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In Rick Mercer’s new book, The Road Years: A Memoir Continued …,” there is a chapter about visiting 24 Sussex Drive when Stephen Harper was prime minister.
It was for a 2006 segment of The Rick Mercer Report that would find the comedian–talk show host being warmly and generously welcomed by the Prime Minister in an over-the-top manner, which was meant to be an elaborate joke referencing Harper’s reputation for being less-than-warm and welcoming to the media, the CBC and human beings in general. Mercer outlines the visit in a chapter called Stephen Harper on the Downlow. Despite the premise of the segment, it becomes clear early on that Mercer’s visit would be markedly different than the curiously casual ones he made to Sussex Drive when Prime Minister Paul Martin resided there, which are also outlined in the book.
From the beginning, a team of Harper’s eager-beaver young staffers were keen to micro-manage the visit while showcasing “barely camouflaged hostility” towards the idea in general. They objected to furniture being moved to facilitate the cameras. They objected to the lighting gear cluttering up 24 Sussex Drive. In fact, they objected to the crew using any sort of lighting at all for the segment, even after the basic mechanics of television production were explained. When filming began, Mercer asked Harper a question about The Clean Air Act and one of the young staffers began shouting at the host while the cameras rolled. He objected to his beloved boss being grilled about such things. Harper grinned and gently told the young man that he was happy to answer the question and anything else Mercer asked.
Mercer never saw that young staffer again.
If this doesn’t sound familiar, that is because this surreal moment never made it to air. Sure, it sounds like a golden nugget of cringe-inducing dark political comedy worthy of HBO’s Veep, not to mention potentially funnier than the segment that actually aired. But that’s not the way Mercer and his crew tended to roll.
“When the staffer yelled ‘No!,’ that was on camera,” says Mercer, in an interview with Postmedia from Toronto. “He wasn’t, but both of our reactions would have been and the audio would have been because we were mid-interview and the cameras were rolling. We could have put that on and it would have certainly raised eyebrows and became one of those stories that was actually covered on the political chat shows and stuff. It did speak to what a lot of people were talking about, the way the PMO acted. But we always had an agreement – it wasn’t necessarily verbalized – that we were never a ‘gotcha’ show and that would have been a ‘gotcha’ moment and we didn’t go in there looking to embarrass anyone.”
It’s not the first or the last reminder that Mercer’s show was Canadian to the bone: Not without the occasional edge, perhaps, but generally very Canadian in its gentle diplomacy. The Road Years is a followup to 2021’s Talking to Canadians, which chronicled Mercer’s upbringing in Middle Cove, N.L. and his early to mid-career in comedy. The Road Years picks up where the previous book left off, which was right before the 2004 launch of The Rick Mercer Report.
Unlike Talking to Canadians, Mercer did not write The Road Years in chronological order. He jumps around to various periods and themes from the show. For political junkies, there is plenty of fodder to soak up. Part of the fun may be trying to figure out what Mercer thinks of various politicians by reading between the lines. On the odd occasion, he is clear. His admiration for Belinda Stronach, who ran against Harper in 2004 for the leadership of the newly formed Conservative Party and inspired Mercer’s Spread the Net campaign by inviting him on a trip to Africa with her, is obvious. So is his admiration for Harper, because he writes about it directly at one point in the book, making another deeply Canadian observation about how incredible it is for a politician blessed with so few outwardly obvious political gifts to reach such heights in politics.
“I actually talk about how he is the most impressive prime minister I’ve ever seen,” Mercer says. “In order to be elected, you have to have certain tools in your toolbox. Most politicians are born with those tools … and Stephen Harper does not have many of those tools. He does not want to talk to a stranger on a plane, and that’s not a criticism because lots of people don’t. But, generally, the Brian Mulroneys, the Chretiens and those types of people would be more than happy to chew the ear off of whoever they are sitting next to, whether they are a CEO or working on an assembly line. Stephen Harper is not that guy, he doesn’t want to knock on doors and talk to strangers. He is a policy guy. I have a certain respect for him just for the success he achieved by being the type of person he is. He was basically an introvert.”
Readers do not have to be interested in Canadian politics to enjoy The Road Years. The underlying question that fuels the book is introduced in the first line of the first chapter: “What does it mean to Be Canadian?” While Mercer may include lots of political figures in the book to help answer the question, he also revisits segments from his show that had him covering the inspired and occasionally bizarre activities that regular folk engage in across the nation. That includes chapters about how he was roped into participating in something called the Train of Death in Varney, Ont., an ill-advised race involving three cars chained together. “The goal is to inspire high-speed pileups. It is a motorsport invented in hell,” he writes. Mercer also writes how he sported a beard of bees during a segment based out of a farm near Langley. B.C., despite not knowing if he was allergic to bee stings.
Mercer also isn’t afraid to fanboy over Canadian celebrities in the book. That’s most apparent in the chapter on his interactions with legendary prog-rock trio Rush. He did segments with bassist-vocalist Geddy Lee and guitarist Alex Lifeson but is most enthralled with an episode when he receives lessons from the late Neil Peart, Rush’s press-shy but supernaturally talented drummer. Mercer also dedicates an entire chapter to his relationship with Calgary singer-songwriter, actress, TV host and author Jann Arden, which has lasted nearly 20 years. Arden is set to publish her debut novel, The Bittlemores, and will join Mercer on a literary tour that includes a sold-out Calgary event on Nov. 17 at The Grand. Back when they first met in 2004, Mercer only knew the singer from her doleful hit songs and had no idea she was so funny. She was enlisted for an emergency, last-minute segment when something else fell through in Calgary back in 2004.
“I just imagined this soft-spoken, quiet person pointing out the Calgary Tower in a very melancholy way, making some sad observation,” he says. “I thought ‘I may have my work cut out for me.’ Of course, she showed up like a whirling dervish and she didn’t stop talking. I knew she would be gold and I knew she would become a regular on a show that philosophically never had regulars.”
Touring his book will give Mercer a chance to revisit his cross-country TV days, which ended when the Rick Mercer Report went off the air in 2018 after 15 seasons. As for politics, Mercer still pays attention, of course, but out of interest rather than necessity.
“I’m still someone who has lots of opinions, I just share them with three or four people every night on the telephone like so many other Canadians,” he says. “I just don’t have a platform in the millions anymore. But, yes, of course, there are occasions where I wish that I was writing commentary in some form or another or in the sketch business again. But, for the time being, I’m happy not being in the commentary business.”
Rick Mercer and Jann Arden will appear at The Grand for a Wordfest event on Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. This event is sold out. The Road Years: A Memoir Continued is now in stores.