Rick Mercer: Canada 150, Social Media, Americans
How long has Rick Mercer’s political satire and infamous rants been the backdrop in every Canadian household on Tuesday nights? Although the show started out as Rick Mercer’s Monday Report, this year’s 2017 season will celebrate 15 years of the show being aired on CBC.
2017 is a big year for Mercer for many other reasons. Topping the list is his status of being named a Canada 150 ambassador, and hosting the 3 hour CBC Special Canada Day 150! from Parliament Hill, which saw performances from across the country and from every province.
Truthfully, Mercer has been an ambassador for Canada long before 2017, and he plans to continue doing so. But, he’ll admit that times have changed in both politics and entertainment—the fields he has brought together with seamless expertise since 1993. These changes are both interesting and two-sided to Mercer. When he started his career, his dream was what he called ‘The Canadian Showbiz Dream’—to make a living at doing what he loved. Now, showbiz is not as different from nation to nation, and social media has enabled Mercer to attend events like the Just For Laughs Gala in Montreal, and meet comedians from all over the world while there.
Today, when you think of his humble beginnings in Ottawa, right to his unprecedented success with satires This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Made in Canada, and Talking to Americans, ask yourself—is there anyone better than Rick Mercer to make sense of Canada’s 2017?
Faces Magazine: You grew up in St. John’s, but Ottawa was a huge part of your early career in the 1990’s when you performed at the NAC. Do you consider Ottawa like a second home?
Rick Mercer: I can’t understate how important Ottawa has been to my career. My first one man show was performed at the National Arts Centre. It was a huge break—it led to a national tour, it led to This Hour has 22 Minutes, and it led to the Rick Mercer Report.
Your career has led you to tour across Canada and meet Canadians, what is it about Ottawa that you feel makes it special?
I grew up obsessed with politics, and so obviously Ottawa holds a special place just for that
reason alone. The very first time I got a temporary Press Gallery Pass to go on the Hill with a camera and shoot a segment for 22 Minutes was one of the greatest moments of my life.
That said, I am very aware that Ottawa is far more than just the seat of Government. I love
the Ottawa Valley. I love that Ottawa as a city is so livable, you could teach us all a lesson in bike paths. I love that it’s easy to escape the city and get to tremendous wilderness.
What has been your favorite part about meeting Canadians in your career?
I have never tired of travelling the country in my career or meeting people along the way. I have literally not unpacked in 15 years. My philosophy is that a lobster fisherman, a farmer, a soldier, or a retired school teacher can be just as interesting, funny or enlightening as a rock star, Prime Minister or entertainer. I love meeting them all.
Looking back on the spinoff show, Talking to Americans, how do you feel this show would be changed today?
Well, I have had plenty of time to think about that, not a week goes by without someone
emailing me or asking me on the street to bring back Talking to Americans. I had a lot of fun
doing that show, it was a great gig, I got to travel all over the USA, and let’s just say it wasn’t the hardest work I have ever done. I have no idea if it would work now. While I am very proud of that special and I love the fact that it holds up today and has found a second life on YouTube, I don’t have any interest in repeating it.
You recently hosted this year’s Just For Laughs Gala. When was the last time you were at the JFL, and what made you decide to go back?
Hosting a Just For Laughs Gala is an amazing experience. I hosted a gala solo probably 14 years ago and I’ve been talking to them about returning since then. I was flattered to have a standing invitation. This year the schedule and the stars lined up. Just For Laughs is the gold standard when it comes to comedy internationally, so playing the big
stage is a real honour as well. And boy is it a big stage; the gala was sold out and there are 2800 seats. That is a long, long way from my first one man show in Ottawa at the National Arts Centre Atelier—which was an experimental performance space that could seat 80 people.
In another interview, you had said that you were surprised to see so many guests from
around the world, and a lot of comedians who had had their start on YouTube. How do you
think these YouTube superstars have changed the world of comedy?
Social media has changed everything in the entertainment world. It allows a kid in his basement in Mumbai, Des Moines or Thunder Bay to get seen. It’s exciting.
What do you think of social media in general?
I can talk forever about how great social media is, and I can also talk for a very long time about the good old days when we didn’t have it. I think it’s many things; a great platform for artists, a powerful tool for social change, a way to stay in contact with people from different chapters of your life. It has also given voice to some pretty reprehensible people who are emboldened by the of the anonymity of the net. It has created a climate where people expect content to be free, which means a lot of content creators are not getting paid. It amazes me that people who would never walk into a store and steal a chocolate bar feel entirely at ease or even entitled to steal content.
Do you think politics have changed with it?
One only has to look to the current President of the United States to see how social media has changed everything. Social media allowed Donald Trump to speak directly without any filter to his base, and that was a huge part of his campaign strategy. If a politician can speak directly to people without any regard for the truth, it is going to change everything. Of course, it’s not easy to build up a huge audience on Twitter. Joe Blow can decide to run for office or decide to tweet his head off on the issues of the day, but good luck getting an audience. That takes time and a lot of work. Being famous helps.
Do you agree with the notion that more voices (on social media) has produced a higher level of truth surrounding politics?
No, I would not agree. There are too many “experts” who are anything but. They are simply people massaging or ignoring the facts for their own ideological reasons. Now we have orchestrated social media campaigns designed to confuse people on issues. We have politicians being attached for something they may or may not have said or done by anonymous trolls. Social media is a lot of things, but I would never accuse it of raising the bar when it comes to basic facts.
What advice would you give to youth today, especially those who aspire to have a voice
similar to the one you’ve had throughout your career?
For anyone who wants to have a career in the arts or entertainment world, the secret is to
create. Writers write, actors act, singers sing. Traditionally finding a platform for one’s work has been the biggest challenge. I’m old, so when I was starting out I had to find an actual physical stage, which I found at the National Arts Centre, and before that at the LSPU Hall in St. John’s. Now a young performer has YouTube. It has certainly leveled the playing field. People can self-publish and put their own short films, sketches, songs, and commentaries on the web.
You’ve helped to get youth more involved in politics, do you think that social media can/has helped with this goal, too?
I would like to think that the campaigns we have run at The Mercer Report encouraging young people to vote perhaps convinced a few people on the fence to go to the ballot box. The campaigns were almost exclusively run on social media. I was fortunate enough that I could push the social media campaign on my old-fashioned TV show, and that is still a million eyeballs. It helped launch the social media campaign. Traditional network TV is not dead yet.
What more do you hope to accomplish? What’s next?
Right now, I am looking at season 15 of The Mercer Report. It is still my dream job. After that, I am not entirely sure.
When did you know that you wanted to be a comedian? What drew you to it?
Showbiz fascinated me when I was a kid, but it didn’t dawn on me to be a comedian or an actor. That happened much later—high school—once I started I had a single focus.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career?
It was suggested to me by Lois Brown, one of my teachers in Grade 11—that I was a writer. I hadn’t written anything at this point so it came as a bit of surprise. She said, “You don’t shut up—just put all that on paper and voila you are a writer”. Turned out she was right.
What does success mean to you?
Canadian entertainers and artists have a pretty practical set of goals I would suggest. When I was starting out I never had the classic American show business dream of being rich and
famous. I had the classic Canadian showbiz dream of being able to make a living. The fact that I have made a living in show business in my own country is what I am proudest of.
What has been your favourite part about this past summer, considering it is Canada 150?
Hosting the Canada Day TV broadcast live on Parliament Hill. Yes, I know there were lots of issue with crowds, and the line ups, and the apocalyptic weather, but it was a great day for me. I was standing on my stage on the top of the West Block and at one point there was a break in the weather and golden sunshine broke through and blasted the Centre Block. It doesn’t get much prettier than that.