Rick Mercer began his career in comedy performing and writing a series of one-man stage shows, beginning with Show Me the Button, I'll Push It, which debuted at the National Arts Centre in 1990 and went on to tour across the country. Subsequent theatre performances included I've Killed Before, I'll Kill Again (1992) and Canada: A Good Place to Hide (1995).
In 1994, this St. John's native launched his television career as a performer and writer on the topical weekly show This Hour Has 22 Minutes, which he left in 2001. In 1998, he joined Gerald Lunz and Michael Donovan to create the satirical dramatic series Made in Canada, where he again starred and contributed as a writer. In 2001, his special Talking to Americans became the highest rated Canadian comedy special of all time with 2.7 millions viewers.
Rick Mercer's Monday Report, a weekly half-hour of topical comedy, debuted on CBC Television in January 2004; it is now in its second season. In November 2004, Mercer received the National Arts Centre Award at the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards, and in December 2004, he received two Gemini Awards: Best Writing in a Comedy and Best Performance in a Comedy for the CBC Television series Made in Canada.
In 2002, he was presented with an honorary doctor of letters from Laurentian University. Among numerous other awards, he has been co-named Journalist of the Year at the Atlantic Journalism Awards, Artist of the Year from the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council, and he has received a number of Canadian Comedy Awards. He receiced his honorary degree from Memorial at the Spring convocation at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in Corner Brook.
Oration honouring Rick Mercer
Given by Shane O'Dea, Public orator
One expects a satirist to take his cue from Jonathan Swift or Ambrose Bierce to be embittered, trapped in his own failings, railing at the corruption of a world over which he has no control. Rick Mercer bears no likeness to these great figures. Through his ambushes, his streeters, his talking to Americans, he has become commentator in that most common sense of the word: he has encouraged the subject to comment upon itself. Rick Mercer has us look into the matter and asks those questions which we as audience must answer. Now, mind you, the question is set in such a loaded context that we are led to the answer.
As a teenager his initial involvement with theatre was quite peripheral he was in charge of the programs until one day he had no program and so introduced it all verbally and his program was better than the show. And suddenly he was in the theatre club. But we have to look at the consequence of this. Rick Mercer is a man who spent his last high school year on tour with a clown and did not graduate; whose only high school diploma is an honorary one and that from a school for the learning disabled; a man who has made a name for himself making mock of some of the finest Ivy League universities. And it does not stop there. You have all been following the Gomery Inquiry and know of the restaurant meeting where an envelope full of money mysteriously changed hands. Well, it appears that the most damaging revelation in the inquiry is yet to come: that there was another restaurant event. This time at Harvey's in Ottawa where Rick Mercer sponsored Jean Chrétien to a shake and fries, and thereby improved the CBC budget for the coming year. Now, Mr. Vice-Chancellor, you presume to give him our highest accolade? The fact that he is one of Canada's best-known comedians one who had two shows at the National Arts Centre by the time he was 23, was one of the great characters on the phenomenally successful This Hour Has 22 Minutes, creator of Made in Canada and Monday Report, winner of over 25 Geminis may excuse your presumption. The fact that he has already received an honorary degree from another university also helps but it only suggests we are a little slow. In any event we need to be clear about why we recognize Rick Mercer. We know he is famous, we rejoice in his fortune but today, here, we honour his sense of responsibility, his loyalty, and his boundless creativity.
Born, as he has often told us, into that North American anomaly, the functional family, he grew up in another anomaly: the suburban outport of Middle Cove. Schooled if that is not an overstatement at Prince of Wales he became head of the student council there. His foray into school politics was a natural extension of an already highly-developed interest in the topic. At home, politics was the main course at supper. In his first job, at 13 in Shea's Hamburger Hell, he combined politics and potato peeling for Hughie Shea, its owner, his godfather and a real political curio. Rick Mercer really should have been an early candidate for the Roman Catholic priesthood or Mao's Red Guard. Except that, he was never a zealot.
What, you say, that man with the eyes of a gimlet and mouth of a cynic, how could he not be a zealot? Did he not take time out to fly home and vote in the Denominational Education Referendum? Has he not crucified half of Canada's politicians? Did he not annihilate the Reform Party with his famous phone-in renaming of Stockwell Day as Doris Day. All true but not entirely true. Mercer has certainly made many a politician look less than brilliant but he has also made them more human why he even made us smile with Preston Manning. This deft touch has given Rick access to all manner of persons and to appear on television with him is a kind of certification of humanity that even their mothers were unable to provide. That honorary high school diploma? It was a mark of respect from the learning disabled to the learning disinclined, to a comedian who can go to the limit but seldom over the line. And would you not expect him, coming from the artsy crowd, to have a somewhat negative view of the military? Then why did he do Christmas In Kabul, his show about and for Canada's forces in Afghanistan? Likely because they were ordinary Canadians, many of them Newfoundlanders, on a dangerous mission of reconstruction. After 9/11 his brilliant Talking to Americans was nominated for two Geminis. Rick, feeling the human loss of that September day, knew it required a deep respect, and asked that his nomination be withdrawn. Rick Mercer is no common clown. Shakespeare's true fool, he is a man of more than uncommon humanity with a deep sense of the responsibility of his craft and wit.
But let us also add to this a commendation for loyalty. The National Arts Centre put off his first major piece, Show Me the Button, and he was ever after grateful to them, at one point interrupting a vacation to come out and host their show on Atlantic arts and artists. But gratitude to one did not mean neglect of another: he required that much of the production be done in Newfoundland. And, when he won the Governor General's Performing Arts Award, he gave the cheque to the LSPU Hall to help artists in the place where he had begun his professional career. Vice-Chancellor, I present to you for the degree of doctor of letters, honoris causa, that man who is Canada's scourge and Newfoundland's pride, Rick Mercer.
Address to Convocation
I know what you're thinking "My God he's so tall."
Mr. President, honoured guests, Mom, Dad. Nice of you to make it.
Thank you for this.
But most of all, to my fellow graduates. Congratulations.
Each and every one of you is here today for one reason. You made the decision to buckle down and do the hard work. And as a result, you have in your hand a university degree.
I'd love to tell you that they just don't give those to anyone but… Really? How else did I get here?
Apparently in Newfoundland they give out degrees for being saucy now.
It's about time really. It's one of our greatest exports.
I guess what I really mean to say is, you have devoted years of your life to achieve this goal, you've made many personal sacrifices and in more cases then not you are now saddled with a sizeable personal debt.
I on the other hand did none of those things and yet somehow I'm the one with the doctorate.
And not just any doctorate, but a doctorate of letters!
My fellow graduates, on a good day, I cannot spell graduate.
And in my capacity as doctor let me say to you all, please remove your clothes.
This is a wonderful time to be graduating from university. Canada's economy is strong Newfoundland and Labradors economy is in better shape now than it has ever been. The Conference Board of Canada says Newfoundland and Labrador's economy will steal the national spotlight in 2006. In fact you ask any economist and they will tell you that by 2007 there will be plenty of well paying jobs in Canada: If you are a qualified welder. Unfortunately the last time I looked, MUN doesn't produce welders. They do however produce students with degrees in the theatre arts, some of which I know are in the audience tonight.
To you I say "Congratulations, I don't know what you told your parents to get them to go along with that, but good on ya."
I want you to know, it is a huge privilege for me to take part in this celebration today. I never attended Memorial University; or any other university for that matter. Unless of course you include concerts. When my friends were planning on going to MUN, for some reason I had other plans.
I was talking to my father about this not long ago, and I was telling him that I wished I went to university back when I had the chance. I said, "You know Dad, looking back, I think at the time I lacked the wisdom of seeing how important a post secondary education really is." Dad said, "No, what you lacked was a high school diploma. Work on that first."
Hopefully I will go to MUN someday.
This is, in fact, a Mercer family tradition. When I was five or six, my mother who was in her 40s with four children at home, went to Memorial University for the first time and got her degree.
So while I don't have nightmares about not being prepared for my university exams, I do have nightmares about my mother not being prepared for her chemistry exams.
My father attended Memorial University for two years in 1952 and then decided to take a year off. One year stretched into two and then three and well you know the rest. Except in my father's case he returned to MUN at the age of 65 and completed a degree in political science. So while I never attended university, I figured dad waited until he was 65 to get his degree, if I get one by 60 I'm ahead of the game. Of course I don't mean to belittle this honorary degree. Far from it. In fact I have read that once you have been granted an honorary doctorate you are legally entitled to be referred to as doctor, but that conventional wisdom says is that it would be gauche to insist that people refer you as "doctor" in your everyday life.
My fellow graduates I am here to tell you, I am not a conventional man.
My fellow graduates, I believe its standard operating procedure that at this point in the speech, the person giving the commencement address should offer some insights about the world to the graduating class. And even God forbid offer some advice.
Parents, this might be a good time to slip outside for a bit. Maybe get some air. So? Advice to the graduates.
I thought about this long and hard. And you know what? I don't really have any.
In fact I have determined that I know less now than when I was your age.
And speaking of your age, can I just take a moment to say you all look fabulous.
It had to be said. I would go so far as to say that you are by far the best looking class to ever graduate from Memorial University thus far. Far better looking than the crowd in St. John's.
Actually okay, there you go, I do have some advice: moisturize. My fellow graduates, you are young, you won't believe me but for gods sake moisturize. If you take anything with you today, take that advice. You will thank me down the road. Remember the skin is an organ.
Now where was I?
Oh yes I've determined that as time goes on, I simply know less and less all the time. In fact, if this keeps up, by the time I retire I could very well be functionally retarded.
But still a doctor!
So that said, let me take the very little that I know and pass it on to you now: Good things will come out of bad situations. I know this because of Talking To Americans.
Wherever I go in this country, people want to talk to me about Talking to Americans. I've done lots of things in my career, but that's what they want to talk about.
And I don't mind, I'm proud of the show.
It completely changed my career, it allowed me to eventually get my own show and it certainly made a lot of money for the people who produced it. When it aired the first time in Canada it got 2.7 million viewers making it the highest rated comedy show ever produced in Canada.
We beat the Stanley cup playoffs that year.
But the amazing thing about the entire experience for me is that it came about as a complete and utter fluke, it was my mistake, my accident in the lab.
It's an excellent example of how a good thing can come out of a bad situation.
It came about as a result of what we call the actors nightmare.
Now all actors have the actor's nightmare.
Basically the nightmare is your on stage, your in a play, its going really well, there's a full house, you and the audience is loving the show, and suddenly its your turn to deliver the line and you realize you have no idea what your line is, or even what play your doing. Then you wake up screaming.
That's the actor's nightmare.
Well that came through for me one day in Washington D.C.
We were a few years into the This Hour Has 22 Minutes, and I had this idea to shoot some pieces in Washington D.C. It worked once people liked it, second time, it was good but not so good, and I convinced the producers of the show to send me down a third time.
Well this time I was really worked it. I came up with what I thought were three really funny ideas.
I got there, shot the first one, it stank, the second one was worse, the third one was awful.
So here I am, in Washington DC. I have nothing. Everything I worked on failed.
The producer and the cameraman are looking at me saying, well what are we gonna do now. And I didn't have a bloody clue. The actor's nightmare had come true.
I was going to have to get back on a plane. With nothing. And tell the people who spent the money, the producers, the Scottish producers, that I had nothing.
So basically I'm thinking "My career is over."
And this well heeled Washington, D.C., type walks by and sees the CBC logo and says Canadian Broadcasting Corporation hey. And I say yes.
From Canada hey …
I said yes.
He said " Wow, what you doing way up here"
And I looked at the cameraman Peter … gave him the international symbol for roll the camera my career has been saved. And I said, our new Prime Minister Ralph Benmurgui is coming to town for a summit with the president and everyone in Canada is trying to figure out whether it should be called the "Clinton-Benmurgui" summit or the "Benmurgui-Clinton" summit?" The next thing you know the guy is blathering on about Prime Minister Benmurgui and he won't shut up. He really thinks it should be called the Benmurgui-Clinton summit, and I'm saying…well president Benmurgi is shy so he might not like that. And buddy's saying …yes, I heard he was shy. And the next thing you know I'm interviewing half of Washington about a man that doesn't exist and they're all telling me what they think of the guy.
We went to the airport, I brought it home, ran it up the flagpole and people loved it. It was a home run. Now there is a rule in comedy, and I think this can be applied to any venture you find yourself involved in. My fellow graduates, the rule is this: When you find something that works, you beat it like a rented mule. So over the next few years I spent a lot of time in the United States.
And every week the bit got more and more popular.
Academics wrote papers on why it was popular.
And I never really knew why it was but I did know that when I was doing it I was utilizing the one skill that in school they constantly tell you will get you nowhere in life. The skill to just totally bullshit someone.
And lets face it I'm not the only guy from this province with that ability.
Well turns out they were wrong… take that skill combine it with a bad attitude …and in this country, it will get you 2.7 million viewers on a Monday night.
And eventually an honorary doctorate.
I'm assuming most people in this class are in fact Newfoundlanders.
If there are any non-Newfoundlanders in this class I am assuming that while you're not Newfoundlanders per sea you do have exquisite taste and a good sense of humour.
And plus by now there's a pretty good chance you've slept with a Newfoundlander and I'm telling you once you've started down that road there's no going back.
So basically you're Newfoundlanders.
This is what I know.
You won the lotto when you were born in Canada, but you hit the jackpot when you were born in Newfoundland.
And the same goes for anyone who's come here from anywhere on this planet and made this province home.
Except the problem is that this country, this great country is a little screwed up right and I hate to tell you but it's up to your generation to fix them.
It's your job, because the crowd in charge now is just making it worse.
Our problem is our size. As far as countries go, with our population, we are too bloody big. We are this small population of 30 million people stretched out over this vast landmass.
And wherever you look in this country, people are becoming more and more isolated. Regions are starting to view the country as not a whole, not as a union, but as a nation of us versus them.
We live in a country where Newfoundland is often mad at the Mainland.
The mainland resents Newfoundland.
Ontario is pissed at Quebec.
The west is angry at the east.
And not only that, just to drive us nuts, in the West when they say "East" they mean Ontario. We don't even count.
We have a separatist government in Quebec.
And nobody in Canada knows a friggen thing about the North.
This is the country you live in. Its broken and you have to fix it.
And you have your work cut out for you.
If you go to the airport right now it's probably cheaper to fly to Paris than it costs to fly to Lab City.
It's cheaper to visit Florida than to visit Alberta.
We all know what its like to talk to someone who says, "Newfoundland? I've been to Newfoundland, well actually I haven't been to Newfoundland but I've been to Nova Scotia."
Of course the proper response is you want to throttle that person.
But you have to go one step further and promise you never will be that person.
Be the person who can say, well I've been to Alberta, I met some cowboys and they weren't like that at all.
Be the person who says I do know some farmers in Saskatchewan. And I understand their point of view.
Make sure you can say with all honestly that you have danced in Montréal until the sun came up.
And be the person who can say, "Well actually yes I have eaten seal with some Inuit and you don't know what the hell you are talking about."
Basically my challenge to you is, skip the cheap fair to Florida and go check out Canada.
And while you're at it, drag the people you meet back here so they can learn a thing or too about where we come from.
So that is my challenge to you. Don't let the country fall apart on your watch.
I believe it is traditional that at the end of these addresses that one quotes a great leader or poet, usually Winston Churchill.
I think the point is to leave the audience with words from a really good writer, with the hope that they will forget everything else the goof who made the speech said.
With that in mind I leave you today with the words of, not Winston Churchill, but the poet and musician Lou Reed who wrote.
"I hope its true what my wife said to me, she said, Lou it's the beginning of a great adventure."
I don't know if in Lou's case she was right but, fellow graduates, in your case no truer word have been written.
To the graduating class of 2005 I say to you; "This is the beginning of your great adventure."
Have fun and make a difference.
And don't forget to vote.