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The Top 100: Rick Mercer, the translator

By Ally Foster      

Comedian, entertainer, and political satirist Rick Mercer brings current affairs—including everything from electoral reform to escalator etiquette—to average Canadians.

“One week, the prime minister could be on the show, but the next week, it’s an oyster fisherman,” says Rick Mercer, the host of CBC's Rick Mercer Report. “And people who watch the show know I would just as soon talk to an oyster fisherman.” Photograph courtesy of The Rick Mercer Report by Jon Sturge
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On his Twitter profile—which has accumulated 1.62 million followers—political satirist and entertainer Rick Mercer quips, “anger is my cardio” in his ‘about me’ section.

He’s referring to his notorious rants, which usually last around 90 seconds and involve him walking and talking (seemingly in a stream of consciousness), tackling a current topic that gets him fired-up. And, while he assures P&I he’s really not an angry, rant-y person off-camera, it turns out the rant has indeed resulted in some noteworthy exercise.

His cameraman, Don Spence, is known for keeping track of facts and statistics, and says that over the course of 14 seasons, the pair has walked about 26 km filming the rants. Mercer points out that Spence, “the best cameraman in the business,” has done so backwards.

Rick Mercer. (Photograph courtesy of The Rick Mercer Report by Jon Sturge)

These walks are part of the Rick Mercer Report, a current affairs entertainment show that political analysts say is influential because it marries politics and government with relevant aspects of day-to-day life in Canada, packaging it in a humorous and accessible product for average Canadians.

The show’s recent renewal for a 15th season on CBC is evidence of its success.

“When you start any project, it’s all about surviving your first year. If you survive your first year, you think, ‘Wow, is it possible
that was can get through Year Two?’ So you never really get comfortable in the position,” Mercer tells P&I in a phone interview, as he prepares to fly to Inuvik, a town located 200 km north of the Arctic Circle, for its Sunrise Festival.

Reflecting over the years, he says the show “hasn’t changed that much” since its first episode, evolving but never changing its original vision. “It’s all about me travelling around the country, just talking to regular Canadians, putting Canada on television,” says Mercer.

There is one thing that has changed, though. When the show first started, he recalled arriving in small towns, where the local kids recognize him from CBC’s This Hour has 22 Minutes— which he helped create and write—and having them exclaim, ‘Wow! What are you doing here?!’

“Now—more often than not—if I’m in a small town, kids will say, ‘I knew you’d show up eventually!’” he says, adding that the understanding that he’s making his way through the country’s nooks and crannies is one reason the show has enjoyed so much success.

When asked why he thinks he’s influential, Mercer says he hasn’t sat around and thought about it, but that he believes he has “a very good barometer of understanding what’s going in the country at any given time, because I travel [across] it non-stop. I have a very good idea of what’s happening outside of the bubble.”

‘The bubble’ being the somewhat insular politico world of Ottawa.

“It’s less important to have your ear to the ground in Ottawa, knowing the various machinations of what’s going on in each ministry; who’s in, who’s out, and all of that kind of business,” he says. “That’s fun, it’s interesting, and it’s something I’ve always done to a certain extent because I’ve got friends in those places and we all gossip, but none of that is important to someone in Sault Ste. Marie or in Nelson, B.C. That just does not register on their radar. So I’m very careful that I don’t get sucked into that vortex.”

Greg MacEachern, senior vice president of government relations with Environics Communications, says Mercer deserves the accolades.

“It’s very easy for a lot of comedians to take the easy way out and crap on politics. Rick Mercer doesn’t do that,” says MacEachern. “He has respect for the institutions, he has respect for democracy.”

He adds that Mercer played an active role in encouraging youth to vote in the 2015 general election, and while emphasizing the importance of government, he isn’t afraid to take a politician down a peg or two when it’s warranted.

“Rick has the smarts and the awareness of how government works, along with an understanding of how to translate that in a way that the average person will pay attention to it,” he says. “Humour is a very effective lever for that … people who work in comedy are translators—they have to understand things on several levels, which takes a great deal of intelligence.”

Mercer says he thinks average Canadians enjoy the Rick Mercer Report because it’s a good mix of political affairs and aspects of everyday life. When it comes to writing his rant—which he said he crafts very last-minute—it’s sometimes “literally just what’s bugging me that week.”

He added, “it could be escalator etiquette, but occasionally there are times where I can use the show to talk about something that I think should be talked about that isn’t being talked about, or to even advance a story.”

Mercer has ‘ranted’ about topics ranging from problems with veteran care, Christmas posts on social media, to Donald Trump and the Conservative Party leadership race, as well as bullying and youth suicide.

Looking ahead to 2017, Mercer says he doesn’t have a crystal ball, but has some idea of what will—and won’t—be prominent or relevant to Canadians.

“It’s all about the economy,” he stresses. “People are very worried, and I think there’s a vast number of people out there … who are worried about their kids’ futures, unlike any other time in our history, I think. It’s only the high naivety of the youth that keeps them from being hysterical.”

Asked whether he notices an uptick in political interest among Canadians, he says that he noticed “an exhaustion” amongst the electorate after the 2015 general election.

“They engaged, threw a government out, did some heavy lifting, and then they just disengaged and went back to their lives, and you can’t blame them for that,” he says. “But just when you think ‘oh it doesn’t matter, nothing will capture the imagination of the electorate,’ something like cash for access will come along, and that certainly is resonating all over the place, and people don’t like the way it smells.”

Overall, balance and a genuine interest in the stories, people, events and issues that make up Canada is what sets Mercer apart, it seems.

“One week, the prime minister could be on the show, but the next week, it’s an oyster fisherman,” he says with a laugh. “And people who watch the show know I would just as soon talk to an oyster fisherman.”

Speaking of fisherman, he digresses, recalling a seven-day period where he did three standups next to three different oceans: the Arctic, the Pacific, and the Atlantic.

“That’s a miraculous thing to reflect on,” he says. “That we live in a time where that’s possible, and for me personally, that I’m lucky enough to get to do that.”

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