He’s been called the Jon Stewart of the North, but to reduce Rick Mercer to facile comparisons would diminish the unique impact he’s has had on Canada’s comedic and political landscape. As the tenth season of his hit CBC show, the Rick Mercer Report, wraps up, one of the country’s funniest and wisest satirists talks rants, raves and his own political ambitions (hint: don’t hold your breath.)
Y! Canada: You just wrapped up your 10th season of the Rick Mercer Report by announcing the winner of the Spread the Net challenge, where students across Canada competed to raise money to buy mosquito nets for children in Africa. What got you involved in this particular cause?
Mercer: In 2006 I went to Africa with Belinda Stronach. We visited a community that suffered from poverty issues, but at the same time there was an economy and there was corn growing in the field, there were children running around, there was a small school. Then we went a couple of hundred miles down the road and we visited a community and there are no children running around because children are deceased and the people are sick and no corn is being grown as a result and the school is gone and there’s no economy as a result. The children have essentially died, which destroyed the heart and soul that makes a community, and we wanted to know the difference between the two communities and the difference was the one we visited the day before had access to bed nets for the last 34 years so people weren’t dying from malaria. When the solution is a $10 bed net, you have to do something. It was Belinda who said we’re going to have to buy a lot of bed nets, so that’s when we launched the Spread the Net program. And since the Spread the Net student challenge, we’ve raised $1.2 million. Spread the Net overall has raised over $5 million.
Any highlights from this year’s Challenge?
Mercer: The highlight to me every year is just the schools. The contest itself is inherently unfair because we just say high schools versus high schools and colleges versus colleges and no matter who you are, you know there’s going to be a bigger or more affluent school somewhere else. And yet you still see 45 schools do it because they know it’s a good cause and they work really hard to raise the money. I mean, the $150K [raised] this year is a tremendous amount of money. It’s a lot of work and they do it anyway even though they know they probably won’t win.
You’re about to start on your 11th season of the show. Do you plan to go on as long as you can or are there other projects in the works?
Mercer: I certainly won’t go on as long as I can. That’s never been the plan (laughs). The plan right now is to do another year and that’s the most I ever plan because there are just so many factors. I happen to have a good time doing it because that kind of sets the tone and the audience has to remain there because we’re a comedy show and the audience is important — the reason we’ve been around for 10 years is because of the audience. We get great numbers and they’ve stuck with us. Luckily it’s a big country with a lot of interesting people so I'm not worried about running out of stories.
The highlight of your show, at least for many, would have to be your rants. People seem to respond very well to your views and the way you express them. And part of that success, at least for me, is that they come across as very personal and honest. Has this platform been one of the more gratifying moments in your career?
Mercer: Oh sure. There are producers and writers and editors … it’s far from a one-man show. The rants, however, are the part of the show that’s completely personal because I write the rants myself and I actually view that first and foremost as my job. Every week I make sure that the rant is done and if people think it’s personal that’s because it is. It’s not written by a group of funny people.
Any rants where you were worried about reception?
Mercer: Off the top of my head I can’t necessarily name one, but you often get reactions from people who are aghast. I think sometimes everyone thinks if they agree with you on three or four things, they think, ‘oh we’ll agree on everything,’ and I might say something and people get upset about it. But like I said, it’s a personal point of view and I think most people realize that. But sometimes it’s surprising what gets the most reaction. This year I did a rant about getting your flu shot, which I thought was a bit nanny state of me in some ways – it’s almost like I’m doing a public service announcement – but it was a funny rant as well. And the reaction I got was huge. It’s a highly, highly controversial issue to some people and some people were deeply upset and offended that I advocated getting your flu shot. So you can never guess.
[ Last week's One-on-One: Political strategist Marcel Wieder on Justin Trudeau ]
How do you handle the feedback – both positive and negative?
Mercer: I answer a bunch of it but I also have to move on and do my show because by the time it airs I’m already into the next episode. Sometimes things need to be answered. Ranting about Jamie Hubley, who was a young man who took his life, in part, because of bullying – that generated a huge amount of people reaching out to the show, all of it positive generally. But in that instance, unlike any other rant that I’d done before, there was a sizeable number of those people who clearly were in trouble or needed help or needed to be directed to someone who could help them and that was something I wasn’t expecting. We’re a comedy show at the end of the day; we don’t have a team of child psychiatrists lined up working phone banks. So you just never know what to expect.
Canadian politics, at least until fairly recently, have not had as much of a reputation for theatrics as, say, the U.S. Is that changing? Is it getting easier to find material these days?
Mercer: I never think about it in those ways. Some people say, ‘oh you’re so lucky you have Rob Ford. It must make your job so easy.’ I never think I want easy targets, and I take Rob Ford as an example, though I barely mention him. That’s not what I do. I would never hope for a bad prime minister because it would make my life easier. I’ll play the cards I’m dealt.
Of course, many fans think you’d be exactly the kind of political leader this country needs. Is that even a remote possibility or does it sound as appealing to you as unanesthetized dentistry?
Mercer: The first part of that is you have to know what you’re good at. You might take someone who you admire as a sports writer who covers baseball and they might be great at it, but that doesn’t mean they can pitch the World Series. I’ve always been fascinated by politics, so obviously the notion of working in politics sometimes crosses my mind, but one of the things I feel strongly about – which is a problem in politics today – is that there are too many professional politicians. If you look at the resumes of the front bench of our current cabinet ministers you’d be shocked at the fact that most of them have never held jobs. They’ve been elected, they’ve worked in politics, but they’ve never held jobs. I like to think that if I ever brought anything to politics it wouldn’t be my ability to turn a phrase, but it would be my life experience having traveled as much as I’ve traveled, having created something (laughs) and worked with colleagues, starting my own business. Those are the people you want to see in politics. I would also like to see more people go into politics later in their careers because it shouldn’t be the type of occupation where it’s the best job you’ll ever have.
Mary Walsh once said she hates writing but loves having written. What’s your relationship to the creative process?
I like writing very much. And I think it’s no different than people who take pleasure from cabinetry. We all like nice cabinets, I suppose, but clearly someone who has put the time and energy and the work into it probably likes their cabinet on a whole other level than I like my cabinet because I just bought my cabinet. I view myself as a writer first and foremost. I’m also very fortunate because I have this thing that I know I’ll always be able to do. I don’t know if people will always want to read but I write, but I won’t lose my job as a writer because writers write. That’s what they do.
Speaking of which, Newfoundland seems to produce a high number funny people in proportion to the population. Is there something in the provincial curriculum the rest of the country could benefit from or is this a naturally occurring phenomenon?
Mercer: I think there was a long time in Newfoundland where the economy was so poor that more people went into entertainment. There were always musicians, actors and people who made their living that way, so it didn’t seem like it was a completely crazy thing to do. Plus there weren’t that many opportunities. I’ve been curious wondering about the changes that Newfoundland is going through with the economy being in much better shape than it’s ever been in my lifetime and employment opportunities being better and I’ve wondered what effect it will have on their artists’ community (laughs). Quite frankly I don’t know if this will help or not.
You’ve traveled cross-country during your decades on air and shaken more hands than a Presidential candidate. Any people or places that stick out?
Mercer: If we got out a map and we started on either end of the country, I could sit with you for hours and hours and tell you amazing stories about so many places that I’ve been. Just this past week we went to Happy Valley Goose Bay in Labrador and I could talk to you for a very long time about the people we met there and the wild Atlantic salmon that was cooked on a stove for us and the caribou stew that was fed to us and fish cakes and I could just go on and on. But then I could do that about every part of the country. So it’s hard to pick one off the top of my head.
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