Rick Mercer: The Road He’s Taken

By Pam Pardy

“The train of death -” that’s one time where I legitimately thought I could possibly be killed on the show,” says Rick Mercer, reflecting on 15 seasons of “The Rick Mercer Report” on CBC TV. It’s one of many insights readers will get while going down memory lane with Rick in his new book, The Road Years: A memoir, continued…
The train of death is a popular fan event in Varney – home to the fastest quarter-mile racetrack in all of southern Ontario. Three race cars are linked together using three-foot-long chains between each car. The first car has a driver with steering, brakes and engine. The second and third cars have drivers, too, but they only have steering and brakes – no engine. Rick was to have the wildest ride of his life in the third and last car. You can watch the craziness unfold on YouTube.
Many of us have had what we’d call near-death experiences, Rick continues. “You know, a near miss by a car or something, and you only have to close your eyes if you’ve had a true near-death experience and you’re right back there in the moment. That train of death was definitely one of mine.”
Such daring feats were often par for the course on “The Rick Mercer Report,” a show that was up for just about anything – and so was its star.  “I really thought, okay. You have a natural fear of heights and yet you’re on top of the CN Tower. That’s terrifying, but you’re tied on and you kind of know on some intellectual level that you’re not going die, no matter what your brain is telling you. Whereas with the train of death, I really thought, ‘Oh, this is it.’”
While writing a decade later about the terrorizing experience may have felt like a horrific flashback, all Rick said to the camera at the time was, “I’ll view this the same way I viewed Grade 11. As long as I get through it, it’s a victory.”
At the end of his previous memoir, Talking to Canadians, Rick wrote that he was poised to make the biggest leap ever in his already spectacular career. He’d already overcome what he joked was a serious lack of promise as a schoolboy while growing up in Middle Cove, NL, and had risen through the showbiz ranks on “This Hour Has 22 Minutes” and the dark-comedy sitcom “Made in Canada.”
The Road Years tackles the incredibly fun, yet crazy years Rick spent making “The Rick Mercer Report.” The show included his political satire and patented rants, of course, but Rick and his partner, Gerald Lunz, were also determined to do something that comedies often avoid: they would focus on the positive. Over 15 seasons of the show, Rick travelled the country in search of the best of the best of Canada and its people. He found much to celebrate.
Town after glorious town, Rick visited military bases, sports centres, national parks and race tracks to try everything from dog sledding and chainsaw carving to bull riding. He hung from harnesses in some crazy places and tackled many fun – yet reckless – assignments. Along his journey, Rick encountered some of this country’s greats, including Canadian singer-songwriter Jann Arden.
Jann, Rick says, deserved her own chapter in The Road Years. “Jann was often legitimately terrified. Part of my show was putting myself in terrifying positions, and I often was terrified myself, and I write about that in the book. There were times when I really was afraid, but it was kind of my job and I enjoyed that part of the job.”
Not that he would ever describe himself as an adrenaline junkie, but he did enjoy the unknown and unexpected. But Jann did not, and that made each show she was on with him even more fun. “Jann always did whatever, but she wasn’t acting when she was terrified and she totally wasn’t acting when she was screaming, ‘Lose my number! Never call me again!’ She meant it. But every time I called, she would take the call.”
Rick laughs about the time he had her ride a bull. “There was no plan. I just made a call and we got a bull and we put her on it, and it was very funny. But I think everyone will understand why she gets her own chapter.” More laughter.
It wasn’t only Jann who was along for the ride of her life with Rick. Added to the mix of fabulous guests were many of the country’s greats. Every living prime minister appeared alongside Rick. So did rock and roll royalty from Rush to Randy Bachman. There was even a skinny-dipping Bob Rae.
“That scene was just out of necessity because we weren’t catching any fish, and that would have been mortifying and very embarrassing because we were in basically the best place on planet Earth to get a fish,” Rick explains about that unforgettable episode. There they were in beautiful northern Ontario, fishing, for a television show, and not getting a single fish. “It was one of those magical shows because it had all the elements. It had a really interesting cast. It had beautiful Canadian scenery like nobody’s business. And there was an activity that people could either relate to or be fascinated by. And, you know, a lot of Canadians like to fish, and they would all love to fish in that place. And it was so nice and so outrageously stunning.”
But no fish meant they had to do something. Even the spectacular scenery wouldn’t carry the show, he says with a laugh. Thus, the skinny dipping. Makes total sense!
Besides the humour and the terrifying side of taping “Rick Mercer Report,” what stands out are the people he worked with and the places he visited.
“Growing up in Newfoundland – of course, Newfoundland is like nowhere else geographically – but when you grow up in Newfoundland and then you visit northern Ontario or the interior of British Columbia, places so completely different and beautiful in such a different way than home, you really feel how amazing this country truly is,” he says.
Aptly portraying that beauty on TV was the job of camera operator Don Spence. The show’s director of photography is truly a great artist, Rick says. “He can make a parking lot look good. So when we gave him Northern Ontario or Petty Harbor in Newfoundland to work with, he would shoot just spectacular footage. And, you know, we were not a nature show, so we weren’t famous for that, but by osmosis, we were a really good-looking show because of Don.”
Of course, the show would not have been what it was without Rick’s wit, which is odd because he never considered himself all that funny. “I never thought I was the funniest because, as you know, there’s just a lot of funny people in Newfoundland. And as Mary Walsh used to say, ‘Being funny is the coin of the realm.’ There was great value placed on being funny. I remember reading tips once for a job interview and they said, you know, if you’re in a job interview, never, never attempt to be funny. It’s too dangerous and it will backfire. And I thought, well if you’re not funny, you won’t get any job in Newfoundland.”
Any final thoughts? Rick pauses. There’s a whole bunch of gratitude for the life and career he’s had so far, he says. “I literally considered myself incredibly lucky every single day to be doing the job I was doing. And I’m very well aware that very few people in this world get to do what they want and enjoy it. That’s a huge luxury.”

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