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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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 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].
He should run for mayor.
Ah, and there’s David Miller.
I don’t know what to say about David Miller. I’m
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…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.
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.