Rick Mercer Talks Not Retiring, His Early Years and All Those Stunts

Rick Mercer

Photo: Paul Alexander.

So, there’s Rick Mercer, the big phony. Cultivating a straight-off-the-Rock accent so thick they practically offered him an oil rig job seconds after he landed in Fort McMurray, travelling around, greasing the Rest of Canada with flattery and self-effacement.

Meanwhile, he lives in Toronto and drinks Pinot Grigio with his elite friends in the centre of the freaking universe!

And there ends my attempt at a rant. Rule No. 1 of Rick’s Rants is that there should never be “faux outrage.” And I’ll disclose that I like Rick Mercer and the show he and his long-time partner Gerald Lunz created — which puts me of like mind with the 1.6 million people who tuned in the series finale of CBC’s Rick Mercer Report in April after 15 seasons.

But beyond that, even if I felt it, the hardest thing would be maintaining the outrage. “The most important thing about the rants is how succinct they are,” Mercer says over a glass of, yes, Pinot Grigio and chowder at an East End Toronto restaurant patio (I would be the Toronto “elite” lunchmate in this scenario, which devalues the word somewhat).

“My very first one-man show was complete folly because I didn’t understand that. I just basically stood on the stage and literally vented for 70 minutes. A lot of vitriol. You couldn’t sustain that. Nor would I want to. I think I got away with a lot because of my age, and people thought I had a refreshing point of view. But I knew nothing. I had no voice.”

As Mercer talks about his career, one that put him in the national spotlight while still in his teens, a couple from Newfoundland politely ask if he’d mind posing for a photo. They mention that they’d seen him a few nights previously at the city’s Roy Thomson Hall hosting a Q&A with Steve Martin.

They leave, thrilled. Mercer is happy. For one thing, they didn’t ask him how he’s liking retirement.

“Everyone on the street keeps saying I’m retired. I’m not retired,” says Mercer, 48. “When I left [This Hour Has] 22 Minutes, it was a huge story because I left the best job in show business,” he says of the news parody series he started in the ’90s with a bunch of fellow Newfoundlanders with names like Mary Walsh and Cathy Jones.

“Not one person ever said, ‘How’s retirement?’ They were like, ‘What show do you have?’ Now everyone’s saying, ‘Happy retirement!’ Not ‘What do you have up your sleeve?’

“Not that I have anything up my sleeve,” he adds.

Of course, when he left 22 Minutes, Mercer had barely turned 30. It’s expected being a famous Canadian TV star, he’s squirrelled away enough money to call it a career. Call it Freedom 48.

“I know for a fact, there’s a lot Rick could be doing right now if he wanted to.

It’s not for lack of opportunities,” says long-time CBC exec George Anthony, who has attended every taping of the Rick Mercer Report and whose familiarity with Mercer goes back to a hit one-man show he performed at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre at age 20.

Back then, Mercer admits, he was an angry young man. There was nothing apparently dysfunctional about his upbringing in St. John’s-adjacent Logy Bay-Middle Cove-Outer Cove, Newfoundand, to explain it. He is still close to his father, now in his 80s, who took early retirement from a job in the provincial fisheries ministry and remains busy in a dozen different ways, from writing a children’s book to acting and volunteer work.

Rick Mercer
Rick Mercer and Gerald Lunz backstage circa 1990 when he was performing his one-man shows.

“I had no idea that my father didn’t particularly like his job or was unsatisfied with it. He’s just an incredibly decent guy who left the house every day and came back and never once said, ‘I had a terrible day.’

“There’s not a lot to say about my early life,” Mercer says. “I didn’t finish school. And when I was a younger, cockier man, I would say, if someone asked me, ‘Yeah, I didn’t finish high school!’

“And then I realized that was a bad example. There was a thing in elementary school called a Living Wax Museum, where kids had to learn about someone, like, say, Wayne Gretzky. And they’d have to stand up and give a little speech like, ‘I’m Wayne Gretzky and I played for the Edmonton Oilers.’

“And during 22 Minutes, this mother sent me a note saying, ‘My son is having a really hard time at school, and he did you as his Living Wax Museum, and he wrote, ‘I’m Rick Mercer. I thought school was dumb. So, I got a TV show, and now I’m famous.’’” (Mercer sent a note urging him to finish school because “You can’t just get a TV show.”)

But his limited time in high school did offer Mercer the chance to run for student council president simply for the opportunity to cut up onstage with a microphone. A drama teacher saw potential in him and pointed him to a one-act theatre festival where he could write and perform his own jokes with others. “We were a very rebellious group,” says Mercer, who soon made his comedy extracurricular, forming a troupe called Corey & Wade’s Playhouse (whose players included Andrew Younghusband, who went on to become the host of Canada’s Worst Driver).

Still having a lot to say, Mercer also performed one-man shows in St. John’s, an activity that brought him to the attention of some personal heroes – the collection of comic actors on national TV who first performed in The Wonderful Grand Band and later formed Codco. They included blazing talents like Greg Malone and Tommy Sexton (always mentioned as a duo), Jones, Walsh and Andy Jones.

Lunz, a former actor who associate produced Codco, made it his business to know who was funny on the Rock. Says Anthony: “I recall being on the set of Codco one day, and Gerald mentioned Rick to me, this young guy who was making quite a splash on the Rock. So, I said to Gerald, ‘Is there any footage of him?’ And Gerald got me something Rick had done on camera. It was him sitting in a chair with a steering wheel. I can’t remember if he was driving a cab or a bus, but he was doing this monologue that was very funny and very impressive.

“The next time I saw him was in Ottawa, I think when he was doing Charles Lynch Must Die.”

The full title was Show Me the Button, I’ll Push It (or Charles Lynch Must Die), and it was definitely born of outrage.

“Gerald Lunz was working with Codco, and the NAC was under the impression that everyone in Newfoundland had a one-man show,” Mercer recalls. “So, they asked Gerald to bring in a show, he asked a number of people, and they all passed for one reason or another. And then he asked me.”

“And I had just started doing these screeds about Meech Lake and how Canada was treating Newfoundland. And [the late newsman] Charles Lynch had written a column that said, ‘If it comes down to Newfoundland being the sole voice of dissent in the Meech Lake Accord and Newfoundland is the reason why Quebec separates, then we should throw Newfoundland out of confederation. They’re just a drain anyway.’

“So, I went and did this show and called it Charles Lynch Must Die. And of course, Charles Lynch came to the show, sat in the front row and then we went on [CBC’s] Midday together and got into an argument. I was, like, 20 years old, and there I was yelling at this old guy, who was the former head of Southam News, who was very respected and a war correspondent.

“But he loved it. He called himself the Salman Rushdie of Newfoundland. And as the show became bigger, everywhere I would tour, he would do media with me. I came to Toronto and he did the CBC morning show with me. He would do any show I was booked on.”

Former Toronto Sun theatre critic John Coulbourn recalls, “If he hadn’t heeded the siren song of TV, I think Rick Mercer would have become an internationally acclaimed monologist. He was that good. His stage shows had all the energy and passion of his very best rants, but he managed to keep a firm rein on things, so his audience never felt hectored.

“The thing I remember best was that, after a really pleasant interview with him, I showed up for opening night. And when I opened my press kit, there was a five-dollar bill and a note, saying ‘Enjoy the show,’ which was, I remember thinking, perfectly in tune with the bratty bad-boy image he was cultivating.
“I turned the note over, reattached the five spot and wrote: ‘Think you should donate this to the Factory Theatre [where he was playing]. Hope I enjoy the show!’”

When Codco finished its run, Mary Walsh and Michael Donovan pitched Anthony on what would become This Hour Has 22 Minutes. “It was a news-desk comedy idea, and Mary was very keen on Rick taking part. I obviously knew who he was at that point and thought it was a great idea.”

But Mercer was the odd-man out in a cast full of character-comics. “The other three (Jones, Walsh and Greg Thomey) really embraced the notion that the news anchors would be characters. I was supposedly ‘J.B. Dixon.’ They raised that, and I hated it. And eventually I just stopped saying J.B. Dixon.

“But the fundamental thing was that 22 Minutes had no money — literally no money. So, my idea was I leave and come back with a two-minute rant. And I don’t need a costume, I don’t need makeup, I just need me and the cameraman. Essentially, it’s free content. So, of course they went for it. It was the most affordable two minutes on television.”

Mercer admits he was hedging his bets on a show he felt was doomed. “It [22 Minutes] was such a creative whirlwind, with so many different visions, going so many different places, that for a long time I thought, ‘This show is going to hit the rocks. Six episodes, and it’s going to hit the rocks.’ And when the dust settles and it’s all over, I wanted to be able to point to something and say, ‘This is what I do.’”

Of course, 22 Minutes is still on the air, with a cast that’s changed multiple times. But in the sixth season, Mercer took on another job as the star of Made in Canada, a very funny, Maritime-produced spoof of the Canadian TV industry. Mercer played Richard Strong, a crass and ambitious producer at a company that made I-think-I-know-what-they’re-spoofing shows like The Sword of Damocles and Beaver Creek.

For the first few seasons, Mercer split his time, shooting Made in Canada in the summer and 22 Minutes in the fall. “The funny thing is before 22 Minutes, I never had a job for more than three or four weeks,” Mercer says. “And since then, I’ve never not had a job.”

The Rick Mercer Report began in 2004 as Rick Mercer’s Monday Report — “and pretty much was a hit out of the gate,” Anthony recalls. “But what happened was Slawko [Klymkiw, CBC’s then head of programming] needed the Monday back because he had these miniseries CBC had done. And they were playing those on Sundays and Mondays. So, Rick got pushed to Tuesdays. Rick and Gerald just called it the Rick Mercer Report because who knew if they’d end up on Wednesdays next?”

A lot of RMR features came and went. There was the Celebrity Tip, with the likes of the late Pierre Berton demonstrating how to roll a joint or Rush’s Geddy Lee giving toboggan lessons.

And there were the political cameos, skinny-dipping with Bob Rae, a sleepover at 24 Sussex with Stephen Harper. The latter, Mercer admits, had him re-thinking being a critic of politics while cosying up to politicians.

“I always called it a mutually parasitic relationship between me and politicians. And then as time went on, I reached a point where I wasn’t as comfortable with them anymore. So, decided to continue talking about them but not to them.”

And when did he make that decision? “Probably about five minutes after the sleepover at Stephen Harper’s house,” he says with a laugh.

But the programming shift that turned Mercer from a merely famous comedian into a beloved national figure was his decision to do remote bits in every corner of the country and volunteer to do (invariably badly) the things ordinary Canadians did in the course of their work or play.

Riding a bucking bronco, demolition derbies, wheelchair bungee jumping, jumping out of airplanes … there seemed nothing he wouldn’t do and nowhere he wouldn’t go to do it.

“Very early on, we went to Nunavut,” he says. “And it was suggested to us, ‘These are the early days of your show. The GTA has millions and millions of people. You should focus on the GTA.’

“And I thought, ‘No one in the GTA wants to see me gallivanting around the GTA. But they want to see me in Nunavut because who goes to Nunavut?’ It was a gamble, but I think it set the tone that I was going go off the beaten path. It’s kind of a vicarious experience for viewers because Canadians don’t see their country enough. If you live in Halifax, it’s cheaper to go to Paris than Calgary.”

Rick Mercer
Photo: Paul Alexander.

It would be easier to list places the show didn’t go to in 15 seasons. And things he didn’t do.

“I always wondered if we would kill him before we got to Season 7,” Anthony says with a laugh. “We got to Season 10 and the numbers were so good, and he was still game to jump out of a plane and do the crazy things he was doing. He had an unusual physically strong constitution.”

Says Mercer: “I always tried. I remember when I did whatever it is you call it when you’re on skis and there’s a giant sail. I went sailing on ice. And it was really difficult conditions, and I remember a kid wrote on my Facebook, ‘Wow, you were really bad, even by Rick Mercer standards.’

“I never faked my inability to do something. I always gave it a shot. I remember paragliding and I just naturally somehow got the hang of it. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, if this guy has a heart attack, I could land this thing.’ I was quite pleased with myself.”

But back to the rants. As it became a family show, Mercer realized: “I’m less angry now. There’s lots of reasons for that. But as time went on the rants evolved. I realized they didn’t always have to be angry. They could be just ironic, they could be silly, they could be serious, they could be lots of different things. They were just called rants.”

Even so, Anthony says the ratings showed a peculiar spike during the rants, similar to the one that happens on Hockey Night in Canada during “Coach’s Corner With Don Cherry.”

When Mercer was looking back on bits for his best-of finale, he ran across one of his all-time favourites. “It was about the traditional definition of marriage [Canada legalized gay marriage in 2005]. I hadn’t looked at it in a long time, but it was my No. 1 choice. And it just didn’t play anymore. It was interesting.
“I could just see someone who’s 21 or 25 watching that and going, ‘What’s that about, exactly?’”

Being gay was not something Mercer ever hid, nor did he talk about it much. “At one point, I was in that quasi-out place, where everyone in my family and all my friends and everyone I worked with knew I was gay. So, by any normal person’s standards, I was certainly out. But by someone-who-had-a-public-life standards, I wasn’t out.

“Since then, I have come out in interviews two dozen times. And people still say, ‘Really? I had no idea.’ The vast vast majority of people who’ve come out these days, any of the fears they ever had, I would say were irrational.”
As for his non-retirement, Mercer says, “I am back on the road [onstage]. I did two shows this week, in North Bay and Barrie. And I’m going away but I’m bringing my laptop and my printer because Penguin Doubleday’s publishing the complete selection of rants. And I’m going to write a series of essays about my experiences on the show. So, there hasn’t really been any downtime yet.

“One of the exciting things about stepping away from the show is that for the last 15 years, any time an opportunity to do something else came along, I’d have to say ‘Sorry, I have this show I’m doing.’

“But last week, when I got to interview Steve Martin onstage, I knew I couldn’t pass it up. My interviews on the show have never been more than three or four minutes. And just like that, somebody says, ‘Would you like to interview Steve Martin onstage for 70 minutes in front of people?’ ”

By experience, I know Martin can be a reticent interview. It could have been the greatest moment of Mercer’s life, I suggest, or a disaster. “I’d heard that too. I’m happy to say it worked out really well. I want to work on those skills more, now that I have the opportunity.”

Well, one door closes and another opens, I tell him, one out-of-work older dude to another. I pass on my personal motto from when I quit my own full-time job — my laptop is open for business.

“My laptop is open for business,” he repeats, with a laugh. “I will be using that.”