A Notable Chat with Rick Mercer on Fears, His Bucket List, and the Problem with Young People

Flying planes, sitting in fighter jets, hanging off buildings, and plunging into freezing cold water – it’s all in a day’s work for Rick Mercer.

His job also lets him rant his way through graffiti-filled alleys about pretty much anything on his politically fuelled mind. As Canada’s number-one political satirist and a beloved comedic TV personality (and he has over two dozen Gemini Awards to prove it), Mercer calls politics his “sport.”

But you probably know that already.

After all, CBC’s Rick Mercer Report will head into its 13th season fresh from a 12th that was capped with three Canadian Screen Awards.

If you’re not familiar with Mercer’s cross-country exploits and challenges on the show, you may know him as the guy who once made headlines when he convinced then-presidential candidate George W. Bush to answer questions about the fictional Canadian Prime Minister “Jean Poutine.”

Because anyone who pulls off a stunt like that is worth chatting with, we caught up with Mercer recently at the CBC building in Toronto. Here are some of the highlights:

What issues should today’s young people care about the most?
Obviously, my first thought goes to politics. I find it upsetting that young people – while they’re incredibly active and I don’t believe they’re apathetic by any stretch – I’m constantly amazed by how removed they are from the political process. I followed a number of campaigns across the country, with the prime ministers and leaders. Stephen Harper will speak at six old age homes in one day, but he won’t go anywhere near an environment where there’s people who are 25 to 35 years old. It just won’t happen – unless it’s a staged photo op in someone’s office. They would never go into a university. And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t visit old age homes, but the reality is that those people vote in huge numbers. When the government of the day knows that the 25 to 35-year-olds won’t vote, then they’re going to completely ignore them. That’s why you see that all the programs that are brought into government are geared towards that demographic.

Why do you think Rick Mercer Report appeals to young professionals?
I think that people have an innate interest in the country, and a love for the country, and most people – especially the young professionals – are very busy with their lives, whether they have young families, or they’re just starting their career. They can’t drop everything and just decide to explore Canada for six months of the year. But they can turn on Rick Mercer, and it’s like ‘Oh look, he’s in Moncton,’ or, ‘He’s in the mountains of British Columbia.’ I think that I reflect that innate interest in the country. It may sound cheesy, but it’s exactly what I do.

Of all the incredible things you’ve done, what scared you the most?
Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret. A lot of people think ‘oh my God, he’s so brave, he does all of these scary things.’ But with a lot of the things I do, I’m just playing into people’s fears. They’re not necessarily dangerous, but a lot of people are just terrified of heights. So, if I dangle off the top of the CN Tower, or a hydro line, or hang off the side of a helicopter, it makes them very uncomfortable. My brother is a commercial airline pilot, but he’s afraid of heights. There’s no way he’d climb to the top of a hydro tower and hangout up there for a million dollars. I’m not a superhero, I just happen to be comfortable around heights – that’s all.

There’s nothing that’s scared you?
Oh, they put me on the back of a bucking horse once, and I don’t like horses. I wish I liked horses and I wish they liked me, but I just don’t have that type of relationship with them. I was on the back of this bucking horse and they were saying ‘oh, don’t worry, he’s old, he’s not going to buck very much.’ Then I just thought you know what? I’m going to end up paralyzed; I’m not doing this. I was just terrified. Also, things to do with demolition derbies – I’ve had to do a few of those. The thing is, once you get in there and you get hit, the adrenaline takes over like a mad person and it’s actually very cathartic to crash into cars with your car. But the whole preparation part is a very nerve-wracking experience.

What’s left on your bucket list?
I’m kind of working through the bucket list. The exciting thing about the show is that I do things that I would put on my bucket list, but in hindsight. I always go on these adventures that I’m not even aware existed two weeks beforehand. So, it’s hard to say. I’d like to hangout with Neil Young. That’s not really my format, but the advantage of the show is that it’s my format, and if Neil Young wanted to hangout, I could make it work.

Of anyone you’ve met, who’s left the biggest impact on you?
Well, Rick Hansen – which may be cliché because everybody knows he’s a great Canadian – has always been a bit of a hero of mine. Sometimes, someone’s reputation is bigger than the individual can live up to, but with him – and I got to spend a bit of time with him – he exceeded expectations. He is a tremendous individual, and I was very privileged to spend time with him. I threw him off a bridge attached to a bungee cord, so that was fun too.

You’ve used your platform to raise awareness for some pretty important issues. What resonates with you the most?
We started the Spread the Net Student Challenge for The Rick Mercer Report. I didn’t know what to expect. We started out with university students, but now it’s spread to elementary and high school students. That is one of my favourite shows every year, because students at schools all across the country raise money for this great cause; to purchase these anti-malaria bed nets for people in Africa who need them. When you look at the contest details, you realize that really no school has any chance of winning. I just go to the people who raise the most money across Canada. Even at the elementary school level, you figure out really quickly that there are bigger schools, or more affluent schools. So, everyone is taking part in this fundraising event just because they want to do it, and yet, millions and millions of dollars are raised. I have very little credit; I just promote it. The sacrifices they make to support Spread the Net are really astounding. It’s really heartwarming, because you see kids relating to the charity because it involves other kids.

As Rick Mercer, do you feel pressure to be “on” all the time off-camera?
Sometimes, but I think that’s something you worry about when you’re younger. I think that people expect people in entertainment to be the life of the party and a total extravert. I’m not an extrovert – I can be when the camera is rolling – but I tend not to be that loud person. So, sometimes, I’ll get ‘oh, he was kind of quiet.’ And I’m like, actually no, I’m just sitting at the table. I get nervous of people who like to draw attention to themselves. I can’t imagine going out of my way to draw attention to myself if I was out for dinner or something. It seems like a weird thing to do; like, how needy do you have to be?

How do you spend your down time?
I like to travel. Right now, my focus when I do get free time is getting back to Newfoundland. I draw a lot of inspiration from being from Newfoundland. The longer I’m away from it, the more I want to be able to spent time there, especially in the summer.

As for the show’s 13th season, Mercer says we can expect to see a greater focus on chats with average Canadians, as opposed to those who “work inside the bubble of Ottawa.”

Catch The Rick Mercer Report on CBC on Tuesdays at 8pm.