We have a prime minister who can seemingly do no wrong. We have our southern neighbours engaged in an election campaign that feels like bad satire. We have a country of people with a story to tell. And we have CBC’s Rick Mercer Report, returning Tuesday, October 4, for its 14th season.
I spoke with the host himself when he was in Vancouver in June for CBC’s cross-country fall season tour, which happened to be the week after the Orlando nightclub shooting, among other violent events, and amid the U.S. primary campaigns.
Do you ever itch to be on TV when the world is going crazy?
Rick Mercer: Sometimes I itch to be on TV when I think there’d be something to talk about or explore. But then also I also itch to be on TV when we could be shooting outdoors in this beautiful weather. Not that I complain about winter, but our show is a fall and winter show. I have more long johns and winter coats than any man my age should really have who’s not, like, an Inuit hunter.
I love the adventures, I really do, and some of them are spectacular. More often than not I consider myself incredibly lucky to get to do it. But, occasionally, I think it would be nice to fall in the water and it’s nice, and they don’t measure how long you can be in the water in terms of survival rate.
When the news is this depressing, is there room to satirize it?
Satirists choose what they talk about. That’s the difference between a satirist and someone like Peter Mansbridge or David Common. David Common found himself in Orlando doing a piece for Marketplace. He drove by the nightclub an hour before the shooting took place. The minute the shooting started he was there reporting live for CBC. He doesn’t get to choose what he’s going to cover because he’s covering the news.
I don’t think satirists were clamouring over themselves the next day to say something pithy about that. I’m not saying it’s a subject that can’t be talked about or won’t be talked about, but everything has its time and place.
You’re an equal opportunity satirist—what does Justin Trudeau offer to you that Stephen Harper didn’t?
It’s early days with Justin Trudeau’s government. I haven’t really been on the air while he’s been on and I think he’s got it very easy, quite frankly. He’s got his sunny ways going on and that’s all fine and dandy. He’s a popular prime minister, and there’s a honeymoon period that all newly elected prime ministers and presidents get. But then what he has is something particularly unique in that he has no opposition. I mean he has literally zero opposition. I don’t know that that’s ever happened in Canadian politics before.
Jean Chretien used to march along like a peacock, like he was brilliant. The opposition, the Conservatives and the Alliance, were split, they were in disarray, but they existed. Whereas Justin Trudeau has no opposition. I mean you’ve got Tom Mulcair, who is perhaps the most effective opposition leader in Canadian history, and he is being neutered. I mean he’s essentially being brought to the vet and neutered by his own party. They fired him. So he is now the definition of a lame duck leader. And you have Rona Ambrose, and whether or not she is effective or not effective in the House of Commons is entirely irrelevant because she is not a real leader, she’s an interim leader. So Justin Trudeau can stand on his head and do fine. As we saw with Elbowgate. He can basically run around and move people about. He has no opposition. So everything will change once those parties get their act together.
Justin Trudeau can stand on his head and do fine. As we saw with Elbowgate. He can basically run around and move people about. He has no opposition.
You focus primarily on Canadian politics but what do you think of what’s happening in the U.S. right now?
I only focus on Canadian politics, but what is happening in the United States strikes me as something a bad satirist would have written five or six years ago. “And then Donald Trump becomes president …”. People sometimes trade in that kind of satire but I would always think, ‘Oh that’s too easy, and that’s never going to happen because at the end of the day American people are rational and they would never allow that to happen.’ So clearly I’m wrong. There’s a very good chance Donald Trump will become president of the United States and anyone who says otherwise I think doesn’t really understand what’s happening in America.
Who would you want to see prevail in the U.S.? Are you watching with interest?
Oh, of course I’m watching with interest. You know if you said that about Canada I’d never say who I was voting for but in the United States, given the choice of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton…
It’s not much of a question.
Well, this is the problem. Everyone in the media would say that uniformly: ‘It’s not much of a question.’ The reality is probably 50 per cent of Americans think it is a big question and a lot of them are voting for Donald Trump. Now I personally would plug my nose and vote for Hillary Clinton, and proudly. But I’d rather see Porky Pig be president of the United States than Trump. But it’s very dangerous, there’s lot of us, especially in the media, walking around thinking it’s just a joke and could never happen but it could happen in a heartbeat.
I’ve gone through my life, other than the war in Afghanistan, generally I’ve lived in peace time. I’ve only ever seen elections in the United States that have come and gone and cars have not been turned over, cities have not erupted in flames. I barely remember a few riots. So we get lulled into believing none of those things could happen. ‘Oh they happen—I learned about it in history—but it could never happen again.’ Well, it could happen again.
I think 9/11 was that moment for a lot of us who thought that kind of thing could never happen in North America, and then it did.
Although one of the proudest things, one of the things I thought was so amazing, after 9/11, there were not … I mean, there were isolated incidents of minority groups being targeted here and there but there was no widespread incidence of minorities being targeted. There were no public figures with any real reputation preaching hate on the Sunday morning talk shows. America, in fact, reacted with dignity. Never mind the war in Iraq, that came later. Never mind they invaded the wrong country, but that wasn’t the people on the street. Since 9/11 things have changed. People are much, much, much angrier. I don’t want to equate that 9/11 was the reason for that anger but people are very, very angry.
We saw this with Rob Ford in Toronto. I’m not equating Rob Ford with Donald Trump, but a lot of people voted for Rob Ford because they were really angry and they saw in him whatever they wanted to see, whatever the solution was. That’s when it gets dangerous, when there’s a lot of anger out there.
There are a lot of people saying that they speak for them, that they speak the truth, and it’s frightening to think that’s what people perceive as being the truth.
You know, Donald Trump has said a bunch of inflammatory things but he hasn’t actually said that much. So when people has a problem and say ‘he speaks for me,’ he hasn’t said much on a whole host of issues. He speaks for me on health care—well, what’s he saying?
I’m not surprised, I mean I lived in a riding in Toronto that was Jack Layton’s riding. People in that riding had a bit of money and they’re champagne socialists. They vote NDP. And Rob Ford did very well in our riding. He didn’t win it but he did very well. A lot of angry people.
The show makes us feel good to be Canadian and shows us things about our country we wouldn’t normally see. What’ve been the most interesting segments for you?
It’s hard to put a finger on it. We do so many different types of things. Spending time in a beautiful part of British Columbia with Rick Hansen, who happens to be a personal hero of mine, meeting the guy on camera for the first time and then getting to go bungee jumping with him, a fantastic adventure. That was right up there as a great day in my life. But that was very much me spending time with a quote-unquote ‘great Canadian,’ one that’s known all around the world.
My favourite segments are, like, bumping into a lobster fisherman or an oyster fisherman, or spending time with a guy who’s 84 years old and races ice sailboats. That’s why I no longer worry about running out of material. I used to worry about that a lot in the first years of the show. I saw it as a fundamental problem—the business model is flawed. We will run out of things to do. There’s only one Snowbirds. Once I do the Snowbirds what do you do next? Then I realized I was completely wrong because the business model is such that I find interesting Canadians who have something to say and it turns out there’s what, 40 million people, and I think I could get a story out of 20 million of them. So I’m good to go. I no longer worry about running out of stories.
So you’re not going to pull the plug on the show anytime soon?
Oh, that’s quite possible. TV ends when you get fired, cancelled, or very rare circumstances individuals decide to pull the plug themselves. I voluntarily decided I was no longer going to do This Hour Has 22 Minutes, I voluntarily decided it was time to stop doing Talking to Americans and I could easily do that again. But I don’t know when that will happen.
Do you think about what’s next for you?
Yeah, I do and I think the thing I feel most lucky about is that I am probably in a position to try whatever I want to do and the only thing I need is time, which I don’t have now because I have this TV thing and the stage business [Mercer travels the country with a one-man show in the off-season]. Eventually, sometime, it’s inevitable, I’ll have lots of free time and then I’ll be able to do whatever I want to do. So it’s not that money is going to allow me the luxury of doing whatever I want to do, it’s the time to decide ‘Oh, I’m going to try to write a bad novel, or I’m going to write a play.’ That’s what I spent my time doing in my teens and early twenties, and maybe I’ll do that again.
I’ve always been obsessed with politics. I’ve had two passions in my life, television and politics, and I’ve been really lucky that I could merge the two.
Would you ever run for office?
I’ve always been obsessed with politics. I’ve had two passions in my life, television and politics, and I’ve been really lucky that I could merge the two. Anyone who’s an armchair critic or passionate about any subject matter you always wonder what it would be like to be in there. Just like a baseball fan thinks well, if they ask me to be the general manager of the Blue Jays I guess I’d do it. One of these days they’re going to read my sports blog and they’re going to come to me. So it’s always been in the back of my mind, but I will say the last number of years. I was less intrigued by the notion of being in politics than I ever was in my life. That may be a combination of me finding the climate less hospitable or maybe it’s just a level of maturity on my part.
But maybe when you have all the time in the world.
Well I will say this, there have been lots of examples of career politicians who have been very successful, Jean Chretien being number one, and there are lots of examples of politicians who have gone into politics at a very young age and had something to offer but I will say that I’ve always admired the most, and found the most intriguing, those who chose to go into politics much later in life. Now I’m not saying we should only have people over 55 in politics. I think that would be a huge mistake. But those people, one of the things I admire about them the most … I won’t say they all have their fuck you money but all are usually in a position to do what’s best and they’re not worried about keeping the job.
The danger in politics is you get people in there and it’s the best job they’ve ever had in their life and they’re terrified of losing their job because they don’t think they’ll ever get one as good, so therefore their number one priority is keeping their job. While that’s most people’s number one priority, and I understand that—whether you’re a waiter or the president of General Motors that’s one of your big priorities—it’s nice when politicians aren’t obsessed with keeping their jobs.
I would like to be able to say to the leader, ‘Yeah, I’m not doing that. That’s never going to happen. Next!’
Rick Mercer Report airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on CBC.