By Jennifer Hartley
Rick Mercer is a master at warming our hearts and giving Canadians what we want to hear
Richard Vincent Mercer is one of this country’s funniest people and without question he is a national gem. His ability to entertain and make us laugh until our insides ache and his love of all things Canadian are, without exaggeration, unparalleled. On top of all that, he is genuinely a nice guy. For well over 25 years, he has brought corners of our country we would not otherwise see into our living rooms.
His crazy antics with celebrities are legendary. His dates with Canadian singer, songwriter and actress, Jann Arden, are classic and he manages to get politicians to do things they would never do with anyone else (skinny dipping with Bob Rae, grabbing a Harvey’s burger and playing video games with Jean Chrétien, and “cracking open a 24” at 24 Sussex with Stephen Harper come to mind.) Regular people do not escape his frolicking either (Talking to Americans being one example). However, whatever he does, his curiosity about everyone he meets, his playfulness, boldness and fun pranks are all part of that wonderful persona who holds the audience in the palm of his hand every time.
While the magic we have come to love has occurred in front of the camera, Rick is conquering new territory with his latest book, Talking to Canadians: A Memoir. It is a touching, up-close-and-personal look at the real Rick Mercer. While his rants have been well documented and published to best-selling status, his private life which he has guarded with fervor over the years, has not. Until now. “As I was writing this book, I was wishing I was writing about anything else other than me.” It is a good thing he did.
Born and raised in St. John’s, Rick was, as you might expect, a fun-loving, rabble-rousing youngster, with a mischievous streak. He tells the story of cutting down the perfect Christmas tree from a neighbour’s property and as a child believing he had gotten away with it. “I had to call Mrs. Green recently to confess—imagine a grown man calling this lady to say, ‘Remember forty years ago when you had that perfect tree chopped down? Well, I am the one did it and I am calling because it will be in a book in November. You might hear about it.’ I just barrelled through with the confession.”
Even though his parents tried to get him to focus on school, academics were not his thing. “I am not filled with regrets. But in doing this book, it requires a certain amount of reflection on my life. I am not one to reflect really, I don’t spend a lot of time doing this, but I regret that I didn’t figure out how to be a good student early on. I had fun on the social aspect of it, but throughout my entire time at school I was treading water. I always felt I was about to slip under water and eventually I did.” Thankfully it didn’t stop him. “When I became an adult and discovered what I wanted to do, I became a hard worker. I wish I had figured that out in Grade 6.”
Hard work has got him to where he is today. From “washing dishes to pay the bills,” to being a still-life model for art classes, “my bird has been scrutinized and sketched by more middle-aged ladies in search of a hobby than you can possibly imagine,” Rick has done it all. Through it all, his itch to perform, which he acquired in high school, propelled him forward. His drama teacher, Lois Brown, nurtured his fascination with theatre, and in fact, worked with him for a while in his early theatre days in St. John’s. She also gave him the best advice. “Just do it. You want to do something? Just do it.” He doles out the same advice now to anyone who asks.
A perfectionist, he is always searching for the precise camera angle or the right line and its ultimate delivery. These qualities combined with his good fortune, boundless talent and an incredible partner in both business and life, Gerald Lunz, were the ideal recipe. Even forming his connection with Lunz is a funny story. Lunz was a well known producer at the time when the two met. Rick was a hired hand for a show in St. John’s that Lunz was working on with Cathy Jones. Lunz immediately took a disliking to Rick and thought he was lazy. In fact, had it not been for Jones, Rick would have been fired. Lunz and Rick met months later, and Rick was smitten. Today, they are the dynamic duo.
Rick first came to fame with Show Me the Button I’ll Push It, or Charles Lynch Must Die, a one-man show that he and Gerald created, and it toured across Canada that oddly enough, had the late journalist Charles Lynch propel it forward in a way that might not have happened without it. Lynch had criticized Newfoundland during the Meech Lake Accord debates and that was a declaration of war for a fiery young Rick. The two developed an odd symbiotic relationship and after Lynch passed away, Rick received a note Lynch had written to him before he died, a testament to how Lynch too, fell under Rick’s spell.
Rick later joined forces with Cathy Jones, Mary Walsh and Greg Thomey on a new project, a mock news show: This Hour Has Twenty-Two Minutes. While the format had its skeptics, the show took off, bringing us a new kind of humour. It is no secret Rick is obsessed with politics with the sharpest wit, so political junkies of every stripe loved his take on their world. They will also love his book, which takes a nostalgic walk back in time as he breaks open the 22 Minutes and Canadian political history vaults to the days of Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, Stephen Harper, Stockwell Day and Preston Manning. “What evolved was what I can only describe as a mutually parasitic relationship. We wanted the politicians and they wanted us.” So did the viewers.
He poked and prodded, at times resulting in surprising results. Back in 2000, as part of its election platform, the Canadian Alliance proposed holding a national referendum on an issue if 350,000 Canadians signed a petition. Seizing an opportunity, Rick proposed a petition for Stockwell Day to change his name to Doris Day. The problem was This Hour didn’t even have a website. Thrown together quickly, his plan resulted in over a million signatures. Day was nationally ridiculed, and that Reform platform piece died quickly.
After eight seasons on This Hour Has Twenty-Two Minutes, Rick moved on to grace the studio stage on his own with the Rick Mercer Report, which went on to become CBC’s highest-rated comedy show, for very good reason. A quick YouTube search reveals hours of his skits and antics that take it to the limit. He convinces everyone to let their guard down. “I have an incredibly high tolerance for embarrassment.” He let Jagmeet Singh hustle him around in a bicycle passenger basket after teaching him how to put on a turban. While a turban is stunning on Singh, on Rick it isn’t.
However, underneath all the hilarity, is a thinker. The rants, and the political satire always take time and intellect to create, and he is humble almost to a fault. He would cringe at being called famous and accomplished, but he is both in spades. Thankfully, his successes have been duly celebrated. The academic community has bestowed him with 10 honorary degrees, he is an Officer in the Order of Canada and holds two Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards, including one for lifetime achievement.
Not surprisingly, Rick has a keen sense of giving back, dedicated to a number of causes, which have evolved over the years. He is cochair of the Spread the Net campaign, which aims to stop the spread of Malaria in Africa. “I used the show as a place we could advocate buying these anti-malaria bed nets and students did the heavy lifting and we used the show to promote it.” He has also campaigned for the Canadian AIDS Society’s “The Walk for Life project,” Hope Live galas for Fertile Future (which helps young people diagnosed with cancer in their quest to have children).
There is more of course. “The TV show opened my eyes to so many different things. We had many Paralympic athletes participate, [including Rick Hansen, who he pushed off a bridge in one episode] and accessibility has become an issue for me. I have a number of friends in a wheelchair, and I realized how accessibility is an afterthought for so many of us. I was building a cabin in Newfoundland, and we had settled on this design when it struck me that it wasn’t remotely accessible. I look at everything through that lens now, so we went back to the drawing board, redesigned it and now I am just waiting for Rick Hansen to show up.”
While his books grace the bookcases of Canadians, he says one tome that has always remained on his, is Nelson Mandela’s A Long Walk to Freedom. “I was involved as a kid with Plough Shares Youth, and we were involved with the Free Nelson Mandela movement. It was like my political awakening. It stuck with me because I think it is the textbook for the concept of forgiveness, patience and the concept of not becoming a bitter person. It is also about believing in the impossible because I mean I would imagine for the 27 years he was in prison, he never believed he was going to be president and then it happened.”
That book seems to have kept everything real for him. He says as life went on, he came across many people in show business who are bitter “and often there is no correlation between their level of success and their level of bitterness, which makes no sense at all. When I see that, I think of Mandela. It is the ultimate example of how ridiculous First World problems are.”
It is a curious question to ask a funny guy what makes him laugh. “Usually, it’s when someone says something they aren’t supposed to say, and these days that is a lot, but I think that is common in comedians. But I do like a good, clean, orchestrated joke too and great stand-up of course. Family entertainment is great, but so is the filthy stuff.”
Like most Newfoundlanders, he is dedicated to the “Rock.” However, he also has a deep love of the rest of Canada. A fellow Newfoundlander Brian Tobin was dubbed Captain Canada back in the day for his defence of the Canadian turbot industry, but the cape should be passed on to Rick. Thanks to Rick Mercer Report, he took Canadians to over 500 places across Canada. He has been the poster boy for Canadian tourism, ranting about seeing “your own backyard.” Even during COVID-19 recovery, as things opened up, he was out there advocating for travel within Canada.
Does he have any bad habits? “I can’t work if I don’t have a deadline. A self-imposed deadline doesn’t work. I need somebody to give me one, otherwise I
waste time and time is a finite thing and they aren’t making more of it.” In fact, as he moves to a new phase in his life, he counts his blessings. “I am very fortunate that I don’t have to worry about going to work at a job I don’t like which I realize is a tremendous gift. I don’t think I will ever be retired, but knowing I can take time if I want it or need it and I can literally do whatever I want to do—if I can figure out the deadline.”
He says he would like to do a podcast someday. “I can pick an obscure issue and some lady in Saskatchewan might find it interesting.” He would also like to take time to develop new talents such as swimming and diving. With a deadline, of course.
Rick’s outrageous good fortune to do something he loves, his enthusiasm at saying yes and worrying about how to do things later and his humility— almost on the brink of insecurity—have all been part of his story. But that is one of the wonderful qualities about Rick: he is just like one of us and just like us, he has made mistakes. “I always had a knack for learning from my mistakes. Even as a child, I didn’t need to smash my hand with a hammer or touch a red-hot element more than three times, that’s for sure.”
Rick is the funniest version of ourselves: someone who can warm our hearts, make us laugh, give us what we want to see, make us think and ultimately make us love him. Well, everyone except maybe Stockwell Day.
Talking to Canadians: A Memoir. Available now.