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feature - issue 329

 


SHOW NO MERCER
Many don’t know that Canada’s top political satirist is gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Dressed in blue jeans and a crisp navy blazer, Rick Mercer is friendly but guarded He clearly prefers asking the questions. As The Rick Mercer Report returns on CBC Tue. Oct. 2 and a hardcover collection of its best bits (cleverly titled Rick Mercer Report: The Book) in stores next week, the political satirist curls into an office chair for an interview.

Your book gave me a warm patriotic glow.

That’s good. That’s a nice side effect.

See, I’ve always been guilty of paying more attention to US politics—it’s like a car-wreck you can’t look away from—but now I see that Canada has our own pack of loons, equally ridiculous.

I follow American politics in my own life and I can basically cover whatever I want on the show but, for me, the show is unapologetically Canadian. It’s about Canadians for Canadians. If something happens in pop culture, for instance, other Canadian comics will jump on it, like if Britney shaves her head. Her head could pop off, for all I care, I’m not covering it on my show. The same goes for US politics—I’ll do a little but my beat is very much Canada and that’s the way I like it.

With all the politicians you make fun of, do you have a favourite target?

There’s some that you just can’t go after every week because they don’t have the profile…but there’s people like Jason Kenney, who’s the gift that keeps on giving. He doesn’t open his mouth often but when he does, it’s completely absurd and ridiculous. A Conservative government is not bad for me. What’s good for me and what’s good for the country are two completely different things [laughs]. It’s a little trickier with the centralized message coming from the Prime Minister’s Office. I know there’s an entire caucus out there with completely crazy ideas but they’re not allowed to say hello to the media, let alone let their personal views be known on any issue.

You don’t hear a lot of “gays go to the back of the shop” comments anymore.

Not so much, but those people are still there.

What about the other side—are there people you find it hard to pick on because you like or respect them?

Belinda Stronach is a friend of mine; that’s a perfect example. We went to Africa and became friends and so the fact that she’s no longer in politics is not necessarily a bad thing for me personally. She’s such a lightning rod for controversy…it gets tricky when I’m a friend of hers. But I generally avoid becoming friends with politicians, for that reason, and it’s easy to become friends with politicians because most of them are pretty personable and nice people—otherwise, they wouldn’t get to where they are. Even the ones whose politics you can’t stand, it’s easy to become friendly with them. I went to Afghanistan with [Tory environment minister] John Baird, who drives me nuts as a politician, but after a week with him, Stockholm syndrome starts to kick in [laughs].

One of our former columnists got accused of outing him in fab, even though everyone knows. Where do you think that line falls?

Well, I wouldn’t talk about someone’s personal life that way but then that doesn’t just extend to their sexuality, it extends pretty well to everyone. When Stephen Harper was first elected, one of the first things he did was a photo op dropping his kids off to school and he got criticized for it…but I decided not to put that footage on the show. I didn’t want to put his kids on the show because it’s bad enough that Stephen Harper’s their father, I’m not going to make fun of them. I’ll talk about Stephen Harper till the cows come home, but I’m not going to talk about his personal life.

But see, you look at the US, where the Senator from Idaho is arrested for trolling for sex in a toilet stall. That never happens in Canada. Doesn’t that disappoint you?

No [laughs]. It doesn’t disappoint me.

Stephen Colbert got about two weeks out of that.

Of course he did.

As it happens, we’re talking on September 11th. Just after the attacks in New York six years ago, you had been nominated for a Gemini Award for your special making fun of Americans, which you then asked to have revoked. Do you still feel that way? Would you do it now?

Oh sure. It’s aired tons of times since then, you know, and I still like it. But comedy’s all about timing and it was an inappropriate time. The show would’ve aired very soon after September 11th and there was still time to pull it so we said, “Let’s just not go there right now.” The time wasn’t right.

The other thing in the paper today is the upcoming Ontario election, and how the public is looking at Dalton McGuinty, Howard Hampton and John Tory and just not caring.

Well, it’s not a very dynamic cast…That would never work in Newfoundland. None of those people would become premier down there. Politicians are expected to be funny, for starters, and a bit more dynamic than these characters. But I think it’s going to heat up.

You think so? I was stunned last week when John Tory said he’d want schools to teach creationism. Do you think he just ended his campaign right there?

Did he douse himself in gasoline and set himself on fire? I would think it’s conventional wisdom in politics that no matter what your position is on an issue like that, you would never say the word “creationism” out loud. There’s certain words you don’t say because they immediately evoke all those debates we watch happening in the United States and we’re completely baffled.

Like the Republican debate where three of the presidential candidates said they don’t believe in evolution.

Yeah, they think it’s junk science. But there’s a number of cabinet ministers in Stephen Harper’s government who think the exact same thing, they just don’t talk about it.

Well, we do have that creation museum in Alberta.

I don’t think that’s a publicly funded museum, though, I think it’s just some guy’s living room. I think it’s a bungalow [laughs].

So when John Tory throws that out there, how do you react first? As a citizen or as a comedian?

I react as a citizen, mainly because I’m going to vote in this election and because my show’s not on right now. Mostly, it’s a personal reaction. But I don’t cover Ontario politics that much. Coming from Newfoundland, it just doesn’t excite me the same way and, not having lived here a long time, I don’t feel it’s in my bones the way federal politics is. But I certainly pay attention.

Activist Larry Kramer has said that this stuff goes on in the States because gay people don’t get angry enough and fight back. Yet in Canada, we seem to have come a lot farther and I see very little anger. What do you think?

I remember reading…the gay community was so activated and so polarized by the AIDS crisis and then later someone asked, “What’s next? Is gay activism over? Is marriage the next frontier?” and yes, marriage is the next frontier but people aren’t going to be as angry about gay marriage as they are about an issue like AIDS and getting treatments. But things have moved along tickety-boo in Canada: we have things like Egale [Canada]—very civilized, never turned over any cars—and we just moved forward. Thanks to the Charter, I guess, but I don’t know what’s next.

When The Globe and Mail first discussed your own homosexuality a couple years ago, people said that you were angry about being outed.

No, I never looked at it like that. I decided a long time ago, very early in my career, that I was never going to deny being gay or intentionally avoid the subject, but Canadians are so bloody polite, no one ever brought it up. I don’t think there was ever a journalist that didn’t know and it’s a small world in Canada. The Globe finally asked me and I talked about it.

See, I don’t get that. As a journalist, I feel it’s my job to ask annoying, intrusive questions, just as you say, “Back off, Sparky,” and we meet somewhere in the middle [laughs].

Well, people were always polite. Maybe I always had something else to talk about.

Until now, here with the big gay magazine.

Yeah, exactly…There was never any point where I felt like I was outed, but it’s never been something that I’ve talked about too much. I guess it’s just because it’s my own private life and when you’ve been on TV as long as I have, there’s very little of your life that’s private, so you like to keep it private. It’s no different than being out there, trying to promote the show, and someone will say, “Well, we can’t do a story on your show but the style section wants to do a section on people’s backyards.” No one’s coming in my backyard! Or ‘what kind of car do you drive?’ I don’t like those kind of interviews.

Well, allow the press in too far and you end up like Britney Spears—oh look, there’s my vagina.

In a weird kind of way, yeah. But also, as a political commentator, it’s necessary because people will then make assumptions based on what they know about you. It’s like same-sex marriage—I did a lot of material on same-sex marriage; I covered it a lot. I don’t think anyone was surprised that I was in favour of same-sex marriage and that I was like a dog with a bone on that issue, but I think that’s really the only incidence I can think of where my personal life gave me an invested interest in the issue.

I wondered how that factors into the show—discussing gay material without flag-waving or just avoiding it altogether.

Again, I didn’t worry it about too much. I certainly didn’t hide my opinion on same-sex marriage. It’s the only issue in my life that I lobbied MPs on. I never had before, on any issue, but I lobbied a number of them on that. Unsuccessfully, I might add [laughs]. I targeted four Conservative MPs that I knew actually supported same-sex marriage and I made it my personal mission to change their votes.

But they wouldn’t break party ranks.

Not a one, no.

Travelling the country like you do, what have people said to you about gay marriage? I’ve always felt that most people just don’t care one way or the other, really.

Oh, same-sex marriage is not an issue. It’s only because Stephen Harper saw it as a great wedge issue and I don’t think he personally cares one way or the other, either. I don’t know but I’m guessing. I’m surprised he even knew there WAS such a thing as same-sex marriage. He’s an economist. That’s all he cares about. He thought it would drive conservative new Canadians, like Sikh-Canadians, into the arms of the Conservative Party, away from Liberals. That’s the dangerous thing about wedge politics. It’s a calculated decision to alienate one group of people and make them feel bad in order to win some votes from others.

Personally, I don’t care what he thinks about me—I’m a grown man with my own life on the go—but there’s no doubt that the entire debate has a devastating effect on lots of 15-and-16-year-olds. It’s incumbent on all of us to call him on that shit. Unlike you. You probably don’t care what he thinks.

Yeah, but I have the luxury of being in Toronto.

Absolutely.

I look at Alberta—I remember seeing a news magazine called Alberta Report that was stunningly homophobic.

I make a joke in the book that people in Alberta think about gay sex more than gay people do. They seem to be obsessed with the fact that gay people are having sex and getting married and living together.

To me, it’s like the Republicans in the bathroom thing. When they have such serious issues with it, I start getting suspicious.

I can’t imagine getting that bent out of shape about most things, you know?

Really? Aside from same-sex marriage, isn’t there some other issue that you get upset about?

Oh, are you kidding? I get angry all the time! That’s my happy place. Anger is my cardio [laughs].

And how does that translate into the show?

Lots of comedy comes from an angry place. I can get worked up about lots of things.

What lately?

Lately I’ve had a very peaceful summer. I’m looking forward to getting back to work and getting worked up again. Hopefully for me, there’ll be a federal election.

Oy. You made a joke about having a box of baking soda in the fridge older than our last two governments. I think we’re all like, “What? An election again?”

Yeah—except for me.  I’d have one every fall [laughs]! Right around when the show starts.

I suppose your old gang at This Hour Has 22 Minutes feels that way, too. Any competition there?

No, they’re all friends of mine…On the surface, people think our shows are very similar, the way they think my show is similar to The Daily Show, but they’re all different. I mean, I was one of the creators of 22 Minutes so it was a show that played to my strengths and there are similarities, I guess.

And what about all the stories about the “longstanding feud” between you and Mary Walsh?

Those rumours probably came around because we spent the first three years at 22 Minutes screaming at each other.

That would do it.

Those were crazy, heady, creative days. But I would say we screamed at each other in a good way.

Screaming with love.

That’s just the type of people we are. But there’s no feud with Mary. She came on my show when she had her new series and later we went to Afghanistan together.

How surreal is that—to be riding with Mary Walsh and soldiers in a military plane over Afghanistan?

It was pretty surreal, yes.

You’ve been very vocal about your support for our troops over there but it always seems to me that they’re always being used as a political football during debates about the war.

Harper started doing this in the last sitting of the House of Commons—anyone who asked a question about Afghanistan was accused of caring more about the Taliban than about Canadian troops. That’s just despicable; that’s about as un-parliamentary as you can get. And it’s ridiculous…I’ve never met anyone who’s said they don’t support Canadian troops. You don’t have to be very smart to realize that we ask our Canadian forces to go to places like Bosnia or Afghanistan or Darfur and do incredibly dangerous work at huge personal sacrifice and then have the gall to not support them in that. I’ve never met anyone like that.

But you did give Jack Layton the nickname “Taliban Jack.”

Well, because…yeah, I did [laughs]. But that’s after he wanted to have a peace conference with the Taliban! That’s completely absurd. It’s like, you don’t have a peace conference with the Hell’s Angels.

Well, what if the women just wear a half-burkha?

It’s completely absurd.

Aside from making fun of politicians, though, you also get them to open up in weird ways. I think of [Green Party leader] Elizabeth May cutting down a tree or you skinny-dipping with Bob Rae. What was that?

Well, that just made sense.

[laughs] How does that make sense?

It was the end of the day. It was fall, but an unseasonably warm day. We’d been fishing for four or five hours in the boat and it just seemed like it was time for a dip. It’s exactly what anyone would do in that situation, except that we just happened to have a TV camera there.

And it was your idea? It looked like Rae’s suggestion on TV, but…

Yeah, yeah, it came up. In the boat. It was discussed. But it wasn’t a hard sell.

Bob Rae has never struck me as being particularly wacky.

No.

How much negotiating goes into those kind of sketches?

Well, there’s a bit of negotiating. I guess I’m pretty persuasive and I think that the astute politicians actually trust me to a certain extent. I’m not going to…by and large, I don’t think anyone has regretted going on my show.

No one?

I don’t think. I’ve been in this racket a long time. Elizabeth May trusted me. Certainly, there were people around her going, “You’re going to do what? You can’t.” But I was there saying, “No no no, you cut this tree down. This is going to be good for you. Cut that sucker down!” And she went along with the program.

Just like in the Prime Minister’s office—there were people who were VERY nervous about allowing me in the Prime Minister’s office and 24 Sussex Drive and ultimately, you just have to say, “No no, trust me—it’ll be okay!” [laughs]

That’s the first thing I’ve heard that makes me sympathize with Stephen Harper’s people.

Yeah, maybe.

But here’s a Barbara Walters question for you: if you had Rick Mercer on your show, what would your own “cutting down the tree” moment be?

Gee whiz, I don’t know. I mean, interviewers often make terrible interview subjects. I don’t know. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine getting naked and jumping in the lake on someone ELSE’S show. I’ve never been asked.

But quite often, these things are IN their comfort zone. I often look to see if there’s something about a politician, something in their life that would be interesting to see. If they’re an expert in rappelling down a wall, I’ll say, “Shag it—I’ll rappel down a wall with you and you can show me how.” But quite often, politicians have no life and no interests outside of politics [laughs]. They start lying and saying, “Uhhh…I enjoy walks…with my wife…” Then we have to come up with something else.

But you seem pretty game—I saw a commercial for the show where you’re playing lacrosse and it looked brutal.

Oh yeah! And I went into a demolition derby—I felt that for weeks afterward! And you know, I’ve jumped out of a plane and…

Where does this daredevil streak come from?

I don’t know. I’ve never had one. We call it “host in peril.” People like to see me in peril.

It’s funny that you say interviewers make bad interviewees. Every piece I’ve read on you mentions your desire for privacy. Do you worry that people will say you can dish it out but you can’t take it?

No, I don’t think so. I mean…you can never control what people will say about you. I don’t really worry about it. But I’m also good with it—I know I’m fair game like anyone else.

22 Minutes made fun of you for making a lot of money.

Again, not something I would talk about but what are you going to do?

I guess a big part of your private life is Gerald—he’s been described as your “partner in life and business.”

Right. I don’t know where that was.

The Globe, I think. It’s a cute phrase but it makes me wonder, which came first?

I guess it was like…we were certainly…now, we produce shows together so we’re business partners more than when we were in the theatre, for example—the theatre’s a very small business—but we’ve certainly worked together a long time—17, 18 years.

But when you met, it was a romantic thing.

Yeah, we were…we were…yeah.  That came first.

Okay, I’ve got one last little trick for you…we’re going to play a bit of word association.

Oh, fuck off.

I know.

I hate word association. I’m probably not going to do this but go on.

But you’re quick!

No, I hate word association. See, I always edit myself playing word association which is why it often doesn’t work in interviews.

Well, it wouldn’t work on you but…

I’ve tried it before in interviews too and the person is so busy editing themselves because what they think of they can’t actually say [laughs].

Jack Layton.

He should run for mayor.

Ah, and there’s David Miller.

I don’t know what to say about David Miller. I’m ambivalent.

Céline Dion.

See? I have no opinion on Céline Dion. I really don’t.

That’s probably healthy.

I don’t listen to her but that’s not because I’m classist or a snob or anything. She’s just not my cup of tea. Now, I listen to Shania…

Well, there you go. Who do you listen to? You seem like a rock fan.

Yeah, in high school, I was one of those punk rocker types. I liked the Clash and Hüsker Dü, bands like that. Irish punk bands like Stiff Little Fingers—that’s what my older brother listened to and what I grew up with. Big Ramones fan. All that stuff is still in my iPod, but I listen to everything. Right now, my favourite Toronto indie band is the Hidden Cameras.

Yeah, we did a piece on Joel Gibb last fall.

He’s a genius, absolutely. He knows a hook.

Kyle Rae.

Kyle Rae…I don’t know much about Kyle Rae, actually. He seems to be out there fighting the good fight, God love him, but I don’t know much about him. I don’t follow municipal politics as much as I should.

John Baird.

Too angry. Every time I bump into him, I tell him, “I’m not talking to you unless you use your indoor voice.” He’s like, “WHAAAT?” and I say, “No no, indoor voice.” He’s another gift that keeps on giving.

As the conversation drifts into CBC ratings and the Tim Horton’s breakfast sandwich, a publicist pops in to whisk Mercer away. He graciously poses for a personal photo and glances at the recent fab issue on the desk. “I’m not pretty enough to be on the cover!” he grumbles, then says, “Ah, I don’t want to wax my chest anyway.” He repeats the release date of The Book (Tue. Sept. 25) and the debut of season five (Tue. Oct. 2) before he strides off down the hall. Elections are on and he’s got to get to work.

 



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