The Next Chapter

Rick Mercer's new memoir Talking to Canadians reflects on a life building rapport with others

The Canadian comedian, television personality, satirist and author spoke with Shelagh Rogers about his new book.
Rick Mercer is the author of the memoir Talking to Canadians. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Rick Mercer is one of Canada's most beloved comedians. He's been making the country laugh since his early days on This Hour Has 22 Minutes and the sketch Talking to Americans — then going onto 15 years of The Rick Mercer Report and sold out stand-up comedy tours.

Mercer, a fairly private public figure, is sharing more of his personal life in the memoir Talking to CanadiansThe book is packed with anecdotes from his childhood in Newfoundland and Labrador and his first attempts at acting, as well as about how he perfected the art of rubbing shoulders with high profile people while also making fun of them.

Rick Mercer spoke with Shelagh Rogers about his book.

The Rick we see on the cover, staring down the camera, is intense, burningly intense. Where did young Rick think he was heading when that photo was taken? 

I don't know if I knew where I was heading, but I know why I took the picture. The picture was taken because it became the poster for my first one-man show, and that one-man show was going to happen in Ottawa at the Atelier, which was a small theatre run by the National Arts Centre, like 60 or 70 seats.

But to me, I was heading to the big time because I was doing a show on the mainland. It was a dream come true, so I was pretty emboldened. I was probably terrified when that photo was taken, but I was obviously very excited. 

The prologue of Talking to Canadians goes back 30 years and it tells the story of a review you got for that show, which was called Show Me the Button I'll Push It, or Charles Lynch Must Die. You got a review from a theatre critic on the CBC morning show. What did the critic say, Rick? 

Well, I might end up paraphrasing because I don't have it in front of me. But of course, everyone in St. John's was really excited that this kid got a show at the National Arts Centre, and all they heard was National Arts Centre, so I think most people thought I was in the big, glamourous National Arts Centre.

They were very excited and the buzz was great about the show. So when they heard that the CBC theatre critic for Ottawa was going to review the show, they arranged for the interview to be carried live on the CBC morning show in Newfoundland, which doesn't really make a lot of sense because the play wasn't there yet, but they were just so proud of me.

I was lying in bed listening, and the announcer said, "Well, our theatre critic went to a show last night by Rick Mercer. Show Me the Button I'll Push It, or Charles Lynch Must Die. Can a constitutional crisis like the Meech Lake Accord be funny? Our critic will tell us." And then the critic said, "Actually, I'm not going to review Mr. Mercer's show" and this threw the host. He said, "Well, yes, you are. You said you went to the show and you're here to review it."

He said, "No, I will not review this show. I will instead read an open letter to Mr. Mercer. Dear Mr. Mercer. Show Me the Button I'll Push it, or Charles Lynch Must Die is not a play. Leave the theatre. You have nothing to offer." 

He added, "Nor are you an actor."

So it was the shortest and worst theatre review in the history of Canadian theatre. I was lying there and I thought, "Oh my God, really?" And then I thought, "You know, I should go into television." And luckily, the standards are much lower there and it all worked out. 

Just touching on 22 minutes, the collaboration among you all required at the very beginning that you didn't use your real names and you really fought against that. Why did you not want to be a character? 

The show started on a blank page. I fought against it, but I didn't fight super hard because it was all about battles — some you win and some you lose and we're trying to create a show. When we finally got to the point where we would be four people sitting at a news desk, I just assumed we would be playing ourselves. I was quickly outvoted on that one. But I don't want to say it was like a brawl or anything.

It was just one of the things that I lost. And then as time went on, I really started to resent it because, while I think Cathy Jones is much more comfortable in character and Mary Walsh always traditionally was more comfortable in character, I just wanted to play myself.

The only time it came to a head was when I was doing Talking to Americans, and it was becoming such a big sketch that I just thought, "Well, I'm not going to say I'm J.B. Dixon anymore. That's ridiculous. Who the hell is J.B. Dixon?" And so I said, "I'm Rick Mercer, and this is Talking to Americans."

The show started on a blank page. I fought against it, but I didn't fight super hard because it was all about battles — some you win and some you lose and we're trying to create a show.

It was the only time that the executive producer, who ultimately was in charge, went in and had that removed. It became one of those situations, where "You'll never be able to use your name on this show." And that's changed since then, by the way — anyone on 22 Minutes now uses their own name. But it was just something that I never understood and it always bothered me. 

I kind of thought that it also played into the way that show business is done in Canada. It goes out of its way to ensure sometimes that there is no star system. But name recognition is important if you're trying to sell tickets in Thunder Bay, like it would help if they knew who you were. "J.B. Dickson appearing at..." doesn't work. 

WATCH | Rick Mercer on Talking to Americans

Mercer on Talking to Americans

11 years ago
Duration 3:42
Rick Mercer talks about how he stumbled into the Talking to Americans segment and why he doesn't plan to ever do a sequel to the popular special.

When was it that you came to really love and embrace the world of politics as material you could use? 

When I was a kid, I was really interested in politics. I had a godfather, who was an eccentric fellow by Newfoundland standards, and he had been elected as a Conservative and then crossed the floor to the Liberals in a very tight election that was almost a tie.

He was very eccentric character. He had a burger joint called Shea's Hamburger Hell and then he had a corner store called Shea's Rip Off. And I would work there. There would be this odd collection of people at Hamburger Hell — some ex-politicians, a deputy mayor, a couple of prostitutes, a cop and just some locals.

Everyone would be sitting around smoking cigarettes, talking about politics, and I'd join in. Then they would allow me to join in as if I was an adult. Of course, in order to carry on the conversation, I had to pay attention to the news and what's going on down at city hall and what's going on up at the provincial government. It was my thing. It was my baseball.

It was always there when I started doing comedy. I just started gravitating toward that. When I got the chance to do my first one-man show, it made sense for me that it would be about the Meech Lake Accord because it was dominating the political discourse and Newfoundland was front and centre in that debate. 

Years later, you did a sketch with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien at Harvey's.

It was groundbreaking really because, certainly Mary Walsh had appeared with Chrétien, but she showed up in his office as Marg Princess Warrior and laid it into him. But my ask was different.

I said, "Can you meet me at a Harvey's? Plus we're going to need like an hour of your time." That's unheard of. Prime Ministers are used to people going to them. 

It was groundbreaking really because, certainly Mary Walsh had appeared with Chrétien, but she showed up in his office as Marg Princess Warrior and laid it into him. But my ask was different.

I thought I was a genius because I'd heard that he loves Harvey's and Aline wouldn't let him go anymore because she was worried about his cholesterol. So I thought, Oh I'll invite him and that's his excuse to go to Harvey's. On budget day, he agreed to go. He showed up at Harvey's. I couldn't believe this was actually happening. Before we started shooting, he shoved a burger in my hand and he took a burger and he said, "Eat! Eat!"

This photographer was there and he took about 30 photos and I kind of forgot about it. I still thought he came because he wanted to eat Harvey's. 

The next day, the day after budget day, and it was the biggest day in Paul Martin's life because he slayed the budget. The only thing you know about the day after budget day in Canada, no matter what, every newspaper in the country is going to have a picture of the finance minister delivering the budget in the House of Commons.

That day, we got on the plane, half the newspaper in the country had a picture of me and Chrétien at Harvey's making a funny face, eating burgers. And Paul Martin was on Page 2. That's how much they disliked each other. I realized, "Oh, I've been played. Chrétien came to Harvey's so he could bump Paul Martin off the front page." He was a very clever fellow.

Your memoir doesn't come right up to the present, but it closes with talking about Christmas in Kabul. This was such an important special for you. Can you talk about why it meant so much to you? 

Well, back in the 22 Minute days, we were getting ready to do a Christmas special and I decided I wasn't going to go on the road that week. We had two weeks to do the special and I'd been on the road so much I just decided I'm going to take a break. I had just done the Doris Day petition where we launched a website and we had a million Canadians sign a petition forcing Stockwell Day to change his name to Doris. A lot of people were wondering what I was going to do with this website because it was the new-fangled website. We were one of the first TV shows to have one, and I started thinking, "wouldn't it be great if you could post messages to people overseas. Who do we have overseas? Do we have peacekeepers overseas?"

I called up a member of the Canadian Forces whose job it was to answer questions like this and I said, "Do we have peacekeepers overseas?" He was like, "Yes, we have thousands." I was so embarrassed because, there I was, Captain Canada, supposedly on top of everything when it came to the news and current affairs in the country and I wasn't sure if we had peacekeepers. And I said, "Where are they?" And he said, "Bosnia." I was like, "Oh, of course, right, Bosnia." There was that horrible conflict there a couple of years ago. And I said, "Are they in harm's way?" And he said, "Well, if you would think being shot at puts you in harm's way, then yes, they're in harm's way."

When I started, I really was the quintessential angry young man, and we need those and that's all fine and dandy. But as time went on, I did find that I was less angry.

I was just so embarrassed that they weren't on the radar and I said, "How would I get to Bosnia exactly?" We moved so fast in those days. Believe it or not, 48 hours later, we were preparing to get on a plane and we went to Bosnia and we shot this piece with these soldiers. It was a Christmas special and we launched the website so people can send the messages.

The thing that struck me the most was these soldiers were there in really terrible conditions. It was a very rough job. So many landmines everywhere were going off left, right and centre. Very dangerous, hardship post. They just kept thanking us over and over for coming. And I just thought, "This is wrong, we should be thanking you, not the other way around. Plus, we're leaving in 48 hours." I just found it really personally rewarding, perhaps the most rewarding thing I've ever done. 

You say you were getting tired of being an angry young man and that, "My act was changing and I liked it." That's how you put it. So how did it change? 

When I started, I really was the quintessential angry young man, and we need those and that's all fine and dandy. But as time went on, I did find that I was less angry, of course. And as you get older, I think things are always less black and white and a lot of greys. But when we started The Mercer Report, we decided the time had come to celebrate things we liked and celebrate things we thought were worth celebrating about the country. It was a time when we just come through these constitutional crises. There was a lot of division in the country, as there is now — the east versus west and rural versus urban, and there were a lot of people willing to exploit the differences for political gain. I just felt there was a certain toxicity about the climate. Gerald said, "Just celebrate wherever you go. It's got to be the best place on Earth." So we just decided to do that. We were just going to celebrate.

We were going to celebrate, or nothing.

And that's an odd lane for comedians to take because comedy is never about building up. It's almost always about tearing down. And that's OK, but we just decided to go another way. So that was the rule. If we're going to go to Thunder Bay, we're going to go and explore why the people there love it and why they live there and why they think it's the best place in the world to live and we're going to celebrate whatever it is that they do. The same goes with the people I talked to. If I went to a recycling plant, I would talk to the people that were working there. They knew I wasn't going to be some guy from Toronto coming in, making fun of the fact that they handled garbage all day. No, I wasn't going to go there. We were going to celebrate, or nothing. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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