For 15 years, Rick Mercer travelled from coast to coast to coast in Canada delivering a grassroots sense of humour and humanity that led to that rarest of things — a hit Canadian TV show.
The Mercer Report it was and when he called it quits at the end of the last season, many wondered what he would do next.
Guess what. He wrote a book which includes a collection of his best rants and a memoir of the people, places and possibilities he discovered on his ribbon of highway. It’s his third book so he’s an old hand at the Writer’s Tour.
This latest effort is a fun way to remember a great show. But it’s also a way for Mercer to ponder his efforts.
He’s in Ottawa on his latest stop. From his comfortable base in the Fairmont Chateau Laurier he’s talking to media, signing books at Costco and taking part in an Ottawa Writers Festival event Thursday night that had to be moved to Centrepointe Theatre because of demand. Oh the power of The Rant.
“One aspect of the book is the greatest hits. These are the best rants over the 15 years, or the rants that I felt should be included for various reasons. But also it’s looking back at 15 years on the road, telling stories of the road, the people I have met.
“I talk about Jann Arden, who became a regular guest on a show that didn’t have regulars. I talk about having Pierre Berton on Year One rolling a joint. Moments like that, people saw him rolling the joint but to me it meant a lot more than that.
“I remember being in Grade 9 in detention and being so excruciatingly bored that I finally, at wit’s end, picked up this book by Pierre Berton and started flicking through it. It was Vimy and I ended up reading the entire thing. Then I read all of his books. He changed my life. He turned me into someone who found Canadian history fascinating.
“He told such compelling stories. For me to have him on the show was a huge coup.”
It is great to have the opportunity to share that story and the story behind the story, he said.
Mercer’s rants go way back before The Mercer Report, to his days on 22 Minutes. In many ways he was ahead of the time when Colbert and Jimmy and Conan and Seth and Samantha would set a political agenda of sorts with their humour.
Those early days of 22 Minutes, he said, “everything I did was opinion-based. The rant was a direct commentary from my personal point of view. And it was very much of the day. It was focussed on that’s week’s events. I have been in that business for 25 years.”
He says he realizes now that 22 Minutes and The Mercer Report were part of a golden age of political comedy. It was a time when there were no Twitter trolls and he was reaching 1.7 million viewers. That’s a lot of people, people.
He was talking to folks from all points of view. Today that’s gone, he believes. Even comedy is dividing into competing echo chambers today.
In those days, he wasn’t afraid of the controversy that he would stir up.
“There were occasionally times when I thought to myself this is going to upset a bit part of my for lack of a better term, constituency; people who say I agree with you all the time and then you do something on Energy East and they feel betrayed. I would know that would happen. I never changed my opinion or pulled my punches. If you operate like that you might as well get a focus group and start running rants past them.”
Then there were the times he would rant thinking it would offend no one and be surprised.
“I did a rant about the flu shot and why more people should get it and it was just in response to the fact there was a clinic across from our office and I went across and got the shot.”
The CBC Ombudsman was contacted 200 times even though The Mercer Report was an independent show and not a news show.
“We would keep him busy and that was a good sign.” And they never got sued. “We did drive the lawyers to distraction, however.”
There was never, he said, any higher power that could say to Mercer that he couldn’t say something.
Whether there remains a currency for Mercer-like rants, he’s not sure. He does know however that there is a new generation of ranters out there.
“I can’t tell you how many emails I get in a week from kids ranting at school because it’s required. Or teachers teaching ranting in their English programs. It’s happening from Grade Three to Grad 12 because the teachers recognize, and this has nothing to do with me, that rants are about making an argument in a succinct manner and keeping them under two minutes and making your point and delivering your point.”
Add in the fact that most kids have smart phones and know how to use the record buttons.
“Some of the rants actually have been fantastic. I have even judged ranting contests that schools have run.”
Speaking of news of the day, Mercer was always engaging with politicians who wanted to be near his celebrity.
“I was always comfortable dealing with them. At the same time I made a decision to slowly stop engaging with politicians in that way. I felt the times had changed and I didn’t want to do that any more.
“I found I enjoyed talking to oyster fishermen and others more. My show was a hit and there wasn’t any pressure about that. That’s what I liked doing and the audience came with me.”
He does a live show based on his TV show in which he plays video of places he’s been to in Canada, which is literally everywhere. Another reel features famous Canadians who have been on the show such as Berton and all the members of Rush. But his favourite features people who had never been on TV before and everyone, he said, delivers brilliant lines.
“I got way more juice out of that than shooting with a politician who came across contrived. That said getting Bob Rae to take his clothes off and jump in a lake says I could get them out of their comfort level.”
Mercer does know that his show gave him a huge opportunity to explore the country.
“We all got tired. It was the same guys on the road for 15 years. The new guy came on and he was with us for nine years. It was a gift.”
It’s hard for him to pick favourites because in 15 years there are many.
“How do you say flying a fighter jet isn’t your favourite, because it is. But so is experiencing zero gravity in the vomit comet. Or doing doughnuts in an icebreaker. Then there are the great Canadians like the Tragically Hip and Margaret Atwood and June Callwood and then the farmers and the recycling plants. I did pretty much every job in 15 years.”
Mercer was flying on a plane beside a man who had a near death experience and had chucked his job to tick off a bucket list. The man told Mercer about his list and he had done them all. Eventually Mercer realized he couldn’t tell the man he had done the bucket list.
“It struck me how incredibly lucky I had been to do all these things.”
There is a beginning for Mercer and it is in Ottawa when he was 19 years old.
He was booked into what was called the NAC Atelier in those days with a one-man show called Show Me The Button And I’ll Push it or Charles Lynch Must Die.
Lynch went on radio and blasted Mercer and his show and the show sold out.
CBC Midday called and put him on TV in a debate with Lynch over the Meech Lake Accord.
“Here I am, 19 years old, yelling at this old man, Lynch was yelling back screaming ‘I was in World War Two, how dare you? It launched my entire career.”
Lynch got the last laugh. He died during 22 Minutes and a month or two after Lynch died, Mercer got a letter that contained the bulletin to the journalist’s funeral mass. Attached to the bulletin was a sticky note that read in Lynch’s handwriting: ‘Dear Rick, For your files’.”
What’s next: Mercer is still working that out, but he’s not stopping, just re-organizing.
The Final Report (Doubleday Canada)
In town: The author is at Centrepointe Theatre on Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. Tickets and more information: writersfestival.org