Rick Mercer is back on the CBC, and all is right in the world.
I’ve felt a Mercer-sized hole in the network’s primetime schedule since 2018, when The Mercer Report made its final, well, report. Since then, there has been a global pandemic, dozens of political gaffes and untold silly situations that could have used Mercer’s wry take on.
Let’s get things out of the way first. His first series back on the CBC, Comedy Night with Rick Mercer is not The Mercer Report. The veteran funnyman isn’t behind a desk, by himself, reporting on the world while starring in short skits. And that’s totally OK.
Debuting Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBC, the eight-episode Comedy Night with Rick Mercer is a great comedy showcase, with Mercer stalking the stage of theatres across Canada, performing standup.
“I’ve done two tours of Comedy Night in Canada, and they are big tours, going from St. John’s to Victoria, 28 rooms, 1,000 to 2,000 seats,” Mercer says.
These tours and this show, of course, offer him the chance to talk about what’s been going on with his life since COVID-19 emerged and observations about the world at large. And, it’s a showcase for Canadian comedians, who perform sets in front of the live audience before sitting down with Mercer for one-on-ones. The project is something Mercer has been doing for years, albeit the first with cameras rolling for TV.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel here,” Mercer says. “There have always been comedy showcases. The difference is, there hasn’t been a comedy showcase in primetime in a very long time.”
Comedy Night with Rick Mercer airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on CBC.
The pandemic lockdown was a strange one for stand-up comedians used to performing on stage. Many, like Steve Patterson and Ron James, chose to go the virtual stage route, selling tickets and performing on a Zoom or similar platform. Sophie Buddle went the other route.
“I did nothing,” the Ottawa-born comedian says. “I was just so depressed the whole pandemic. I did a little bit of online stuff, but I really feel like what stand-up comedy is is a vibe in a room.”
Buddle is making up for that lost time in a big way, with two projects (and her continuing podcast, Obsessed with Sophie Buddle) on the go. The first for the 2020 Juno Award-winner is Smile, Baby, her new half-hour comedy special available right now on Crave. The second is a guest on Comedy Night with Rick Mercer, set to debut Monday, September 13, on CBC.
We spoke to Buddle about both projects, a bit about her background and writing new material.
Your stand-up language delivery is very different from your podcast delivery. Sophie Buddle: Podcasts are way more conversational and it’s just chit chat. When you’re on stage as a stand-up, it’s sort of presented like you’re just talking. It’s a conversation, but it’s not. It is like a speech or a monologue, so you do end up having different pacing than a regular conversation. I was teaching a beginner stand-up class for a little while, and that was the entire advice I was giving. I feel like anybody can be funny and everybody knows what’s funny and everybody makes their friends laugh, but to be a stand-up, you just need to learn how to say your stories or your jokes or your ideas in a stand-up way or in a stand-up format.
It is sort of a weird rhythm just because you do need to end at the part where the audience laughs. You’re supposed to have the funniest word at the very end of the sentence. If you could have the misdirect be the last thing you say, then that’s the easiest because it is sort of a conversation, but the only thing the audience can really contribute to the conversation is laughing or booing or whatever. Mob mentality is half of the conversation.
In Smile, Baby, you mention the pandemic. How did it, as a creative person, affect you? I know stand-ups like Steve Patterson and Ron James went the online route and did performances that way. What did you do? SB: I did nothing. I was just so depressed during the pandemic. I did a little bit of online stuff, but I really feel like what stand-up comedy is is a vibe in a room. I really do feel like so much of it is about being in the room with a group of people and having that energy. I did a little bit of online stuff too, just to feel like myself, but I was really missing that connection. We filmed all the Crave special sort of right, you could say at the tail end of the pandemic, but it’s still sort of ongoing, just as stuff was starting to open up a little bit.
I was feeling really rusty. I had not performed in a really long time and all my new stuff was sort of untested, so I was really nervous going into filming this. It was limited capacity in the building. I’ve been doing stand-up for, I think, 13 years now. As soon as I started doing it, I was doing it at least once a week and then more than that and then multiple times a week for years and years and years. The pandemic was the first time I ever wasn’t doing it and so I felt like definitely at my most rusty that I had been ever in my life. It was pretty scary to film something that’s such on a higher profile while feeling sort at my worst, but I’m still happy with how it turned out. It was just very scary going into it.
I watched your set on James Corden and you did your joke about your boyfriend having a school girl thing. That is also in Smile, Baby. How much new material went into the Crave special? SB: Yeah, that’s a great question. So that joke, in particular, is actually my oldest joke that I still do. I wrote that when I was 16. I literally remember the first time I tried it. I was 16 at the Ottawa Yuk Yuk’s, and that was one of the first times that the Ottawa comedians started being nice to me. Everyone thought that was a good joke.
I really like doing new material. The only time that I feel down about stand-up is if I’m doing my A stuff too much or my showcase set too much. If I’m getting ready for a taping, that’s always when I feel bad about stand-up because what’s fun is trying new stuff. But sometimes jokes like that do just sort of stick around forever. One of the ways to retire them is to record them, basically. And so I was really just trying to get the last juice out of that joke before I can, hopefully, finally put it on the shelf forever. But I would say about half of the Crave special is brand new to the eyes of comedy people and maybe the other half I had recorded on my album or on the late night or something like that.
I had some new stuff, but all of it was pretty untested at that point because it’s stuff that I wrote during the pandemic or stuff that I was working on right when stuff shut down. And also, it’s very hard to decide as a comic when a bit is finished because there’s always something you can add to it. And so even if something is getting a couple big laughs, you’re always telling yourself that you should have maybe a couple more little ones in between in the lead up. Whenever you’re recording anything, you’re sort of forced to be like, ‘OK, well this stuff is finished and I just have to just be OK with it.’ But all comics talk about as soon as you record something, you think of so many new tags for it, so many new angles and that’s true for this special too. As soon as I recorded this and then you watch it back, you’re like, oh I have so many more ideas for these shows, but you don’t really want to do them because people have seen the special, so it’s very annoying.
What’s your writing process? Do you set aside time in the day to sit down and write jokes or are you out in the day and doing stuff you think of something funny and you just recite it into your phone? SB: I’m not a sit down and write kind of comic. I’m definitely, something funny comes up or I think of something funny, I’ll write a little note in my phone and then I do most of my writing on stage. I’ll usually know what the punchline is or at the very least what the premise is and then I find it only possible to really do it while I’m on stage. I also am pretty conversational too, so I want it to come out naturally. I find if I write it and then I’m worried about memorizing the exact wording, then it’ll come off too stiff.
You’re working your stuff while you’re out there on stage in front of a live audience? SB: Yeah. That’s one thing that’s really fun about being a headliner and having longer sets is you can still do well, you can still do all of your material that you know is good. And then by doing that, you have a lot of trust with the audience. So what I do usually, if I’m doing an hour or 45 minutes, maybe about 20 or 30 minutes into my set, I’ll go, ‘OK. I have a couple of new things I want to try. We’ll see if they’re anything or not.’ And then I can just give it a go. If it gets anything, that means it’s worth working on and if it gets nothing, you just throw it away.
Are you rare in that you do it that way or am I just ignorant and didn’t know that most comics do it that way? SB: I don’t know how rare it is. I know that not everybody does it like that because I think that it can be a bit stressful.
But for me, that’s the only way I can really decide what to work on because I don’t want to write a whole thing. It’s honestly, maybe, more about laziness. It’s like, ‘I don’t want to write a whole thing and then find out it doesn’t work and then have wasted my time writing something.’ So I usually have the very core of the idea that I’ll just try on stage and if that gets a laugh, then I’ll think about it more and try to build around it. I’m more of a pile on to a core idea as opposed to a sculptor that’s pulling away.
CBC sent out media screeners for Comedy Night with Rick Mercer and you are in the first episode. With Rick doing stand-up, then having comedians do a short set and then talk to him afterwards has a very late-night feel. SB: I’m obsessed with Rick Mercer. I was a fan of him from Talking to Americans and from his initial rise in Canada. And then I was on tour with him with this JFL tour, which I was not supposed to be on. At the time, I was living in Halifax because I was writing on This Hour Has 22 Minutes and they were just about to start this huge cross country, Rick Mercer, Comedy Night in Canada tour. Debra DiGiovanni was one of the people on it and she was having some visa issues getting back into Canada. So they were starting on the East Coast and they were like, ‘OK, who’s around the East Coast right now that could fill in for a show or two while we wait for Debra to get her paperwork?’ They called me and were like, ‘Hey, can you come babysit Debra’s spot for a couple of nights?’
I said, ‘Of course, I would love to do that. So fun.’ The producer of 22 Minutes let me go and I did first couple shows and it was great. And then Debra still didn’t have her paperwork and they’re like, ‘OK, well let’s bring you all the way through to Ontario.’ And so they brought me there and then Debra came, and they let me stay for the whole tour, with Debra, as well, obviously. Rick was hosting and it was Ali Hassan, Ivan Decker, Debra, Rick and myself. It was really just so fun and so cool.
When he got the Comedy Night in Canada show, I was really excited and it’s really cool because I just really feel like he’s the perfect person to be in a position to do sort of a comedian Letterman-style conversation. I think Canada has always really wanted something like that. I can’t think of somebody that fits the bill more than Rick.