Rick Mercer, seen here in promotional photo from 2018, resists his nature as a private person in his new memoir "Talking to Canadians." Photo: Chris Young / The Canadian Press
Comedian Rick Mercer On His New Memoir “Talking to Canadians” and the Moment That Changed His Life
The Newfoundland actor and comedian, famous for his 90-second rants, is an introvert and very private person who won't even say what kind of car he drives / BY Bill Brioux / October 29th, 2021
At the beginning of 2020, Rick Mercer didn’t think he had time to write a memoir. Not even 22 minutes.
“I honestly couldn’t think of how it was going to be possible,” he said on a recent Zoom call, “because, like everyone else, I had regular plans.” That included a coast-to-coast Just for Laughs comedy tour that was cancelled due to COVID-19, and suddenly Mercer had nothing but time.
He also had a shed on the grounds of his Newfoundland home, near where his parents live today, with a woodstove and a view of the Atlantic. That’s where he spent mornings typing Talking to Canadians last summer.
The memoir begins with happy memories from Middle Cove, Nfld., 25 minutes outside of St. John’s, where he lived with his mother, Patricia, a nurse; father, Kenneth, an executive in the fisheries ministry; older brother Gilbert and sisters Susan and Tonia. While he got into his share of mischief, Mercer was worried his idyllic childhood might not make good material for a comedian’s memoir. “My God, where did you grow up,” 22 Minutes cohort Mary Walsh used to chide. “Green Acres?”
He used to be cavalier about not finishing high school, but you can’t really blame him. Despite falling a few grades short of a Grade 12 diploma from Prince of Wales Collegiate, the actor and comedian has received about a dozen honorary degrees from universities across Canada. In other words, Canada’s higher institutions of learning have not hesitated to call on a high school dropout to inspire graduates at convocations.
“I was a terrible student,” Mercer writes in Talking to Canadians, which comes out on Nov. 2. “When I first started becoming a public figure, when I was young, I was kind of cocky and I would mention that I didn’t finish high school. And then, I got a call from a woman.”
Her son loved This Hour Has 22 Minutes, but he was struggling at school. For a project called “Living Wax Museum,” he chose Mercer as his subject, researched him, and gave a speech as if he was the actor himself.
“We went in and we watched,” she told Mercer, “and he stood up and said, ‘My name is Rick Mercer, and I grew up in St. John’s, Newfoundland. And I didn’t like school because it was stupid, and the teachers were stupid. So I quit school and became a TV star.’”
The woman asked Mercer to talk some sense into the boy and, chastened, he agreed. “I didn’t want to be a bad influence for any kid, especially for any who might have been on the fence,” Mercer says.
It wasn’t until he reluctantly joined the drama club that Mercer started to tolerate school. Intrigued by theatre teacher Lois Brown, an artist and performer, he acted in one production, but then he wanted to quit.
Mercer never forgot what Brown, who became a lifelong friend, said next: “That would be one of the biggest mistakes of your life.’”
She told him to stick around, because their next project was a one-act play that the school was going to enter in a drama festival. “What’s the one-act play?” Mercer asked. “I don’t know,” she answered. “You haven’t written it yet.”
“My life changed forever on that day,” says Mercer, “and that’s all I’ve done ever since, except for a few stints washing dishes.”
There were flops along the way. Mercer refused to trim a word for a review he wrote for the Resource Centre Theatre in the late 80s entitled, “We Have No Pity for the Pseudo-downtrodden.” Critics lambasted the three-and-a-half-hour production, nicknaming it, “We Have No Pity for the Audience.”
He helped launch the news parody, This Hour Has 22 Minutes in 1993 with CODCO alumni Mary Walsh and Cathy Jones, where his 90-second rants launched a sensational career as a national television star. Next came the scripted sitcom Made in Canada (1998-2003) and, for 15 seasons, The Mercer Report (2004-2018). His spin-off 2001 special, “Talking to Americans,” drew 2.7 million CBC viewers.
Mercer has always been reticent about his personal life, in particular, his relationship with spouse Gerald Lunz. Even in Talking to Canadians, there is more emphasis on their professional alliance. “I’m a weirdly private person,” Mercer admits, “in the sense that, you know, I’ve been on TV for so long.” He wouldn’t even say what kind of car he drives.
The truth is, Lunz shaped Mercer’s career. “He’s produced anything of any consequence that I’ve done, especially big television projects, and to this day.”
Lunz ran his red pen through every one of the “streeter rants” on 22 Minutes and, later, The Mercer Report. He made sure the one-man shows under his watch were brisk, and that they played to the right room before the right critics. “I owe more to him than anyone else,” says Mercer, adding that his mother agrees.
“I was talking recently about some gig that Gerald had kind of saved me on and she said, ‘You would be nothing if it wasn’t for him.’ I said, ‘Mom, I don’t know if I’d be nothing.’ She said, ‘No, I think you’d be nothing.’”
And to think, as revealed in the book, that Lunz tried to fire Mercer after Jones, Mercer’s future 22 Minutes cast mate, hired him to run a spotlight and a projector for her one-woman stage show, “Wedding in Texas.” Jones knew Mercer from the Newfoundland performing-arts scene, and knew he was funny, because he often couch-surfed at her place. Her show was being remounted for a national tour and Lunz – an Ottawa-based producer on the rise – was hired to shepherd it. He didn’t think much of Mercer, and advocated for the untrained stagehand’s dismissal. “Cathy, God love her, wouldn’t budge,” Mercer says. “He was stuck with us.”
A year-and-a-half later, Lunz was back in St. John’s looking for a new star for a National Arts Centre production. He had seen Mercer’s recent stage work and was impressed. He urged him to write a character who was pretty much himself. The result was, “Show Me the Button, I’ll Push It, or Charles Lynch Must Die.” Lynch was a big shot in Canadian publishing circles, who had the gall to mock Newfoundland; Mercer ripped him for it.
More importantly, the show was a smash hit. Audiences cheered his cheek. Mercer has been talking to Canadians ever since.
A version of this story appeared in the October/November 2021 issue of Zoomer magazine.