. And there was a suggestion that, you know, 'you're opening the show, it's early in its tenure, you know the GTA has millions and millions of people, you shoot in the GTA.'

"But we stuck to our guns and we said no, we're going to Nunavut. And I think people responded to that.

"People have an innate interest in the country, they want to travel the country. They can't always do that, but they get to live vicariously through you."

Mercer joined the Maritime Bhangra Group in one episode of his show.

Q: What about those travels surprised you the most?

"One of the great things that happened to me when we started, I would show up in a town and a kid would see me that knew me from television and they would say, 'What are you doing here?' Because that's what kids feel about their town, no matter where — 'What are you doing here?'

"And then in the second year, I was in the interior of British Columbia in a small town and this kid said, 'Oh, I knew you'd show up eventually.'

"That's when I knew we've done it, we've broken through. That's the show I want. And that's probably what I'm most proud of."

Neil Laubach of Fergus, Ont., taught Mercer how to fly a personal gyroplane over the Waterloo region in the 14th season premiere. (Rick Mercer Report/CBC)

Q: Did you see that as like a ... I don't know, is "public service" too big a word for you? Did you see that as part of your job to show Canadians the country?

"Not in a mandate kind of way, because I've always felt it's a comedy show and audiences are important.

"I don't have a mandate that I have to bring these stories to people. I never went anywhere for altruistic reasons. I never interviewed people for altruistic reasons. It was always to create a good show.

"So no, I never felt it was a mandate.

"Plus, I loved all of it," he laughs.

Q: So all the crazy stuff that you would do, this crazy dangerous stuff, was there ever something where you were really scared?

"Yeah, there was something called The Train of Death …  

It's three [race] cars chained together. The car at the front has an engine, no brakes. The car in the middle has no engine and no brakes, and the car at the back has brakes only. And you race around a track.

"I was in the car in the back … I went around the track a couple of times and it was the most afraid I ever was. Like, I'm gonna die.

"And there was no way to communicate with the driver at the front. It turned out the guy in the middle was supposed to give you signs when to use the brakes. He didn't do that. Right. And so that was terrifying.

"As time went on I made a decision that there would be less of that [in the show]."

What's next?

'I'm not retiring. I don't know what I'm going to do next … start all over again?' Mercer says. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Q: Are you sad the show is ending? I'm a little bit sad for you.

"I'm sad, sure. I'm also excited.

"A studio like this with your set and your cameras, you know this is as good as it gets ... I would never complain about it.

"But it is all-encompassing, it takes up a lot of time and I'm excited about doing other things. I don't know what yet, but I'm excited for it.

"I'm not retiring. People keep saying happy retirement. I didn't say I was retiring!"

Q: I know, but people who like you are going to miss you. What would you say to them?

"Well, that's very kind. You know, I would say that I'm not retiring. I don't know what I'm going to do next … start all over again?"

More from CBC

Watch Rosemary Barton's interview with Rick Mercer:

Rick Mercer prepares for his last report

The National

3 years ago
Rick Mercer, the longtime host of 'The Rick Mercer Report' is preparing for his last show. After a 15-year run of rants, satire and cross-Canada adventure, The National sits down with Mercer to reflect on his career. 16:17

Rick Mercer takes questions from fans and talks about why he's wrapping up his show after 15 seasons: