Talking to Canadians by Rick Mercer

Rick Mercer

Rick Mercer was cited by the late Peter Gzowski as “Newfoundland’s fastest-rising comedian” when his first solo show “Show Me the Button: I’ll Push It – or Charles Lynch Must Die” played to sold out crowds at an annex of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. Then he joined the cast of a CBC satirical news show called “This Hour Has 22 Minutes”, where he freely ranted, talked to Americans and button hooked major political leaders and figures for rather offbeat interviews. Then he left that show to star in his own self-titled weekly satirical news show that ran for 15 years on CBC Television. 

From the burgeoning Newfoundland comedy scene within the streets of downtown St. John’s to becoming a national comedy icon, Rick Mercer has developed an award-winning career in comedy by taking the unconventional path within the framework of the conventional, and mostly working from the seat of his pants to create some of the most memorable moments in the history of Canadian comedy. And for his fifth book, Mercer looks back and reflects on his 30 years of making Canadians laugh with his memoir Talking To Canadians.

Talking to Canadians by Rick Mercer 

A native of Middle Cove, Newfoundland and Labrador, Mercer grew up with not the most successful of school records (his report cards were peppered liberally with such comments as “more effort needed” or “capable of better work”). He was a child of television, watching healthy doses of such locally produced comedy shows on CBC as “The Wonderful Grand Band” and “CODCO”, and the solo shows that were written, produced and starred legendary Newfoundland comic Andy Jones, which played across the province.

One thing that he benefitted from his school days was being part of the high school’s drama club, where he produced biting comedy revues such as “The Twenty Minute Psychiatric Workout”, which ended up as competitor in a provincial drama festival.  From there, Mercer helped to establish a theatre company called Corey and Wade’s Playhouse (oddly named after two St. John’s hash dealers) and from their base at the LSPU Hall, a popular arts venue that was originally a longshoreman’s union hall, and the support of a community outreach program called the MUN Extension, the troupe and their original comedy shows developed a cult following throughout St. John’s

Talking to Canadians by Rick Mercer 

And that’s where the Charles Lynch solo show comes into the picture. And Mercer’s success is not only due to his fearless seat-of-his-pants approach and ability to deliver razor-sharp humourous commentary on politics and the issues of the day, but also to one person who helped shape and refine Mercer’s comic persona: Gerald Lunz, who became his artistic and later life partner. If it wasn’t for Lunz’s PR savvy, and his constant encouragement to go for the throat without fear or favour, Mercer’s talent would never have left the distant shores of Newfoundland and Labrador. And the book gives Lunz his due for what he has accomplished in giving this regional type of comedy a nationwide audience.

Talking To Canadians works for two reasons. First, Mercer’s modest, “what-am-I-doing here?” tone towards his rise as a national icon, as he attributed it more to luck and kismet than to shear gumption, hard work and determination. As well, like any decent memoir, Mercer entertains his readers with plenty of interesting backstage stories to the evolution of a successful show business career, which never runs out nor ever gets tiresome.

There’s Charles Lynch’s ambush-style endorsement of Mercer’s first solo show that helped to make it an instant sensation. And when he found out Lynch was diagnosed with cancer, the veteran newspaper political columnist admonished Mercer when he found out that Mercer considered removing the show’s subtitle on all posters and ads prior to a run in Vancouver. “I won’t die until you’re finished,” said Lynch. “But don’t you dare take my name off that damned poster.”

Then there’s the pre-broadcast mish-mash before “22 Minutes” made its debut on CBC in 1993. Somehow, the developing show attracted all sorts of friends of the four hosts (Mercer, Mary Walsh, Cathy Jones and Greg Thomey), and friends of the friends, not to mention all types of hangers-on and individuals who just wanted to hitch their trailer onto this new show. And the original concept was going to be a mix of “That Was The Week That Was”, “This Hour Has Seven Days” and “Saturday Night Live”, with the added bonus of well-known Canadian musicians to be booked as musical guests, until cooler, rational minds (and Gerald Lunz) took over and molded “22 Minutes” into the format that still runs on CBC to this day.

And then there’s the story of one of Mercer’s most memorable interviews that he did for “22 Minutes”, which took place in the form of a “power lunch” at a Harvey’s restaurant in Ottawa with then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien, which fell on the day his government’s budget was to be presented by Finance Minister Paul Martin. The reason for the choice of Harvey’s to stage the interview? Mercer found out that the Canadian hamburger fast food chain was a favorite of Chretien’s, and his late wife Aline didn’t allow him to eat its burgers and fries over her concerns for his cholesterol rate. 

Readers take note that although the narrative of the book covers Mercer’s formative years and his tenure with “22 Minutes”, it ends off when the concept of “The Rick Mercer Report” is developed and is about to embark upon its 15-year run on CBC. But fans of Mercer shouldn’t feel cheated or disappointed that he only paid lip service to the “Report” in this book; you can read the full story about this show in his previous book Final Report.

Talking To Canadians is a book that details the evolution of Rick Mercer as a national treasure, who through a well-informed mind, a sense of boundless energy, a fearless attitude of diving into everything head first, and a sharp, rapier wit, has continued the proud tradition of Canadian comedy. If there is one thing that you can take away about Rick Mercer after reading his book, it’s that he is definitely not afraid to speak his mind and shoot down the absurdities of everything in Canada and the world, while proudly draped in the Canadian and Newfoundland-Labrador flags.

Stuart Nulman
By: Stuart Nulman – info@mtltimes.ca

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