Two regular-sized inkjet paper signs announce that you've arrived at the offices of Rick Mercer's Monday Report. It looks like every other office in the labyrinth-like Toronto CBC Headquarters. Inside, there's a farm of grey institutional desks with fabric cubicle walls. Lined around the room are tiny, mostly square workplaces. Near the end of the hall, to the right, is Rick Mercer's small and windowless office. You can tell because there's an oversized paper envelope taped to the door with his name on it.
Right now, Mercer is not in his office and it looks like he never is. His Spartan home base holds a simple desk with a few accessories and two basic bookshelves on opposite walls. It looks like a humourless place in which to produce a comedy show. However, further exploration is put on hold as Mercer steps out of another office to introduce himself.
Once we shake hands and exchange pleasantries, Mercer takes a few minutes to pose for a few promotional photographs. He's smaller than you'd think he'd be, but everyone says that about television celebrities. Other than that detail, he looks exactly as he does on television: an average-looking Canadian, with an average build. He has green eyes that are housed over thick, arched eyebrows. His curly black hair looks unmovable and forever in place. Today he's wearing a pair of grey dress pants with a black suit jacket over a navy T-shirt.
After the photo shoot, his expression is serious, but not intimidating. The chit-chat between celebrity and journalist is civil and efficient, like a business transaction. He seems wary, like the friendly face of Popjournalism could at any time turn into an ambush.
It only takes a misplaced pen to crumble that impression.
As we walk into Mercer's office to start the interview, following a covert effort to find my missing pen or to locate a stray replacement, I sheepishly admit that I need to borrow a pen.
This act seems to break the ice for Mercer. He sits down behind his desk, takes off his suit jacket, and turns his burgundy plastic pen organizer towards me.
"It's the first day back to school and I've got my supplies," he says. "Help yourself."
Yes, back to school. It's Mercer's first day back to Monday Report since the first season ended in March. To mark his return to television, he has a bunch of freshly supplied ballpoint pens, the kind you'd find in cheap boxes of 10. After selecting a blue pen from his assortment, I can't help but think that Mercer's surroundings are unfitting of his stardom. Surely, the CBC could provide him with a bigger office and fancier furniture — or at least a wire mesh organizer. But Mercer will have none of that. When I tell him later about my impression of his office, he laughs it off and says: "Good offices don't breed good comedy."
He would know. The 35-year-old comedian has yet to experience failure in his more than 15 years on television. First, there was his eight-year run with This Hour Has 22 Minutes, then, a four-year run with his entertainment industry sitcom Made in Canada and now Monday Report has continued his winning streak. On Monday Report, Mercer starts the show with a from-the-headlines monologue, followed by a celebrity interview, then a satiric look at newspaper photos, and later, his trademark rant. For his celebrity interviews, Mercer has been able to snag high-profile Canadians week-after-week. On the first show of this season, Mercer scored a coup by getting journalist Pierre Berton to give tips on how to roll a joint. This year Mercer has already carved pumpkins with Prime Minister Paul Martin, shot pool with Justin Trudeau, and went to the Calgary Zoo with Jann Arden.
His show has been doing remarkably well as a result. In the debut season, Monday Report drew an average audience of 786,000 viewers. This season, that number has grown to an average of 850,000 viewers a week.
Mercer is clearly happy with the show's performance. "I was really glad the show was a success. Even though I work for a public broadcaster, as a comedy, I'm required to deliver a large audience to survive."
Yet, the show had an inauspicious start. In the first season, viewers in Ontario and Quebec saw a re-run of 22 Minutes in place of his second episode. A CBC technician had punched in the wrong computer code and the switching error lasted three minutes and 10 seconds before it was corrected – enough time for viewers to miss Mercer's opening monologue.
"You just roll with the punches," Mercer says. "It's funny that they ran a show that I left three years ago. But I have no control over what happened. I don't have the phone number to call the guy asleep at the switch."
It was a quite a coincidence that 22 Minutes popped up once again in Mercer's life. The similarities between Monday Report and his former show are striking. Both take on current events and have fake news sets. So why did he leave 22 Minutes in 2001 if he was willing to go back to the same kind of work a few years later?
"I do miss the 22 Minutes beat," he says, "but with Monday Report, I get to do it in a different way." He adds that he now gets to travel the country a lot more, to visit places that 22 Minutes wouldn't go to. On Monday Report he's visited government ministers in Nunavut and is now doing a tour of Canada's campus pubs.
Of course, This Hour Has 22 Minutes was the show that made him famous. He was the breakout star in the Halifax-based comedy ensemble. He earned early recognition for his one-take political rants, but it was his segment Talking to Americans that put him over the top. For Talking to Americans, Mercer posed as a reporter and quizzed streeters south of the border on their knowledge of Canada. He asked absurd questions like, "Do you think that Americans should be bombing Saskatchewan?" The streeters would never fail to offer an uninformed and simultaneously hilarious opinion. As Mercer commented during a segment in Washington, D.C., "[Americans] are our greatest friends, our strongest allies. They are kind. They are generous. They have an uncanny ability to go on at great lengths on subjects they know absolutely nothing about."
When Mercer launched a special edition of Talking to Americans in April 2001, it was a sensation. The show drew 2.7 million viewers, a record for a Canadian comedy special. Over the summer, Americans themselves began to take notice, making Mercer a hot interview subject, ironically, in the place he ridiculed.
"I've been the subject of media coverage before," Mercer says, mentioning his infamous on-air petition to have politician Stockwell Day change his name to Doris Day. "But when something like that happens in Canada, I can spend a day talking to radio stations, unlike when the Washington Post wrote about my interview with George W. Bush. I could've spent two weeks talking to [American] media. I had calls from 900 radio stations – not like the, maybe, 25 stations in Canada."
That attention-grabbing interview with Bush required a lot of effort and an equal amount of luck. "It was the craziest scrum I'd ever been in," Mercer recalls. "People were rough. I got punched in the kidneys."
Fortunately, Mercer and his crew successfully fought off international reporters for their chance to go face-to-face with the future president during the 2000 presidential primaries in Michigan.
"How we got to talk to Bush was a series of flukes. For months, Bush didn't speak to anyone without a campaign press pass. We went the wrong way and caught him at the exit."
At the exit, Mercer told Bush that "Prime Minister Jean Poutine" had endorsed him for president. Dubya showed off his knowledge of the world and thanked "Prime Minister Poutine" on camera.
So what does Mercer think of Bush now?
"Of course, my impression of him has changed drastically over time," Mercer comments. "Back then I thought he was a dumb, harmless governor. Well, he certainly isn't harmless."
As he was garnering U.S. media attention for that interview, Mercer was offered many projects in the States, including the hosting duties for the short-lived NBC primetime game show The Weakest Link.
"I would've ended up hosting the Anne Robinson version," he reveals. "Anne used to make jokes about the American health care system on the British version. And they liked the idea of people making fun of Americans, but they didn't want a Brit to do it. So when they saw Talking to Americans, they thought their rescuer had arrived. And they called me."
He turned it down.
Anne Robinson ended up earning a reported £2 million for her U.S. hosting duties.
What was Mercer's offer?
"They offered me crazy money," he says.
In the seven figures?
"I won't go into that. But I will tell you that they tried to convince me that I'd be the next Pat Sajak. Now I'm sure Pat has a nice, comfortable life, but that wasn't for me."
He decided to keep working in Canada, so during all that U.S. media attention, Mercer was in the strange position of doing high profile interviews with no product to push.
"It's weird, I never thought I'd ever end up on Nightline, being interviewed by Ted Koppel. It was crazy. It truly was. I could've spent months there doing press. But the craziest thing is that I didn't have anything to promote, no book to plug, no video to sell."
Then, September 11th happened. A week later, Mercer's Talking to Americans was nominated for two Gemini Awards. He quickly turned down the nominations. "I feel that this is not a time to be making light of the differences between two nations but rather a time to offer our unconditional support to our neighbours, friends and relatives to the South," he said in a statement at the time.
All of his American interview requests ended. "September 11th changed everything," he says. "The least of which was my silly career."
Still, doing interviews on Nightline sure is a long way to go for a kid from Middle Cove, Newfoundland. Mercer was born and raised in Middle Cove, a small community of fewer than 2,000 people located along the Atlantic coastline, just northeast of St. John's. His father worked at the Department of Fisheries and his mother was a psychiatric nurse. Together, they raised the four Mercer children. Now retired, Mercer's father currently sits on the town council for the Middle Cove region. So it's no surprise that conversations at the Mercer home were often about politics while Rick was growing up. Those conversations clearly had a formative effect on Mercer, though he doesn't like talking about his family life. He gets visibly upset when asked for any minor details.
"You can ask, but that doesn't mean I'm going to answer," he says tersely when the topic is introduced.
Of the few details he has revealed over the years, Mercer seems to have led a relatively normal life. He was a popular student and gravitated towards acting in high school, but remarkably, never graduated, despite serving as student council president. Instead, he formed a sketch comedy troupe with some of his friends called Corey and Wade's Playhouse. During that time, he worked as a dishwasher and even once handed out prizes as an assistant to a roller skating clown in St. John's.
While working as a dishwasher at the Duckworth Lunch restaurant in St. John's, Mercer noticed a group of people from the CBC dining there. He heard that the network paid good money for radio commentaries, and so, he stepped out in his dishwashing gear, and pitched them an idea right there on the spot. His commentary, on how to make politics funnier, earned him $75, the same amount he earned in a week as a dishwasher. At 19, his career with the CBC had begun in earnest. He has never stopped working for them.
"The CBC has balls," he says of his devotion to the public broadcaster. "No other network would've considered putting something like 22 Minutes on the air. Maybe the private networks would now, but back then it was unheard of. CBC really is the place to be."
Yet, despite his travels with the network, he has never truly left Newfoundland behind. He says that comedy and laughter is an essential part of life for him and most Newfoundlanders.
"Comedy in Newfoundland is intrical," he says. "In Newfoundland elections, we always vote for the funny guy. They say in job interviews that it's the kiss of death to tell jokes – never endeavour to be funny. But if you don't tell jokes during an interview in Newfoundland, you're toast. I think comedy comes from being outside the centre. If you're from Des Moines, you can see how silly L.A. is. It's the same with Newfoundland; you can see the silliness in the rest of Canada."
Now that he lives in Toronto – he moved here last Labour Day to do Monday Report — he still makes trips back to Newfoundland on a regular basis.
"There's nobody from Newfoundland who doesn't want to return home," he says. "I still feel like a tourist in Toronto. I used to live right in the heart of downtown St. John's. But the house I live in now is the quietest I've had since I was a kid, ironically enough."
But it was Newfoundland, not Toronto, which inspired his two trips to war-torn Bosnia and Afghanistan for separate television specials.
"Newfoundland makes up a large percentage of the population of the armed forces. I knew lots of people on my street as a kid who were in the armed forces. I wanted to support them."
But an army base in a war zone doesn't seem like a very funny place to be. However, Mercer found comedy there. Did he go looking for it?
"No, I didn't think there was comedy there. I just hung out with the soldiers and it ended up being funny. But I saw it could be an adventure and possibly something heartwarming."
There are certainly much safer ways to have an adventure.
"It was a great opportunity, though. Where else can you get that kind of access? It's cool to fly in Bosnia in a helicopter or driving the streets in Kabul."
Mercer says he traveled on Afghan streets in armoured vehicles. One of his army escorts was the nephew of Newfoundland comedian Greg Malone, a friend of Mercer's. He said that coincidence made him feel more at home in Kabul ("What a small world, eh?"), but he wasn't scared to travel there.
"I wasn't in any danger," he says. "I was surrounded by people with machine guns. I mean, I'm as big a coward as anyone, but I didn't think about it."
However, his flight to Kabul on Ariana Afghan Airlines was another experience all together.
"I will say that travelling on Ariana was pretty rough. The doors on the overhead compartment were torn off; the seat belts were ripped out. The plane also did evasive maneuvers in the air to avoid snipers. There were 12 people on the crew and you know at least three or four people have problems with air travel. I don't, but it does make you appreciate Air Canada."
Now safely at home, Mercer says he doesn't find life as a Canadian celebrity to be very different from civilian life.
In fact, he's very uncomfortable when you ask him about being famous. He looks off to the side and says he doesn't think about it very much.
"People do look at you a little bit more than everywhere else," he admits. "They think, did I go to school with him? Otherwise, they nod and smile at you or say, Hello Rick. I get surprised when I go to an airport in Calgary and someone recognizes me. I forget that the show airs outside the province."
When he's told that he's probably one of the most well-known Canadians, he seems embarrassed, genuinely so, without a twinge of false modesty.
Still, it's shocking to learn that one of our nation's biggest talents still takes the subway and drives an old Volvo around town.
"I don't know how old it is," Mercer says nonchalantly of his car. "But yeah, that's what I drive."
By the end of the interview, the hesitant and guarded figure from earlier in the day is gone.
"I always wanted to be a magazine editor," Mercer confides as we leave the office. "If I wasn't able to do this, that's what I'd probably be doing."
Why not try it out anyway?
He leans in to respond.
"Because I think you'd have to be crazy to launch a magazine in Canada."
And with that statement, Mercer says goodbye.
About Robert J. Ballantyne
Robert J.Ballantyne is a senior editor at Popjournalism and Creative Director at Artsculture.ca. Previously, he was a journalist at the CBC on a number of news programs including the fifth estate, Marketplace and The National. He also worked as a staff writer at the Toronto Star.