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Rick Mercer after television: Living on the down-low

Mercer made it clear that the scathing pundit we saw on TV isn’t the same guy talking to Record columnist Joel Rubinoff on the phone

Article Via The Record

On camera he’s a rapscallion trickster, an irreverent showboat angling for the camera as he ping pongs around the country like a juiced up pinball.

Off camera he’s, well, less animated.

“We’ve had to close our office,” responds a friendly but businesslike Rick Mercer when I ask what he’s been doing in the two weeks since “The Rick Mercer Report” bid farewell after 15 years as an iconic Canadian masthead.

“I haven’t really had much time for anything else. We have to get rid of all the chairs. There are a lot of trucks delivering furniture to a liquidation place. Practical things.”

The night before our conversation he emceed an appearance by Steve Martin at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, where he jokingly compared the legendary comic’s ubiquitous banjo to a service dog.

“I wasn’t insulting service animals,” he points out, concerned someone may have misconstrued his point. “But I won’t be surprised if I get a letter.”

He laughs, reverting to his colourful TV persona for a brief instant.

“And if I do, it will be from someone who doesn’t have a service animal.”

While he offers no explanation for pulling the plug on his long-running show, he does note, somewhat pointedly, that in an era of increasing social sensitivities, “it’s become very difficult to have an opinion and be in the comedy business.

“This a very difficult time,” he notes, perhaps revealing more than he intends.

“Out of the blue you suddenly have mass hysteria based on something you said, taken out of context. Someone is always hurt and outraged.”

More specific he won’t get, although he told a Toronto newspaper his main motivation for bidding adieu to a show as Canadian as poutine, Beavertails and Gord Downie songs was the fear of sticking around too long.

Ironic then that his Kitchener appearance — a fundraiser for Themuseum — will focus not on new material but highlights from his decade-and-a-half TV reign, an epochal era that stretched from Paul Martin to Justin Trudeau, Sam Roberts to Shawn Mendes, “Trailer Park Boys” to “Kim’s Convenience.”

“As funny as the show may be,” he explains, happy to stick to a clear promotional tack, “the real story is never seen on TV. There’s always a behind-the-scenes story, looking behind the curtains.”

Examples? Hey, he’s not stupid. Come to his show.

Nor will he confirm which, if any, local incidents will feature prominently, though he certainly has a lot to choose from.

Over the years, the sharp-witted Newfoundland native has found a receptive home at Oktoberfest, flying a gyroplane a thousand feet above Kitchener, spinning around a Waterloo track in a driverless car, playing bike polo and overseeing cardboard boat races with kids.

In a memorable rant from a decade ago, he took great pleasure skewering local politicians who hoarded tickets for an Elton John concert.

“If we go to Kitchener we only go to say it’s the greatest place ever,” he insists, emphasizing the show’s thumbs-up attitude toward every Canadian city.

“How lucky am I? I did that 500 times!”

When I bring up local controversies — specifically, a second Mike Harris appointed as a Tory election candidate to replace a same-name predecessor kicked out over sexual misconduct allegations — he makes it clear the scathing pundit we saw on TV isn’t the same guy talking to me on the phone.

“They’ll save money on signs,” is all he’ll allow, declining to delve into issues of moral culpability.

“It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book. Find a guy with the same name to confuse voters. But I think it’s just a coincidence.”

Friendly and polite, it becomes clear that no amount of prodding is going to spark the kind of incendiary outrage and satirical posturing that made Mercer a Canadian TV institution.

“I’m generally a fairly private guy,” he confides when I ask about reactions to him on the street. “I don’t spend a lot of time out and about.”

But if his edges have smoothed after 15 years in a mass media time slot, rest assured this was not always the case.

“I think as a young performer, you often step over the line — and there are so many different lines,” he muses in determined non-specifics. “Everything changes as you grow older.”

What was he like as a 10-year-old?

“I don’t think I was rowdy, but I was trying to get laughs. Your first audience is your mother. But your first real audience is your classmates.

“The first thing you do is take down the teachers. It sets in motion an instinct to tear down.”

After 15 years of tearing down, it’s clear the newly unemployed 48-year-old — at least in the short term — is going to be following another instinct: winding down.

And the lower his profile, the happier he’ll be.

An Evening With Rick Mercer
Tuesday (May 1), 7:30 p.m.
Marshall Hall, Bingemans, Kitchener
Tickets $110
jrubinoff@therecord.com, Twitter: @JoelRubinoff