Skip to main content

Comedian and author Rick Mercer is known for his time on This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Rick Mercer Report.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

The title of Rick Mercer’s newly published memoir is Talking to Canadians, a knowing wink to the regularly occurring segment on This Hour Has 22 Minutes that catapulted him to national fame, in which he talked to (and made easy mockery of) everyday Americans, but a more apt name might be Look Back at Anger. Sure, Mercer’s Twitter bio reads, “Anger is my cardio”; and it is true that his trademark routine, which spans his entire performing life, stretching back to his late teens, has been “The Rant,” a high-octane kvetch delivered straight to camera. But here, whiling away a mild fall afternoon on the back patio of a neighbourhood pub not far from his house in the east end of Toronto, Mercer seems almost sheepish as he acknowledges it has been many years since he felt the distilled rage of his younger self.

He’s known this for a while, but he was confronted with it while conjuring up memories for the new book, the first time he has spent any significant time mulling his journey from angry, young St. John’s rebel to Toronto-residing, pin-wearing Officer of the Order of Canada. (Albeit one with property back in Newfoundland.) In 1990, at the age of 21, he wrote and performed the one-man show I’ve Killed Before, I’ll Kill Again, playing a hangman who makes quick work of Canadian icons, including Burton Cummings, Brian Mulroney, Peter Gzowski and the cast of Front Page Challenge. “It never ever crossed my mind until I was writing the book,” he says, “that, had another version of me come along today, I’d be on that [hangman’s] list.”

In his defence, back then, “I was a young guy who didn’t know if I was ever gonna be able to make a living, and I was living in this economically depressed province, and I thought we were getting a raw deal every time I turned around. So there was a lot to be angry about,” he recalls. “As you get older, of course, things stop being black and white, they become more grey.”

“The joke I make is, like, how could I be angry? I drive a Volvo,” he quips. “Not that there’s not a place for angry young men. But it’s just someone else’s job. I think it would be a bit tedious coming from me, quite frankly.”

But if Mercer, 52, is now in the statesman phase of his career (his hair has certainly made the transition, from TV-ready jet black to the predominantly pearly palette that nature now has in mind), he can still sharpen his blade when necessary: At the beginning of the pandemic, he filmed a rant (indoors) chastising Canadians who were ignoring public-health guidelines. And though he has never seemed one to hold his tongue, he admits there are some issues he finally feels free to discuss.

He approached the task of Talking to Canadians with the same blithe spirit that animated his 15 years on Rick Mercer Report, in which he tried his hand at hundreds of jobs, from ice-road trucker to ER physician. “I literally Googled ‘How to write a memoir,’” he says. He was evidently more successful than he had been with his televised efforts, which often went notoriously sideways. “I got an e-mail one time from a kid. I was doing, like, kite surfing, I think it was on ice. And he e-mailed me and said: ‘Man, you’re really bad at that – even by Rick Mercer standards!’” he chuckles. “I’m my own low bar.”

Mercer, who has often kept his personal life close to the vest, shares the story of growing up in Middle Cove, Newfoundland and Labrador, a short drive from St. John’s, the youngest of three children born to a no-nonsense couple who only begrudgingly brought a television into the household in the mid-1970s. Even then, he writes, access to the box (a second-hand black-and-white unit), “was tightly rationed, like nylons and chocolate in the war.”

Young Rick was – there’s no point in mincing words here – a terrible student, easily distracted. His prospects seemed bleak. Then, one moment in Grade 11 changed the trajectory of his life. He had signed up for the Drama Club, served as a wholly incompetent stage manager for the first production – apparently chattering nonstop through rehearsals, keeping the teacher-director, Lois Brown, entertained but failing at all of his actual responsibilities – and informed her on closing night that he would be moving on.

As he writes, in a scene that will ring true for anyone who struggled until a special teacher or mentor spotted their potential:

She told me I should forget about being stage manager but remain in the club because the next production was an important one. It would be entered into a provincial drama festival of one-act plays.

“What’s the show?” I asked, mostly to be polite. I had never read a one-act play.

“I don’t know,” she said. “You haven’t written it yet.”

In fact, the play would be a collective, which Mercer wrote with other students, including two who would end up becoming partners in an early comedy venture, Ashley Billard and Andrew Younghusband.

“If she didn’t say that to me that day, I don’t know what I’d be doing,” he says.

Mercer’s past isn’t the only history he recalls wistfully in Talking to Canadians. He writes of LSPU Hall, the scrappy St. John’s union hall-turned-theatre where he got his start, as well as CBC Newfoundland shows such as The Wonderful Grand Band, a music and comedy program that aired out of St. John’s for a few years beginning in the late 1970s, helping to spur a cultural renaissance in the province.

Even now, with the TV landscape in tumult – and perhaps especially now – Mercer says there’s a vital need for the CBC. When he was producing his show for the network, he didn’t feel he could talk about the importance of public broadcasting, “even when public broadcasting might have been in peril,” because, he figured, “people would say: ‘Well, obviously you’re going to say that! You’re on the bloody thing!’ "

But he has no patience for those who believe Canadians don’t care for Canadian culture. “I just disagree with your thesis entirely,” he says when the notion is put to him, and if it’s not quite a rant that follows, it is a passionate declaration of Canadians’ love for their own artists and stories.

“You see the outpouring of national grief when Gord Downie passed away, or you read about Martha Henry, who just passed away … there’s many, many significant characters and programs and artistic creations that have defined the country,” Mercer says.

In fact, he has lately fallen for the new CBC show Sort Of, a Toronto-set comedy-drama about a gender-fluid Pakistani millennial. On the one hand, it’s about as far from The Wonderful Grand Band as you could get; but, like that show, it’s an honest, engaging, generous reflection of the country.

“The pilot episode is one of the best crafted pieces of writing for a pilot episode of a TV show that I’ve ever seen,” he says. “There’s not a false note in the performances, and there’s this huge generational change on the screen, because you wouldn’t see any of these stories, or any of these actors, 10 years ago. It’s phenomenal. I predict that that’s going to be watched and admired all over the world.”

Talking to Canadians sometimes plays like Mercer’s greatest hits package, offering up the almost accidental origin story of the Talking to Americans segment as well as the serious comical tale of how he torpedoed Stockwell Day during the election of 2000, after discovering Day had endorsed a Canadian Alliance party policy to permit citizen-initiated referendums. Mercer feared that, under an Alliance government, the referendums might prompt laws limiting access to abortions and banning gay marriage – the latter an issue that’s especially close to Mercer’s heart: He and his partner, Gerald Lunz, have been together for more than 30 years. So, during a segment on 22 Minutes, he announced an online petition to force Day to change his first name to Doris. Within a week – and remember, this was before the advent of social media – the petition had accrued more than one million signatures, putting the issue of citizen-initiated referendums to the top of the news agenda and helping to sink the Alliance’s prospects.

“It was incredibly satisfying,” Mercer says. “And for someone who has always been fascinated by politics, I never ever thought that I would have any meaningful impact on policy.”

“We were doing comedy with meaning, and I think I’ve always done that, but the thing we always tried to avoid was doing something just because it was important. If it wasn’t funny, we weren’t doing it, because otherwise you just become strident and you start lecturing people, and then you kind of become like Lenny Bruce at the end of his career, and people are going, ‘Could you just squeeze in a couple of jokes there, somewhere along the way?!’”

With both 22 Minutes and Rick Mercer Report, he says, “the audience was so large that I never felt like we were doing material in an echo chamber. That’s the problem with doing satire today: Everyone’s just going to their news sources that prescribe to their point of view and their comedy sources. And, at that point, if only the choir is listening to you, are you achieving anything?”

It’s enough to make even an old guy angry.

Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.