Rick Mercer, an icon of Canadian comedy for decades, through his work on shows like the Rick Mercer Report and This Hour Has 22 Minutes, still isn’t clear on exactly what it means to be Canadian.
A lack of a clear answer on what it means to be Canadian in nation that seems to defy a uniform identity is one of many threads that Mercer weaves in his latest book, The Road Years: a Memoir Continued.
The book, his sixth, gleefully celebrates the successes and oftentimes near-misses of 15 years of one the Rick Mercer Report being of the top comedy programs in Canada—in fact, at points, the top comedy program nationwide.
“I think it continues with the theme that I created, or that I started with the show: when we went out on the road, the idea was we were going to celebrate every single week, that was the idea, celebrate the country,” he said.
“I don’t have blinders on. I know that Canada, like many countries, have made mistakes along the way. I know there’s dark periods of our history, and we should make amends, and we shouldn’t ignore those things. But it’s still OK to celebrate.”
Celebrating Canada in 2004 when the show began, said Mercer, may not have been in fashion. Today, he added, it’s probably even less in fashion.
“But people responded,” Mercer said.
“I talked about how I don’t necessarily know what it means to be a Canadian, but I’ve never wanted to be anything else. That’s as close as I can get to an answer, and I don’t think I’ll… no one will ever change my mind on that.”
He said that what he hopes people take away from his new book is a celebration of Canada as a nation.
“I hope they feel good about the country and I think they will. There’s chapters in there about the Spread the Net Campaign where Fort McMurray features prominently. I think they’ll feel good about younger generations. You know, we got a lot to celebrate,” Mercer said.
“I hope that there’s a lot of funny stories in there. I think that we need that right now.”
The Road Years: a Memoir Continued was released on October 31, and will be the subject of a dual chat with Calgary and Canadian icon Jann Arden on November 17 at Wordfest.
Please don’t kill the host
Throughout The Road Years, Mercer celebrates not only the moments that made his show into must-watch television for much of the 2000s, but also dives into some of silly, serious, and outright outrageous behind the scenes activities that it took to put on a program weekly.
In many ways, the book is a love letter to the talented people who elevated every episode: Associate field producer Michal Grajewski, camera operator and director of photography Donald Spence, and road director John Marshal.
The book has, at times, an unflinching candour about craziness in the business of television.
“Shows evolve, though one big thing that happened when I was in year two, I think, or end of year one when I made an innocuous joke that maybe was a little bit risky. I got all these emails from people going ‘geeze, Rick, what are you doing? I was watching with my 10 year old,'” Mercer recalled.
“I was like, ‘well, what? Are you gonna watch it with your 10 year old? Like I’m an adult show. Then I realized no, I’m a family show in an era where there’s very few of them where teenagers are watching with their parents, and watching the kids. So, we decided to never do anything on the show or say anything that would embarrass kids in front of their parents or vice versa.”
Instead, Mercer said, they found a winning formula where instead he would be put in scenes that really resonated with audiences: Put the host in mortal jeopardy.
“We must have been two or three years in, and I can’t remember what it was I did, but it was something where I looked like I was in danger and very uncomfortable, and the audience loved it. Then we started developing, we call it, host in peril,” he said.
“I’m not the kind of guy to jump out of the plane. Like I’m not I’m not that guy. I’m not the kind of guy to get in a bobsled. That’s not me. But it carried on, and there were moments like the Train of Death, which I write about, where I literally thought ‘OK, I’m gonna die here now.'”
In a gripping chapter, Mercer describes how a vehicle he was driving was chained to another, and then raced around a speedway course in rural Ontario. The goal, of course, to cause the highest number of car crashes possible.
“I like talking about a comedy death. The type of death that when you die, people laugh because it’s so stupid. Because people would say, ‘oh, he died, that’s terrible. What was he doing? Was he hit by a car? No, he was taking part in something called the Train of Death.’ Well, you know what? People are gonna laugh,” he said.
Segway that literal death defying stunt into how the chairman of the Canadian Exotic Animal Owner’s Association was mauled to death by a tiger. A tiger that they kept in much the same way, as Mercer puts it, people keep chihuahuas and goldfish.
“I talked about how Canadian news anchors at one point had to report that the president of the Canadian Exotic Animal Owner’s Association was eaten by his own tiger. When you have to report news like that, that’s a comedy death, I’m sorry. So at least I avoided that,” he said.
Behind the scenes of Canadian politics
Thought the book, Mercer elevates the average everyday Canadian to the level of the Prime Minister or United States Ambassador—although few stories in the book are self-effacing as trying to avoid a self-described “Harry” medical condition while playing tennis with Ambassador David Wilkins, and then breaking back into the ambassadorial residence to retrieve a forgotten jacket.
Much of that discussion, and comedy, comes from talking about the man who Mercer believes was the most accomplished Prime Minister he ever interviewed.
“I think that some of the behind the scenes stories people will get a kick out of. I don’t think people know the extent to which the people around Stephen Harper were trying to micromanage his every move and micromanage the the image much more than any other leader,” he said.
“I think people get a kick out that, but the reality is this is not an academic treatise by any stretch. I only told stories that I think are funny, or amusing, or will make people feel good about the country. That was my mandate going in”
No gotcha questions, no gotcha revelations in short—but the reflections nevertheless give an insight that few outside of the media sphere would have into the political decision makers from across party lines.
“I was never particularly a fan of Stephen Harper’s as a Prime Minister, although I’m certainly aware of what he accomplished. I actually go out of my way to talk about how he’s actually the most impressive political figure that I ever witnessed in my lifetime, because in order to be successful in that world, you have to have certain tools in the toolbox,” Mercer said.
“God knows there’s a vast majority of Canadians, if they get on a plane and the seat next to them is empty, they want it to stay empty. They don’t want a stranger there. But if you get your Brian Mulroneys or or Jean Chrétiens, they want someone sitting there and they actually are interested in what they have to say.
“So, credit for Stephen Harper to even be successful as a member of parliament, let alone become the leader, and then let alone get a majority government from the country—our country is fractured as this was—is an accomplishment.”
In a memorable vignette from the show, he had Harper act out shaking hands with family members on the way to school or to work, only to end with giving Mercer a big hug.
In making that segment happen, he describes how he dove into the kayfabe about the political process and what it takes to put on an interview: Junior staffers arguing with Mercer about whether they would need to set up television lights, or whether the interview should be held next to a wall, only to have those junior staffer decisions over-riden because of the trust that Mercer had built as the man who didn’t do gotcha politics.
“I don’t know if Stephen Harper wanted to come on the show. I can’t really come up with a reason why he would have agreed to do the show, but my guess is he figured he’d get a fair shake, and he’d come out looking good, which of course is exactly what happens,” Mercer said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, equally gets the revealing treatment (the Harry Potter of Canada’s natural governing party as Mercer describes him), along with other major Canadian political figures in federal and provincial politics—including a cabinet minister or two.
“I think I’m pretty fair to everyone that I talked to, because everyone that I talked about I had on the show,” he said.
“One of the reasons why I had such incredible access, I think, and one of the reasons why people responded to the show and people came on the show was because they had a certain amount of trust in the based on the previous years of the show.”
Jann Arden saves the day
Mercer said that over the 15 years of the show, very few segments died.
But a memorable moment that changed the course of the Rick Mercer Report, and for Mercer himself, came as a result of a visit to Calgary.
“Whatever it was I was going to do in Calgary, I can’t remember, but when I landed they said that’s not happening. So, you gotta find something fast, because we didn’t really have a net. You got to make national television—five, six minutes in Calgary, tomorrow,” he recalled.
“I thought the least we could do is do a tour of Calgary… and then I thought I can’t be the tour guide. I have no voice of authority on Calgary. Who am I to be telling anyone about Calgary?”
His first thought was to get Jason Kenney, then a federal minister, but he wasn’t available as he was in Ottawa.
“Jann Arden was our second choice. I was the one going, ‘are you sure about Jann? I’m a fan, but those sad, sad songs. She could be a real wallflower. Maybe a depressive for all I know.’ I was really quite concerned,” Mercer said.
“Then, she showed up and she was like a whirling dervish. The jokes were coming a mile a minute, every second word out of her mouth. I was thinking, well, we can’t put that on TV.”
Convincing Arden to put on spandex and be pushed down the luge track at Canada Olympic Park, said Mercer, was a moment that made him fall in love with her—and audiences as well, as Arden became a much requested regular on the show.
“Audiences demanded that she come back, which was weird. That had never happened before, and it’s been a great friendship,” he said.
That friendship has blossomed into the dual appearance at Wordfest, and the possibility of a national tour of the duo.
“She has a book out right now. It’s coming out in a couple of days, but it’s a novel because she can literally do anything, and she does. It’s insane the amount of work that she produces. That’s what sobriety gets you apparently. Every time you turn around, you have another major project,” laughed Mercer.
“We’re gonna go out on the road together, which is a great excuse for us to hang out. But also we’re going to have some events where we get together and talk about our friendship and and the years on the Mercer report. I’m looking forward to that.”
The Road Years: a Memoir Continued was published by Doubleday Canada, and is available in stores now.