"I think I've had a good week when I get twelve e-mails from my Liberal friends saying that I've sold out and become a Conservative, and I get twelve e-mails from my Conservative friends saying that I'm a Liberal shill. That's a good week for me and that's when I'm doing my job the best, basically. I have the luxury of being non-partisan and I have the luxury of saying whatever I want to say."
– Rick Mercer
Guy MacPherson: Is your show here part of a tour?
Rick Mercer: I'm just coming to Vancouver, basically. It's not part of a tour.
GM: The only time I've seen you live you were hosting the Just For Laughs tour.
RM: Oh, okay, that's a while ago now.
GM: Yeah, when was that?
RM: I don't know. You'd have to Google that.
GM: Were you out of your element? You were impressive because you're not a standup comic. Do you consider that standup or was it more like your one-man shows?
RM: Uh, there was a little bit of standup in that show. Although I was the host and being the host is something I'm comfortable with, especially with six or seven great comedians. I thought it would be an interesting learning curve for me. But my job was to be the host and to direct traffic and their job was to be the professional standup comedians. I've spent a lot of time on stage but never as a standup per se. But I learned a lot and hosting is something I'm comfortable with. It was a great gig. We went from St. John's to Victoria so it was fantastic.
GM: What's the difference between standup and what you do? You said that within the hosting duties there was a bit of standup.
RM: I just never came from standup. It's just a different genre. I never saw a standup comedy club until I was 20 years old. We just didn't have them in St. John's. So it wasn't where I came from. I came from doing theatre then I came from doing sketch comedy. And I did lots of different things. But standup is something that I never even experienced. Like I said, I never saw it live until I was in my 20s. So it just wasn't part of my development as a performer but a lot of performers and people who work in TV come from there. I just didn't come from there. So it's just a different set of muscles.
GM: With your upcoming show here, it's just you up on stage. Would you classify that as standup?
RM: I'm talking.
GM: See, this is what I don't understand.
RM: I mean, it's something I don't really pay much attention to and I don't really think about that much. I mean, they're all good questions, it's just something I never really thought about.
GM: So it's just how you define yourself.
RM: I guess so. And I've just never defined myself as a standup. I mean, I will be standing.
GM: Is it similar to monologues that you do?
RM: Yeah. Basically I'm doing a presentation which I call My Adventures in Canadian Television. I had to call it that because I haven't really done anything else. I talk about different things I've done, different backstage stories and I show some clips. It's something I do occasionally and I always enjoy it.
GM: You started out in St. John's doing one-man shows. Or was there something before that?
RM: Before that I had a sketch comedy troupe. Just four of us. And when I wasn't doing that I was working on one-man shows. And that kind of became what I was interested in more than anything because it enabled me to talk politics more than sketch comedy did.
GM: Were you always a political junkie?
RM: Yeah. I wasn't really that interested in doing sketches about, you know, two guys working at the office standing at the water cooler talking about the new secretary, or what have you. I had fun doing that but it wasn't really what interested me. What interested me was politics. So the one-person shows let me do that.
GM: How much were you involved in creating 22 Minutes?
RM: I'm one of the creators.
GM: Because it seems so perfect for you. Right up your alley.
RM: We had a couple of weeks to create the show. It was literally a blank page and no money for a set or a wig or anything. So we were all actively involved in the creation of the show. And back then, we were getting to know each other. Quite often he who yelled the loudest won. And I yelled pretty loud (laughs) because the thing I wanted to protect was the ability to do commentary and politics. That was very important to me. So that show was kind of custom built for me in many ways because I was one of the creators. You see that in The Mercer Report, too. It's just kind of an extension of that.
GM: Do you ever wish you could have been doing what you're doing when Trudeau was around?
RM: I haven't given it much thought. But, you know, I'm sick to death of Trudeau and I don't even have any memories of him. So I can't imagine I'd want to cover him in real life.
GM: That's when I really paid attention to politics. Since then I just pay attention peripherally. But back then I used to know all the members of parliament.
RM: I guess it's like anything. Politics is like my baseball. You know how baseball people are obsessed with stats? They have fantasy pools and everything else. That's kind of the way I am with politics. But part of my job is to not bore the hell out of people with politics. Much like you don't want your baseball fan friend boring the hell out of you with the intricacies of statistics that nobody cares about other than other obsessed baseball fans. So my job is not to do that to people. But I guess my job is to know politics.
GM: Everyone's competitive. When you left 22 Minutes, did you secretly wish it would die?
RM: Oh, God, no. No, no, no, no.
GM: You can tell me.
RM: No. I wouldn't anyway because for no other reason than I worked there for eight years. And as a result of working there for eight years, never mind the cast members I worked with, but there's 40 other people that I worked with for eight years. So to wish that it went away would be to wish that 40 people were out of work. Where I come from, that would find you a permanent place in hell. No, that never crossed my mind. In fact, the only thing that probably would have stopped me from leaving is if I thought that it would have that effect. But I never, ever believed that it would. When my father heard on the radio that I was leaving 22 Minutes, he left a message on the phone that said, "You know, Winston Churchill was replaceable. You sure as hell are." (laughs) That's good advice.
GM: Is sketch still really popular in Newfoundland?
RM: Well, it changes all the time. I mean, there's always been a tradition of sketch comedy there. Codco came from there, which is a great sketch comedy group. There are still great sketch groups there better than any sketch group I was in and maybe better than Codco. There are newer generations of sketch comedians and stuff. That's just always been there. There's still, to my knowledge - I could be wrong - there's not a standup comedy club. Standup comics certainly exist. It's just that when I was coming along no one seemed to be doing it.
GM: You're a political commentator. Unlike many American commentators, you're not a spokesman for one side or the other.
RM: I think I've had a good week when I get twelve e-mails from my Liberal friends saying that I've sold out and become a Conservative, and I get twelve e-mails from my Conservative friends saying that I'm a Liberal shill. That's a good week for me and that's when I'm doing my job the best, basically. I have the luxury of being non-partisan and I have the luxury of saying whatever I want to say.
GM: Obviously you must have political leanings like anybody, but we don't know them, do we?
RM: No. And either do I because they change from month to month.
GM: Do you take care to be as fair – or unfair – equally? Or does CBC make sure of that?
RM: The CBC has nothing to do with it. I produce the show. It's an independent show. We deliver them a show every week. And the show moves so fast there's just no process by which anyone would ever monitor that type of thing. It's just not practical or possible. But I mean, I certainly do. The last thing I ever want to be is boring. Personally I get bored when I can see someone's politics coming down the street and I know exactly what they're going to say on any given point. That's generally when they just become partisan. As long as I remain non-partisan, I think I'll be okay.
GM: When you are in a period in your life when you're leaning towards one party, wouldn't you want to try to affect the outcome of an election by maybe going a bit harder at one side?
RM: Part of my job, of course, is to be in opposition, in a way. That's the natural role to take. So when the Liberals were in power, quite often people would say I was too hard on the Liberals. And likewise they say that about the Conservatives. Minority governments are a little different, I guess. But no, in terms of affecting an election, I never think about those things. God forbid if I ever thought that I could do that, that would probably be time for me to shut up and sit down.
GM: Al Franken is running for election in the States. Dennis Miller has been asked to run. Has anyone ever asked you to run?
GM: They haven't? Or you're just not interested?
RM: I'm just not interested.
GM: With politicians coming on your show to essentially do comedy, is it harder to gore them if you're friendly with them?
RM: I'm not friendly with that many of them, actually. There's a couple. And I actually go out of my way not to be friendly with politicians. I mean, I'm certainly friendly enough when I meet them. But in terms of becoming friends with them, the nature of the beast is over the years is I've kind of become friends with a couple of them just because you end up in the same places so many times and you get to know them. But that's like less than I can count on one hand so it's never really an issue. And politicians are friendly enough people when you're standing in a room with them. That's how they got to be where they are. They'll be friendly enough with whoever's sitting next to them on the bus. As will I. I'm that kind of person, too. But it's not the basis of a friendship by any stretch.
GM: You spent some time with Stephen Harper's kids, right? So don't you feel bad about saying something about their dad?
RM: No. No, no, no. They have bigger problems (laughs). They don't have to worry about that. But yes, I certainly met their kids. And those kinds of things cross your mind occasionally but I always try to be fair, basically. I like to back up whatever I'm saying. But, you know, he's the guy that ran for sheriff. I didn't tell him to run for sheriff.
GM: I heard something about comedy: If you care too much about a particular issue, you come off as too didactic or...
RM: Yeah, and I never want to be that guy. It's not a soapbox. I just don't ever want to be that guy who's just beating people over the head with a stick. I'm not interested in that. I think I've successfully avoided that for twelve years. If I ever caught myself doing that, I think that would be the time when I would say it's time to stop now. There are always issues that personally I'm more interested in than maybe the average Canadian. Or things that I would like to draw attention to. But I keep that in check and I realize, okay, that's me as a private citizen, if I have that axe to grind. But I can't just go on TV every week and say the same thing over and over. Certainly friends of mine will tell me that. They'll say, "Oh, yeah, that's just you and XYZ and you never shut up about that." But I try not to do that on my show every week.
GM: You have people around you to keep you in check.
GM: You must be recognized everywhere you go in this land of ours. What's it like for you on a day-to-day basis out there?
RM: I'm lucky because when people do recognize me, they're generally friendly and they just generally say, "Hi, Rick, how are you?" And I say hi back. So it's pretty good that way. And I guess if they have no opinion or they don't like me, they just don't say anything. Because I've spent a lot of time with politicians in public, it's very different for them. Because even when they're popular, for every four or five people that recognize them, one or two people are just not very nice. I think that would be very difficult. But generally people are just nice to me. They just say hi. (laughs) So that's pretty good. As long as no one's taking a swing at me, I'm happy.
GM: I remember once seeing Joe Clark and his wife just walking down Georgia Street, unaccompanied. And I thought, "What a country, where our ex-prime ministers don't have any security."
RM: Exactly. And the more you get to know these people, the more that you're sometimes struck by those kinds of moments. Again, you try to get co-opted too much. But I like politicians, by and large. And that's the other thing about satire: you have to love your subject matter. If you hated politics, I think you wouldn't be a very good satirist. You've gotta love what your subject matter is. I understand. I mean, certainly I have friends who tell me I'm completely crazy and they'll say, "Why are you even remotely interested in what these people have to say? They're all scum." They have that kind of approach or opinion. And, you know, that's valid, too. But I just love the stuff. You gotta love what you're going to satirize.
GM: Do you ever feel like you have to force an opinion?
RM: No, luckily. I have very few skills but not shutting up is one that I have. And forming an opinion quickly is one that I have. Quite often I'm not that great at solutions but I'm pretty good at spotting the problem. So that works out.
GM: Do you feel you have to hold on to a particular opinion if later you change your mind?
RM: Oh, I've changed my mind more than I care to admit. And I've certainly been wrong over the years. I'm putting together a book now of all my commentaries over the last four years on the Mercer Report., so I'm reading everything that I wrote. And actually I'm quite happy with it. But a couple of times I've gone, "Oh, I'm quite prescient. That's really quite clever that I came up with that there" because sure enough a couple months later... But then a couple of times I've read something and thought, "Good Lord, what was I thinking? I was completely proven wrong on that point, wasn't I?"
GM: Would you be content to play out your career in Canada or do you want a bigger stage?
RM: Oh, no, my God, I'm happy in Canada. And I don't see that as slumming it by any stretch. I've been fortunate over the years. I've had opportunities to go to the States and work in the States, and there's no denying that's a big thrill the first time it happens. And it's always nice when it happens. I'd never say never, but none of the opportunities were that interesting to me. I was also lucky enough to be in a position to be able to not do it because I had a job here. Certainly not ones that paid as well but ones that I was very happy with. Also, I basically produce my own work so I get to do what I want to do. I get to cover what I love, which is Canadian politics. I get to travel around the country, I get to hang out with polar bears, or go to Nunavut or do whatever I want. And that offer obviously never came along from the States because that job's only available here and I have it.
GM: Are you a fan of shows like The Daily Show?
RM: Oh yeah, sure. (pause)
GM: What's on your mind these days in Canadian politics?
RM: Well, I'm a Newfoundlander so I'm following the latest spat between Danny Williams and the current prime minister very closely. But again, I understand that's not something that most people in the country are interested in. (laughs) But Newfoundlanders are obsessed with it. So I'm following that. I'm following Canada's defence minister very closely. I'm watching him. I'm off now but I'm still doing this.
GM: You can't stop being a political junkie when the lights go dark.
RM: No, exactly. So like anyone else I'm following the Gordon O'Connor death watch to see how long he'll last.
GM: When do you go back?
RM: Oh, I won't go back on television until September or October.
GM: Do you think there'll be an election before then?
RM: Well, you know, I have a number of bets out there that there would be an election about now, all of which I've lost. So again, I'm not that prescient.
GM: If there is one, would you say you have to get back on the air?
RM: Well, it's not that simple but I would certainly be covering it one way or the other just because I would. I'd find a way to do it. And I have the website and I'm a blogger. I'm not the best blogger in the world.
GM: February was your last entry.
RM: Yeah. So I haven't been updating it for quite a while. But certainly if an election happened I could fire it up in a second. And when I fire it up, people generally go to it.
GM: Does Dion stand a chance?
RM: (pause) Um, I mean, you never say never in politics, right? But he certainly has his work cut out for him, I'd say that. He's certainly got his work cut out for him. He's got a lot of problems. And then he's got problems on top of his problems. If we started talking about the problems Stephane Dion faces right now, I could keep you on the phone for an hour. I mean, they're massive. And they're mammoth. And they're basically in every single important element of running a leadership, leading a party, and running an election. He's just got problems upon problems.
GM: I saw Ignatieff asking a fiery question to Harper in Question Period today and I thought, "Man, he would have been better."
RM: Well, I think most people think anyone would have been better at this point. But that's the nature of politics, too. I mean, we could all be proven wrong. Certainly over the last couple of weeks, there's nobody who thinks that Stephane Dion got off to a good start. And he hasn't seemed to hit his stride yet. If there's a stride out there. It's bad. I mean, there's no doubt about it, it hasn't been this bad for a political party since Stockwell Day was leader of the Alliance Party. It's a different set of problems. With Stockwell Day people kinda thought he was completely out of his element and a goof and stuff like that. People don't really think that Stephane Dion is stupid or out of his element. They just don't really know anything about him. And they don't really seem to have an interest in getting to know him, either. So that's tough work for him.
GM: He's lacking a little bit in the charisma department. But I guess they said the same thing about Stephen Harper.
RM: Oh, my God. Look, half the people in cabinet right now, on the federal level, were actively working behind the scenes to get rid of Stephen Harper not that long ago. We all remember those days. And even people who like him, not that there's a lot of them out there, they would say to you one-on-one - and these are people who are in cabinet now - they looked at me and they would just say, "The guy means well but can just never win with him. He has to go." And now they're like his loyal cabinet members.
GM: Winning will do that.
RM: Yeah, absolutely. So everything can change. And one thing that you could say about Stephane Dion is that Canadians right now have incredibly expectations of him. But in politics, that's a very good place to be.
GM: In anything. The old expectations factor.
RM: Absolutely. You take that over your Kim Campbell position where you're polling 80 percent in the polls and no one knows what you sound like, never heard you speak, never seen you give a speech. Don't know anything about you but somehow you're polling 80 percent. And those things always end badly. But at the very least, if people have low expectations quite often the only way you have to go is up. Stephen Harper has to be very concerned right now that his numbers aren't up. I mean, he just spent more money than any Canadian prime minister has ever spent on a budget. Jim Flaherty is the biggest spending finance minister in Canadian history now. His entire grassroots, his entire raison d'etre is conservatism, and they just gave three thousand million dollars to Quebec and they're not moving in the polls. And they're still not in majority territory. This is not a party whose future is bright. They've got some serious problems. And this is against Stephane Dion who everyone thinks is a nincompoop.
GM: The neoconservatives in the States have also been spending record amounts.
RM: Yeah, but that's different. They've got a war. We're just giving the money to Quebec. (laughs)
GM: Can you do anything about commercials of you on the Comedy Network that run every five minutes?: "Settle down, Stephen Harper, I said flag day."
RM: I have no control over that.
GM: There must be other clips they could use.
RM: I'm sure there are.
GM: Or maybe I shouldn't watch so much TV.
RM: But again, I have no control over it. I control the ads that go on The Mercer Report on the CBC in the first window. And they're new every week.