Rick Mercer Isn’t Done Talking to You

And he’s on the road again
BY KATIE UNDERWOOD PHOTOGRAPHY BY ERIN LEYDON
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April 16, 2024

When Rick Mercer, Canada’s favourite satirist son, retired from the rant game in 2018 after a blazing 15-season run of the Rick Mercer Report, he could have gone quietly. For a while, he got into amateur potato farming. But, every day in his shed overlooking the Atlantic, he was also writing, a new loquacious hobby that resulted in not one but two back-to-back instant bestsellers. There’s 2021’s Talking to Canadians, which charts Mercer’s course from his school days to getting CBC’s green light, and The Road Years, released last October, which chronicles everything after, including the drum lessons with Rush’s Neil Peart, the hilariously reckless adventures in dogsledding and bear-tagging, and loads of facetime with the country’s apex predators: politicians.

Mercer soon realized he still had many miles left in the tank. When his friend Jann Arden, another CanCon icon turned author, released a book of her own, the two teamed up for a series of live events—that later morphed into Will They or Won’t They, the duo’s unscripted country-wide comedy tour, which kicks off this spring. Luckily for Mercer, a lot’s happened since he went on rant hiatus; luckily for us, he’s still got a lot to say. About everything. 

The Road Years is your second book in two years. Obviously you didn’t go the Barbra Streisand route of one 970-page mega-memoir. What didn’t you capture the first time around?  

During the pandemic, everyone was told to work from home; in show business, that usually just means you’re unemployed. I was lucky I had a job to do: writing, which I realized I liked a lot. Talking to Canadians opens with my childhood and ends just before we launched the Report—basically when my editor said, “Okay, stop, you have a book now.” The Road Years isn’t so much a memoir as stories from travelling for 16 years. I could’ve written five books about that, but I wrote one. I didn’t go the Barbra route. Have sympathy for your reader! What if they want to bring your book in the tub?

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You’re on the road again this spring as part of your Will They or Won’t They tour with Jann Arden—a duo plucked straight from Canada’s Walk of Fame. How did you two become friends in the first place? 

Years ago, I needed someone to show me around Calgary for the Report and our first guest fell through. My backup was Jason Kenney, who I didn’t see eye-to-eye with on lots of things but who was a voice of authority on the city. Then he wasn’t available. I didn’t know much about Jann other than that I was a fan of her music—which is very sad—but from minute one, I was hooked. She became a regular on a show that didn’t really have those. When we both had books coming out, we leapt at the chance to hold events together. The audience had a good time, and so did we. As a result, we’re going on this tour.

So Talking to Canadians has become talking near Canadians? Do you have a set list or are you just going to wing it? 

It will be unscripted and unhinged. I was walking down the street the other day, and I was like, Did I dream it, or did Jann tell me she once worked on a shrimp boat to pay her bills in between busking gigs? I’ll have to ask her about that one night. I’ve missed the road. I’m good at the road. 

You’re known for your comedic monologues, but where does your ability to talk at length (and coherently) come from?

I’m flattered that you said “coherently.”

Most people can’t! 

I have few skills, and not shutting up is one of them. If I get on a plane and the seat next to me is empty, half the time I’m thinking, I hope someone sits there and I hope they’re chatty. I’ll run into a store to grab something, and when I come outside, my partner, Gerald—who hates being in stores—is like, “Who were you talking to?” and I’ll go, “This lovely lady, she came here from Prague when she was 17 years old! She didn’t know a single person!” 

It’s that East Coaster thing—the pathological friendliness. 

My father says it’s not so much that we’re friendly as we’re nosy. As soon as we find out who you are, where you’re going and what you’re doing, we’ll move on. 

On this tour, you get to sit in a chair, an improvement from your last gig, which had you chainsaw carving and wearing bee beards. You also dangled in harnesses a lot. 

I’ve put Jann in a lot of harnesses.

What’s your favourite “host-in-peril” story to tell people at parties? That time you skinny-dipped with Bob Rae? 

I enjoy bringing up the fact that I was tasered, only for that segment not to air. Bob Rae’s a favourite, but uncomfortable, awkward—not so much dangerous.

Let’s dive into politics, actually. Back when you did Rick’s Rants, you tackled all kinds of subjects: minimum wage, Nestle water and online comments, where all the best rants are born. Is there one subject that would bring you out of rant retirement? 

One thing I never discussed publicly was public broadcasting, mainly because I was on the public broadcaster. (There was a perception that I was a CBC employee, even though the Report was an independent production.) I want to defend the CBC with every iota of my being, but it’s very removed from the broadcaster I fell in love with. There are all these discussions about bonuses and top-ups. There have got to be competent people out there who think it would be an incredible honour to be in charge of the CBC. If I was, the last thing I’d think about is a bonus. 

What are you privately ranting about now?

Oh, a number of things that I would never admit to you while being recorded. I think a lot of people are worried to say the wrong thing—even an innocuous opinion—and experience terrible consequences. More and more, I find myself sitting around with small groups of people, leaning in almost conspiratorially, even though I’m in the safety of someone’s kitchen, saying, “I would never say this out loud, but...” That phrase didn’t really exist 15 years ago, especially among friends sitting around a table.

Are we talking about cancel culture here?

No. I just mean I’m glad to be out of the opinion business. I sensed a change during the last few years of doing my show. There were always people who thought one of my takes was dumb, but we never considered turning off or deleting the comments on our YouTube or Facebook pages. Toward the end, that was someone’s full-time job. Often, the comments had nothing to do with me but rather some vulnerable group or person. It was truly vitriolic.  

Yes, rants have certainly lost their levity. A totally harmless topic can turn racist fast. I can tell you that from my own adventures in reading the comments. 

You can start a thread on Facebook that says, “Okay, folks: blueberry pie or raspberry pie?” Very quickly, it’s a swamp. Just in the last couple of days, I noticed there are all these people on X analyzing Justin Trudeau’s face because they think he’s been cloned. And then you click on their profile, and they’re, like, a person who pays taxes and has a job!

Funny, because I was going to ask whether you had an opinion on Pierre Poilievre’s cool-guy makeover. The glasses are off!

Oh, they all do that. Preston Manning had laser eye surgery and took elocution lessons to lower his voice—and nobody was ever as uncomfortable as Preston Manning was about that. I think Poilievre enjoys it, though. I used to have a joke that went: I feel about sunsets the way Justin Trudeau feels about mirrors; I could stare at them all day. If there was a very close second to him, it would be Pierre Poilievre.

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You specialized in satire, but is there a point at which you just won’t poke fun?

Everyone in comedy will say there’s nothing that’s off-bounds. But our show’s motto was, “We don’t shit on Thunder Bay.” If we’re going to Thunder Bay, we’re going because it’s the greatest place with the greatest people, and we’re going to find out why they think we should all move there. It’s that old adage: don’t kick down. I never had any interest in that kind of comedy. 

Your bits seemed to contain at least some constructive criticism.  

I like to think they were constructive most of the time. I won’t say I never accidentally slipped, but I can’t believe the amount of name-calling that happens in politics now. 

This from a guy who was once known as “the unofficial Opposition.”

Seven or eight years ago, there was no point where a leader of the Opposition would publicly call the prime minister a “self-righteous narcissist.” I can’t imagine saying that to a co-worker! We just went through a period where we lost Brian Mulroney and Ed Broadbent, and Jean Chrétien had his 90th birthday. Those politicians used to speak fondly across party lines. Donald Trump changed everything. Thirty years down the line, when this current bunch is being buried, I don’t know that any of them will be saying anything nice about each other. They’re heading to an area you can’t walk back from. 

So there was a collegial fondness between old-school politicians—did you ever become close with any of them?

Once, when I was in Ottawa, Ross Reid, who was then the executive assistant for Newfoundland politician John Crosbie, invited me to have a plate of spaghetti and a couple of glasses of wine. I thought, He’s a really nice guy! Shortly after that, Crosbie resigned and Reid became a senior member of Parliament, and I thought, This is a bit of a problem. A little bit too close. I was always friendly, but never became friends with anyone—the exception being Belinda Stronach. We founded a charity together. That was unexpected. 

Something that sunk in for a lot of Canadians around 2016 was just how not-abstract national politics are. (Hypothetically, if I’m trans and my dad likes Trump, well...). How do you maintain personal relationships with people who are politically hostile to you? 

If it’s a hostile relationship, then, yeah, I have no interest. Certainly, there are views I find abhorrent, and I don’t really want to sit around and talk to the people who hold them about why I’m wrong and they’re right. There was a time in my life when I loved having big debates with people; I don’t do that so much anymore. But you also don’t want to be surrounded by like-minded people all the time. 

So how do you, a professional speedy-rapport builder, bridge the gap with people whose views differ wildly from yours? 

I have friends who are the most ridiculous, die-hard socialists, and I have friends who think the federal government should be dismantled except for the Department of National Defence. It’s a wide spectrum. I’m happy to talk with them. 

I guess what I’m saying is I wouldn’t want to be surrounded by people who don’t like “my way of living,” either, though.

You know, if you grow up as a gay man, you get used to that. I’m not saying it’s right, but there are always going to be people who don’t like the way you’re living. It doesn’t keep me awake at night.

You once said that almost all of Canada’s problems can be attributed to the fact that it’s so damn difficult to get from one end of the country to the other. Do you think that’s still the biggest point of contention?

That’s one of the big problems, for sure. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a call because someone wanted a comment about an election in Alberta or Nova Scotia. I think, Why the hell would I comment on that? I don’t live in either of those places! If you want to know what’s going on in Canada, talk to Alan Doyle from Great Big Sea. He tours 12 months of the year. Road performers may have more insight than a member of Parliament. 

When was the last time you had a moment of I love living here?

I once shot a segment at the Covered Bridge potato chip factory in New Brunswick. (Wonderful people, great chips, still eat them.) I happened to be on X late at night when their factory burnt down. This wasn’t Toronto or the manufacturing belt—and the outpouring! People were truly upset about the job losses. That’s a Canadian trait. If there’s some kind of disaster somewhere, people thousands of kilometres away want to help out. Someone eventually has to say, “Stop sending snowsuits!”

Has what you loved about Canada changed since you retired from touring with the Report—if not touring altogether? 

No. My love of country is kind of like the faults-and-all love people have for their children. It doesn’t mean they can’t be jerks! I understand Canada doesn’t deliver on its promises to everyone, but I still believe we won the lotto. Maybe I shouldn’t say this out loud, but... I think it’s one of the best countries in the world. How dare I?