The Herald talks with Rick Mercer about Talking to Canadians, plus all kinds of other grand yarn topics that come up while shooting the breeze in a shed
Having a gab with Rick Mercer while he’s hove off in his shed at home in Newfoundland is like talking with an ol’ buddy from ‘ome, because that’s exactly what he is! Mercer’s experiences growing up in picturesque Middle Cove mirror many other Newfoundlanders and Labradorian’s childhoods – or those who were blessed enough to have the freedoms that accompany a rural raisin’, that is.
When we jump on the phone, like all good Newfoundlanders, our first bit of business is the weather. Today’s forecast? Cold but crisp and sunny. Loves it!
Mercer admits he’s relaxing at home, sat back all comfy in his glorious shed and that he’s feeling pretty chill, which means he’s got all the time in the world to yarn.
“The shed’s been glorious, except in the winter. It just didn’t matter how big a fire you had in, it wouldn’t work. And then my buddy and I figured out a design, and then he built this Plexiglas sliding window that now keeps me warm. It’s fantastic,” he opened.
“For a man with no discernible skills, you’ve done quite well,” I inform him, stealing a line directly from his latest book, Rick Mercer: Talking to Canadians.
“That’s right. I suppose I have,” he replied – thankfully getting the reference.
Talking to Canadians is a sensory treat – hitting all the buttons and stirring up all the feels. There’s comedy of course, from how Mercer glued his hand to his forehead in class one day just to get a laugh to how much he sucked at the Flexed Arm Hang in gym class.
There’s also many touching moments, like sharing tidbits about growing up in Middle Cove or wee little tales about his parents. His dad could make bread or build a house, and his mom was not to be fooled with as becomes evident throughout the memoir. While Mercer declares the only tool he himself can use with any skill is a corkscrew (he also knows his way around the operation of left-over Pride Parade glows sticks, apparently) it soon becomes quite clear that his life’s calling would only require him to master a sense of humour and tenacity. In fact, it was failure that set Mercer on the path to fame.
Show Me the Button
While not wanting to give too much away and ruin reader’s own enjoyment of this delightful yarn, it was the debut of his one-man show, Show Me the Button: I’ll Push It – or Charles Lynch Must Die, that helped chart Mercer’s television course.
While filled with titillating tidbits and triumphant tales and a whole bunch of hilarity and humour, what really pops out is a heap-load of gratitude.
“That’s it exactly,” he said. While he offers there was no “oh yeah!” moment when it came to his career trajectory, what his life’s path really has been is a whole bunch of near random encounters. “It’s not like I had epiphanies when I was writing the book, but I always knew I was lucky and I always knew luck had a factor in any success that I had. And I talk about how important it is to have luck, which of course, you can’t control. But I also realize how blessed I am.
“So it’s true; I have gratitude. I always knew I was lucky and now I know I’m also very grateful because you cross paths with people and you might only know them for three days or three weeks or something like that, but certain people you cross paths with change the trajectory of your life or your career and those encounters can make all the difference in the world,” he said.
Another thing he’s grateful for? His Newfoundland roots. “You don’t think about this at all when you’re growing up, but I think about it now – how lucky I was to grow up in the place that I grew up in. Middle Cove was just so great at the time. You don’t really realize it. That’s why I say I don’t like to dwell too much on my childhood. It’s too painful. Not for me, but for anyone who was not lucky enough to grow up where I did because it was pretty bloody ideal.”
Mercer shared that he’s often caught off guard, even by other Newfoundlanders, when he spins yarns of growing up.
“I can’t tell you how many times I would be telling a story and I’d be almost embarrassed because my life was so good. I think we were doing 22 Minutes and I was talking to Mary Walsh and she said, “Where did you grow up, anyway?” Because my stories would always involve the pond behind the house that we skated on, or the goat or the pony, or riding our bikes to the beach. It was just this fantastic boy’s life, and I think it pissed people off,” he said with a laugh.
Mercer’s parents are living nearby and we ask what they think of the tell-all book.
“I think they’re happy. I think they’ve always had a really healthy, nonchalant attitude towards my career. And that’s been very grounding. And I think they’re proud of all their kids. They certainly get a kick out of it when something cool happens, like when their son just happens to be on the cover of The Herald because as everyone in Newfoundland knows, that’s a pretty big deal. They’re always kind of bemused by that.”
Does he miss being on television? Yes and no, he responded. “I’m still happy with the decision to wrap up the show and of course no one knows what television will look like in five years, let alone for five minutes. It’s changing so quickly, and so I don’t know if I want to do a television project as I don’t know what that project would look like, and I don’t know where it would be. But for the time being, I’ve been really happy exploring new things.”
Just for Laughs
Touring the country with Just for Laughs and doing standup in “big, beautiful theaters” is one thing he’s looking forward to, he shared,
And he enjoys writing, so there could possibly be more of that, he teased.
Everyone remembers the famed Mercer Rants. He reflected on the pressure he put on himself to perfect those in one take so as to not inconvenience any crew member, sharing that some are still “etched into his memory” from the hours and hours of practice.
The book has many incredible pictures from his past, and we ask about the cover image.
“That was the poster for my first one man show. So it’s a Justin Hall photograph. Justin, of course, is a great Newfoundland photographer. So I went to the Salvation Army and got my first sports jacket and the sleeves were about four inches too long. And that photo was the poster for Show Me the Button: I’ll Push It – or Charles Lynch Must Die.”
A pivotal career moment at just 19 years of age, the photo makes perfect sense. We chat about the irony of him having had a career in television when television was considered “an idiot box” in his home growing up.
“I write about my parents and their bizarre attitude towards television, but I’m really having fun more than anything because it’s not like they were pathologically opposed to television. They, like so many people back then, thought it was a waste of time.”
There wasn’t going to be a television in the Mercer home until they could afford a piano, because both were quite expensive. “Of course, as a child who didn’t play piano, it seemed like the most ridiculous thing in the world to me then, right?” he said with a chuckle.
Inspired by Ray Guy
Did anyone inspire his style of satire? Ray Guy is mentioned, of course. While the heyday of Guy’s career was before Mercer’s time, he did read Guy’s collection of stories later in life, he shared.
“I was fortunate enough to know (Guy) a little bit, but not that much and I never worked with him. He was a very shy guy. When I would try to talk to him … at a Christmas party, he would kind of disappear into the chair. But he was always very gracious and I was a big fan of him as a playwright. He had such a sharp pen. Nothing lazy. And I’ve always hated anytime I get a whiff of lazy writing. There was nothing lazy about Ray Guy, that’s for sure.”
Speaking of not being lazy, Mercer’s brilliance during his Talking to Americans days is legendary. Mercer recently went back to look at some of the show’s transcripts, and even he was impressed, he offered.
“I couldn’t believe how funny the transcript was. And then I went back and started watching some of the episodes to write this book, and I just remember myself and Pete Sutherland, my cameraman/producer/director, just laughing with tears coming down our cheeks as we were doing it,” he recalled fondly.
It wasn’t work really, he shared. All he really had to do was come up with the questions to ask.
“All I had to do was come up with increasingly absurd scenarios about Canada. And I would always go in saying, ‘no one is ever going to believe that we were going to legalize insulin this week.’ That was our favorite one for some reason. When the guy said, ‘Congratulations, Canada for legalizing insulin,’ it still makes me laugh. People will believe anything I think,” he laughed.
As is discovered in Talking to Canadians, Talking to Americans happened by accident. Not giving anything away, however, just know the show’s origins is but another example of Mercer’s “luck.”
The Rick Mercer Report
Another example of Mercer’s gratitude on display is reflected on his show The Rick Mercer Report.
“There’s this attitude that emanates from big cities sometimes where they go to a place and the first thing they say is, ‘Oh, the airport is so small.’ Mm-Hmm. No, you’re just a small person. Just keep your mouth shut and listen and look around and maybe you might learn something about this place.”
That was his Mercer Report philosophy, he shared. “It was an open road for us because celebrating is not something that comes natural to comedians. Comedians generally are known for tearing down, and there’s a place for that, absolutely, but not our show. If we went to Lab City to do the Labrador Winter Games, we were covering it just like we covered the Olympics in Beijing.”
And Mercer always made sure his proud Newfoundland roots were on display. “Behind the news desk, the map of Canada that was over our shoulders, Newfoundland was about three times the size of Quebec. And it was also kind of in the center. It was the Newfoundland-centered world,” he said.
In fact, his entire career has been about celebrating home. “Everything I’ve done has been informed by the fact that I’m from Newfoundland. And certainly everything about 22 Minutes in the early days was informed by the fact that the people who created it came from Newfoundland. “
What’s next for Mercer? A cross-Canada comedy tour, and possibly more writing. He’ll enjoy his time home in the meantime, enjoying the East Coast Trail (he has a Park’s Canada jacket he sometimes wears to the delight of other hikers – locals and tourists) and his Plexiglass/wood-stove heated shed.
As for Christmas plans? It’s family time, he shared. “I’ll be in Middle Cove where my parents are and have a very low key Christmas with a great dinner and enjoy family and the usual hangers on and just feel really very lucky.”
For more, visit rickmercer.com or to get a copy of the book visit penguinrandomhouseca or pop in anywhere books are sold locally.