Is There Somebody Pithy in the House? An interview with Rick Mercer on Talking to Canadians
Talking to Canadians: A memoir
This is Rick Mercer’s book tour, live from his shed in Chapel’s Cove, Newfoundland. It’s a far cry from his usual sold-out venues full of eager readers seeking signatures. But he’s not complaining. If anything, taking the time to write Talking to Canadians, a retrospective of his rise from small-town Newfoundland smartass to Canada’s comedy king, has made him all the more grateful. In it, he details his student newspaper coup, his series of hit one-man shows, the meteoric rise of This Hour Has 22 Minutes, his brilliant satirical sitcom Made in Canada, and the more celebratory humour of the Rick Mercer Report. Mercer generously invited Atlantic Books Today’s managing editor, Chris Benjamin, to join the tour for a 30-minute interview.
Chris Benjamin: In Talking to Canadians, you quip that in a crisis nobody ever shouts, “Is there somebody pithy in the house?” But from within this time of global pandemic, how do you see your role as an artist and entertainer?
Rick Mercer: When I say in a disaster no one says “Is there someone pithy in the house” my tongue is in my cheek, obviously there’s always a role for the artists and the musicians and the writers and the performers and the poets and all of those people. During the pandemic I think that became really evident.
Most people, their consumption of music and television and books and that type of thing increased. I think it would have been a very different pandemic if it was a world without those things. In the middle of the Blitz in England, they would pass the time by sitting around in the dark and then for a half hour at night they could listen to Lorne Greene talk about how badly the war was going. That must have been a very terrible time.
Eventually artists will start interpreting the pandemic. I’ve been guilty of saying I have no interest in airing that. I have no interest in reading a book about the pandemic or anything like that, but I’m watching a TV series now, The Morning Show, streaming it on Apple TV. It’s a very good series about an American morning show. They’ve now moved into the early days of the pandemic and I must say I thought the first time I was confronted with that I would have turned it off but I’ve found it very compelling. But I won’t be writing any pandemic material. I’ve had enough about the pandemic!
CB: Talk to me a bit about Newfoundland as a creative mecca. From your book it sounds near Utopian, having Andy Jones perform at your grade school, rehearsing next to The Wonderful Grand Band and members of CODCO. Working with Edward Riche, Cathy Jones, Mary Walsh long before 22 Minutes. And Ron Hynes too.
RM: The period that I write about was an incredibly prolific period in Newfoundland culture and in the St. John’s arts community, and it was my period so perhaps I’m looking at it through rose-coloured glasses. But the theatre company that I had, the comedy troupe I had, Corey and Wade’s Playhouse–myself and Andrew Younghusband, Ashley Billard and Christine Taylor–we were doing shows all the time. We were playing in bars. We were like a popular rock band.
I was writing full-length plays on top of that and Christine was doing one-person shows; Andrew and Ashley were working with Rising Tide which was the biggest theatre company in the province. At the same time I lived across the alley from Ron Hynes, who was preparing Cryer’s Paradise, which is the definitive Newfoundland album. There was just so much going on. It was incredible.
Everyone was incredibly supportive of one another–I mean it was a viper’s pit of course because it’s an arts community–but everyone was supportive. Andy Jones for example, when I had the comedy troupe–I remember meeting Andy Jones and thinking he was a god. He knew that I had no money and I was washing dishes and only a couple shifts a week at that. Andy was like, ‘I have a house. Around the Bay. A cabin. You could go there. And write. With your friends. You could go. You would like that.’
And I said, ‘Well, you know, I don’t know how I would get up to Hant’s Harbour.’
And he’s like, ‘You can take my car! You can take my car. I’ll put groceries in the trunk.’
I mean he was that level of supportive. It was amazing.
As my career progressed, and certainly writing this book looking back, I realized how lucky I was for that older generation because, when we wanted to do a comedy show we just walked into the LSPU Hall, but Andy Jones and Cathy Jones and the Mummers Troop and CODCO and Sheila’s Brush, that generation of artists, they built that bloody place. They had to basically fundraise for every stick and we showed up, it was just there.
Likewise when I wanted to be on TV, I knew that people from Newfoundland could have shows on the CBC because they had done it ahead of me. So I stand on the shoulders of giants and it was a very incredible time to be a young artist, that’s for sure.
CB: I think you’ve become known as pretty quintessentially Canadian, but there’s so much Newfoundland in this book and presumably still in you. How does that relationship between Newfoundland and the rest of Canada play out in someone like yourself?
RM: When I was a young man, I was very much the Newfoundland nationalist, the aggrieved Newfoundlander who thought we had gotten a lousy deal at confederation. But you know that’s a boring road to go down for a long-term ideological philosophy, because we are part of Canada and Canada’s a great country. If you’re going to sit around and navel gaze about the circumstances of our joining Canada, that’s just not something I wanted to do. But certainly as a young person I was content to do that.
As an artist my entire life, and I use the term artist loosely, everything I’ve done has been informed by the fact that I’m from Newfoundland, and also Newfoundland continues to be of my favourite place on Earth. I was heavily influenced by these Newfoundland TV shows, the Wonderful Grand Band being the biggest one. I was really cognizant of the special relationship between the grand band and the audience, which was in Newfoundland, because everything about the grand band was so infused with Newfoundland and Labrador. That’s why the audience felt so strongly in support of the show.
When I had the chance to do my own national show, I knew it was going to include politics and satire because I had always done that, but the majority of the show was going to be this travelogue. I just wanted to try to create a show where Canadians felt the same way about a national show that Newfoundlanders felt about the Grand Band.
My theory was, the way you do that is go local local local, uber Canadian. We intentionally set out to do a show that would never be able to travel outside of the country, and it was just truly a love letter to every single part of the country. I think we succeeded, I think that’s why the show had such broad appeal.
Sure, there were no big foreign sales, but audiences in Canada responded the way they would respond when they’re supporting something that’s happening down the street, but on a national level. So it was really important to me and it worked, thank God.
CB: It’s a chance to love ourselves a little bit and be proud. It kind of reminds me of a buy local type of campaign.
RM: Yeah that’s exactly what it was! I mention in the book that when we started The Mercer Report I had every opportunity to open that show however I wanted, there was such huge support, and I went to Iqaluit. There were certain people who were really shocked because there’s not that many people there. The feeling was, ‘Well, if Rick is going to travel around the country, locals might tune in, people in Saskatchewan might get excited but the rest of the country’s not.’
So to say I’m going to start in Iqaluit is saying this is the hill I’m going to die on. And right out of the gate people said, ‘Oh, he’s in Iqaluit, that’s cool.’
CB: Politics and the news seemed to become a big part of your work with Show Me the Button I’ll Push It (or Charles Lynch Must Die), a one-man show about the Meech Lake Accord of all things—something of a fit of rage against Charles Lynch, the columnist who wrote that if Newfoundland wasn’t willing to appease Quebec it should leave Canada. Was that the start of your interest in politics or had it been there waiting to emerge?
RM: I was always interested in politics. My godfather, who is deceased now, but one of my father’s best friends, he was a great godfather and he was very good to me.
He ran a takeout in St. John’s called Shea’s Hamburger Hell and he also had a convenience store called Shea’s Rip Off, that was the actual name. He was a very colourful character as they might say. He was elected as a Conservative in a very contentious election that was essentially a tie and he immediately crossed the floor. He was almost lynched. There was another election he lost. He then went on to run at various times for leadership of the Liberal and the Conservative party. He wrote hundreds of letters to the editor. He was a real political figure, a great orator. He was a great influence, I just loved talking politics with him.
I consumed the news a lot; I wanted to understand that world. I don’t know what drew me to it but it was kind of like my baseball, very early on. I didn’t care about the Blue Jays, I cared about what Frank Moores was up to, that’s just the way I was.
When I first started doing comedy, there was no politics in the comedy. But it started to sneak in. Originally I didn’t know you could do the two.
I’ve really been lucky. I’ve only had two interests, politics and comedy, and I managed to make them work. If my passion was 18th-century engineering I would have been done for but luckily politics and comedy go hand in hand.
CB: I remember a Blue Jays playoff game once taking place the night of an election and on CBC the announcer was like, ‘There’s two very important Canadian events happening tonight and one you have control over and one you don’t.’
RM [laughing]: Right, right, yeah.
CB: I was fascinated by the way your sitcom show, Made in Canada, despite winning so many awards out of the gate, completely changed its format after the first season. Season 1 was really ahead of its time—it would have been a perfect binge-watching show for the Netflix era.
RM: It was very critically acclaimed and I don’t want to toot my own horn too much but the scripts were great. Mark Farrell, the guy I worked with, and I, we just worked those scripts. We worked them and worked so bloody hard on those scripts.
And we didn’t know what we were doing. The show we created, again I don’t want to say ‘Oh we were ahead of our time’ but … audiences didn’t quite respond to it because it was so dark, and it was getting increasingly dark.
Now that’s done all the time. It just wasn’t done then.
A number of people said to me, ‘What are you doing? You can’t do that. It’s against the rules.’
And I’d say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know. No one told me the rules.’
We had to change the show because, well the audience was speaking, the numbers started super high and they just went down every single week. Slawko Klymkiw gave us another shot.
So we made it more episodic. We lightened the tone. My character stopped drugging people and having their legs broken. My God my character was having people’s legs broken routinely and ruining people’s lives routinely and I was the lead.
In those days, the lead wasn’t supposed to be having people’s legs broken in a comedy. Someday hopefully it will come back on a streaming service and maybe people will rediscover it.
CB: It’s perfect for a binge watch. Although funnier, a very Breaking Bad kind of character arc.
CB: While readingTalking to Canadians, I looked up the first episode of 22 Minutes. One of my favourite bits was the ending, with the three of you [Rick Mercer, Cather Jones and Greg Thomey] as characters at open windows talking about hitching free rides to the voting booths with political parties then voting for someone else. That sketch in a way foreshadows the point where you say you got “tired of being an angry young man” and wanted to celebrate Canadians. To me its proof of the idea that the political is personal. That our politics is shown in a more real way in regular Canadians—angry or not—whether they be soldiers or lobster fishers or businesspeople.
RM: I think it was just a natural progression. I became less angry and that might have been the result of being a little bit more comfortable in my career and making a living. When I was a really angry young man I didn’t really have a career and I was barely making a living.
I just wanted to strike a different tone. It’s not like I sat down one day and decided, ‘I’m not going to be angry any more.’
Lots of things still make me angry to this day and certainly on the Mercer Report I talked about a lot of things that made me angry, and hopefully that encouraged other Canadians to be angry about it. But it was exhausting being that angry so I just let it go and started looking for things to celebrate rather than things to be angry about.
I’m not saying we should all sit around being jingoistic and say ‘Oh Canada’ and ‘we’re number one’ or any of that foolishness. It’s just the lane that I chose to take.
There’s lots of things in Canada that need fixing and lots of things that need reconciling, a lot of things to shine a light on. But it’s just a lane I chose to take for that particular TV show.
I wanted a show that people who were working hard all week could put their feet up for a half hour and learn about Iqaluit. It seemed like to me the type of show I’d like to watch.
CB: The book ends at about 2004, with the launch of The Rick Mercer Report. Will there be a Part Two?
RM: Well there’s no sequel file in my computer I can assure you of that!
I actually googled how to write a memoir when I started and they said don’t try to do it chronologically because so many memoirs when they’re finished the editing process they’re not chronological anyway so just write things that you find interesting. I couldn’t start. It was the pandemic and I just stared at the blank page–the tyranny of the blank page–for weeks almost.
And I thought, ‘I’m going to break that rule’ and I started, being born in Middle Cove and I wrote chronologically. I didn’t deviate from that and my editor said one day, ‘Okay stop now you’ve got a book.’
And that’s just where we happened to have stopped. So it’s good that I didn’t pop all over the place because I don’t know what the book would have looked like. But there was no grand plan to have a sequel ready to go or anything like that.
I would say that if I was going to write a book that was memoir-related about the Mercer Report, it would be a very different book from this one because The Mercer Report was is about adventure. It would be about adventures with Jann Arden, and it would be about shooting with Geddy Lee and it would be about being with Rick Hansen and Bob Rae in the North. It would be very different. While I do tell those stories, and I love those stories, those stories don’t really seem to fit in the book that I’ve written.
CB: You get a bit of that with the Talking to Americans section, you know the road trip element. I loved the part about seeking out the best possible meal to survive the road. And how you had to kind of get out of Dodge after these interviews because you’d felt like you’d committed a crime.
RM: I write about being in Little Rock, Arkansas, and there’s a chain gang outside while I’m convincing the governor that Canada has an igloo as a Parliament Building. You know Mike Huckabee didn’t have a reputation of being that friendly and we went to the airport and got the hell out. We figured, we’re in Little Rock, he’s going to sent the fuzz after us and we’re going to end up on a chain gang. Let’s get out of here.
CB: You also caused a little bit of trouble during the George W Bush campaign, during the primaries right?
RM: It was during the primaries that we got George Bush and I talked to him about Prime Minister Poutine endorsing him. That exploded in a way I had never experienced.
Up until then I’d experienced things that I’d done with the prime minister of Canada, or things I’d done on the show that caused a bit of a fuss, but the difference is if you do something in Canada and everyone seems to be talking about it, suddenly there might be 35 radio stations that want to talk to you. But if you do something that inserts yourself into an American presidential campaign, it’s considered a stunt and it actually gets coverage suddenly 25 thousand radio stations want to talk to you. Every phone is ringing off the hook.
It’s unlike anything that ever happens in Canada just because of the sheer volume. It went away as fast as it came along but it was exciting to be in the middle of it at one point. And because he was looking like he would be the Republican nominee, it was covered all over the world. It was in Brazil’s biggest newspaper. Someone sent it to me in a Japanese newspaper, with a picture of me and George Bush in it. Hysterical!
That doesn’t happen in Canada.
CB: Do you ever look at yourself and pinch yourself to see if it’s real? That all these things happen to a kid from small-town Newfoundland?
RM: Yeah! Yeah. And the book made me really feel a lot of gratitude.
I’ve always known I’ve been lucky, but the gratitude is on the page because I never expected to do these things. I didn’t really understand how much the shows were accomplishing or pulling off because I’ve never been a reflective person. It’s always been what’s next? That’s kind of the madness of show business. What’s next?
I was always lucky to have a job, a focus, but it’s always on the future and once it’s done, it’s gone. It was only doing this that I put them all together and realized how much happened and how many funny stories there are.
My mother listened to the book on audio and she said, ‘My God, I can’t believe you did all those things. You went to Afghanistan!’
And I was like, ‘Well Mum, you know I went to Afghanistan. It wasn’t a secret. I didn’t sneak out of town.’
And she went, ‘Oh yeah I guess I just didn’t realize you were doing so much as you were doing it’ and that’s the way I was too.
Also, it’s your job, as weird as that sounds. My job was to be sitting around in an office banging around ideas and coming up with one. In order to pull that off it meant getting on a plane and going to Bosnia in 48 hours. It was as if Anderson Cooper was in the comedy business.
When the Mercer Report happened I never thought anything of it. I’d be like ‘Oh, what’s on the schedule today? Oh, I’m jumping out of a plane on Monday and then I have to get on a flight that night at 10 o’clock because I’m going lobster fishing. Oh, and then, I see, we’re going to pop over to PEI and harvest oysters. And I’ll be back by Wednesday afternoon.’
That was my job. How great is that?
CB: Pretty great. You did talk about it in the book, even in the early 22 Minutes years, in these tiny little trailers like, ‘This is the greatest thing ever.’
RM: Oh I had no idea. When 22 Minutes started they really had no money and everyone says that but it was ridiculous. It was the cheapest show that was probably ever produced at the time for a network. There was just no resources and a very small studio.
In hindsight, it helped forge the show that was created. So much of these show, so many great elements, existed because we did’t have any money. If we had money we might of screwed it up. It’s quite possible.
CB: The book is very highly entertaining, thanks for talking with us about it.
RM: It’s still very much a novelty. Writing a book is such a strange experience for me because … one of the things I loved about 22 Minutes and The Mercer Report, you do the work Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday, you shoot Friday, two days later it’s on television. And you’re on to the next thing.
What I found difficult about Made in Canada, you write, you shoot and it doesn’t come on for six months.
Writing a book, spending a year writing the bloody thing, six months editing the bloody thing then you’re done and you just sit around for months and months and months until it shows up. It’s a very odd experience and it’s gratifying knowing people are reading it.
Although, let’s face it, you’re required, for your job.
CB [laughing]: I enjoyed this one a lot though. It is an odd time to launch a book, with a global pandemic still on. The tours aren’t quite what they used to be.
RM: Oh my goodness, I’m doing the tour as we speak. In my shed.
For my last book I had a phenomenal tour and I loved it. Without being cliche, I love meeting people. We would go to Calgary and do a big event, 1,000 people out, it was so exciting to meet them.
It sells books too. There’s a great writers festival down here in Woody’s Point, and I went to that one year and I just loved it so much, seeing all those people who loved books to the point they go to a writers festival. Everyone ended up buying people’s books that they hadn’t even heard of, after attending the readings. It’s an important part of our business that’s for sure.
These virtual events, while they’re fine, I guess, and necessary because that’s all that we’re really able to do, right now, but this is a drag. But a lot of people have it worse than show-biz folk so I’m not complaining.