On Monday morning, Rick Mercer released an online video. He was back in the alley where he does his rants and he was promoting the new and 15th season of Rick Mercer Report (Tuesday, CBC, 8 p.m.). Then he dropped a bombshell – it will be the last season. He reminded viewers of the time his show airs on CBC, including, per CBC tradition, the time in Newfoundland and Labrador. "A place," the St. John's native concluded, "Where I'll be spending a lot more time in the future."
There is hardly a Canadian who doesn't wish Rick Mercer well. He has institutional status, these 15 seasons being preceded by years on This Hour Has 22 Minutes.
Mercer's departure, like that of Peter Mansbridge for news, is an opportunity for CBC and indeed the entire Canadian TV racket to assess where TV comedy is going and where it can soar.
Here's the thing that's highlighted by Mercer's announced departure – we don't do savage indignation in Canada. Our TV comedy and news-satire shows don't really pillory social conventions, stereotypes and political chicanery with any aggression. They do it mildly; they do it too nicely. Nobody in positions of power, or in the viewing audience, is ever made uncomfortable by satire in Canada.
It is stating the obvious to note that satiric comedy is enjoying a golden age in the United States. Every late-night chat show benefited from a tumultuous election and the triumph of Donald Trump. The Daily Show, much less pugnacious than under Jon Stewart, is thriving. The arrival of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee only underlines that the appetite for the genre is huge.
The landscape here in Canada is different, but surely it is ripe for more caustic humour than we've been getting. We have a federal government cozily ensconced for another two years and in need of mockery. The Conservatives have had a leader in place for ages now and Andrew Scheer is, well, asking for it. The NDP will soon have a new leader in place, too.
A sideways result of the Trump era impacting Canada is the unspoken government directive that we're all in this together, Canadians must huddle tight and play nice, lest we draw some menacing attention. This is understandable as a tactic of the federal government aimed at restricting enmity from the opposition. But it seems to have morphed into a cultural smugness that amounts to a reluctance by anyone to say they don't like the cut of someone else's jib, let alone make fun of that jib.
This Hour Has 22 Minutes (also returning Tuesday, CBC, 8:30 p.m.) goes on and on, innocuously making fun of movies and TV shows and doing the most lame mockery of Donald Trump imaginable. It occasionally has some impact online but last time I looked, the 22 Minutes YouTube channel had a sum total of 1,488 subscribers. As for The Beaverton, it can be wickedly, acidly funny online but made for a terrible TV show – stiff, tedious and inept.
In announcing that his 15th season would be his last, Rick Mercer also promised the delights that would unfold in upcoming episodes. "I was swimming in the Arctic Ocean, I helped paint a grain elevator in the Prairies, I dangled off the Confederation Bridge and I had intimate adventures with Jann Arden." And, in what he promised as "the greatest season ever" he offered this come-on – "I've been covered in peanut butter and licked clean by 32 golden retrievers."
That's all fun stuff and it defines Rick Mercer Report. The rants have been an add-on that often had little energy or even sass but reflected Mercer's sincere feelings about something.
It would not be fair to blame Mercer for being bland – he's been doing an 8 p.m. show on a conventional broadcaster, not a late-night show on which he's free to be ferocious.
But the looming exit offers a clear opportunity for all Canadian broadcasters, if they have the guts. An opportunity to offer a platform for savage indignation, rage and fierce mockery. The country needs it.
Earlier this year, while promoting a new book, Mary Walsh was asked about the difference between Canadian and American comedy, particularly in the context of the soaring attention that late-night comedy is getting. She cited the period under the Harper government when scientists were muzzled. "We kinda backed off," she said. "It was cowardly of us." But then, tellingly she questioned what impact all that American comedy is having. "Does what Colbert say make one iota of difference?" She asked rhetorically.
Well, yes it does make a difference. First, it entertains an audience. Second and most important, it frees people to mock and distrust authority. It is cathartic and it is freeing – Jimmy Kimmel sure had an impact on the most recent health-care debate in the U.S. He mocked and then told people to call politicians and be as angry as he is. He even gave them the numbers to call.
Canadian comedy has indeed been cowardly for too long. Mercer's departure offers space and opportunity for the savage indignation this country needs.