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Rick Mercer and The Just For Laughs Comedy Tour: The straight man

The straight man

Comic Rick Mercer stands up to politicians but won't joke about his private life

Rick Mercer is one of Canada’s favourite funny guys but he’s in no laughing mood when I ask him what he, as a gay man, thinks of the same-sex marriage debate in Canada.

Mercer chooses his words carefully.

"I think what’s fascinating is that Jean Chrétien did nothing for 10 years and when he didn’t have to be re-elected, he started acting like a Liberal prime minister. This is really a non-issue to most Canadians, like the decriminalization of marijuana. But," Mercer says, quickly changing gears, "let’s talk about the tour."

The tour, of course, is Just For Laughs’ 18-city cross-Canada comedy tour that kicked off this week in Mercer’s hometown of St-John’s, Newfoundland.

I have to ask Mercer if his sexuality and personal life help shape and define his work. But a clearly ticked off Mercer, the man famous for skewering Canadian politicians for being evasive, disingenuous or just plain stupid, then says, "I don’t talk about how I vote, about my family or my personal life. As part of my job I stand up but I am always leery of saying, ‘This is my position.’ I’m not a politician."

So if you thought you were going to get some insights into how Mercer’s mind ticks – Does he have a partner or spouse? What was it like growing up gay in Newfoundland? Does he like Bette Midler? – think again. Instead, we get the Rick Mercer everybody already knows, who when you get right down to it is a pretty stand-up guy.

Mercer became a household name writing and performing on the top-rated TV series This Hour Has 22 Minutes and Made in Canada. But Mercer is probably best remembered for creating (and co-producing) the one-hour CBC TV special Rick Mercer’s Talking to Americans, in which he got that noted foreign affairs expert George W. Bush to call the Canadian PM "Jean Poutine."

The show drew 2.7 million viewers across the Great White North and garnered media attention worldwide, notably stateside where it was even featured on Nightline.

"Until then I had done a lot of things that had generated media attention but the George Bush thing was unlike anything [else I'd done]," Mercer says. "It was exciting. It was all over the world. Nightline dedicated a whole episode and I was worried because I wondered what their agenda really was. But what happened was that Canadians work on all these [American TV] shows and one day [Nightline anchor Ted] Koppel heard all these Canadian [staffers] laughing. So he stepped into the room and they turned off the TV and he got mad because he couldn’t see it. So he just ordered a bunch of copies. I had an inkling he liked it. They attempted to dress it up [on Nightline], to make it serious."

And what was it like being interviewed by Ted Koppel?

"It was a strange thing," Mercer admits. "He’s one of those guys you think [if you meet him] you’ll shit in your pants."

Which is what Stockwell Day must have felt like when Mercer made national headlines playfully attacking the socially conservative Canadian Alliance MP when Day made his run for the leadership of the Alliance a couple of years ago.

Lampooning the Alliance position that calls for a national referendum on virtually any policy or law if there are enough petitioners, Mercer and his This Hour colleagues petitioned Canada change Stockwell Day’s name. "We demand that the government of Canada force Stockwell Day to change his first name to Doris," the website stated.

"He pretended like it never happened," Mercer says today. "I didn’t really care. It was about him and it wasn’t really about him really. I don’t think he was happy."

As for a united right (the Alliance and the Progressive Conservative parties last week announced plans to merge), Mercer says, "It had to happen. It should have happened years ago. They still have a long way to go."

Former PM Brian Mulroney was one of the driving forces behind the unite-the-right movement. But these days his son Ben Mulroney – about whom Frank magazine once nastily joked that Mulroney Sr. "has got to get used to the idea that the fruit of his loins is precisely that" – is getting more ink as host of Canadian Idol.

"He likes being on TV," Mercer says. "Everyone I know speaks highly of him. That’s nice in show biz."

As a TV veteran, Mercer should know. He’s been around the block more than a few times and he’s managed his public profile and image very carefully. That’s because millions of Canadians admire him coast to coast. So why screw with a good thing?

"That’s one of the exciting things about this tour – crossing the country," Mercer says. "As you cross the country people think that Atlantic Canada is similar. It isn’t. Newfoundland is so different, and so is every single other province. When I went to Wakefield, Quebec, it was different than the rest of Quebec!"

Mercer’s two favourite Canadian cities are St-John’s and Montreal. "But that looks like I’m sucking up to Montreal," says Mercer, who recalls being in Montreal during Toronto’s Rolling Stones SARS concert where concertgoers weren’t allowed to bring bottled water on site. "I happened to be sitting in a restaurant and the waiter came up to me and said, ‘At least you can buy water here.’"

Jokes aside, Mercer has come a long way since This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Which leads me to fellow Newfoundland comic and This Hour co-star Mary Walsh. I have to know if she’s anything like her character Marg Delahunty in real life.

"There is a difference between professional and private," Mercer says. "The thing with Mary is she is fearless in costume. She’s a great actor. I like to play things straight."

Just For Laughs Comedy Tour 2003
with host Rick Mercer and guest comics Adam Ferrara, Mitch Fatel, Derek Edwards, John Moloney and Joey Elias
Metropolis, Nov. 2 at 7 p.m.

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