TORONTO (CP) _ Rick Mercer is still giddy about his "sleepover" at 24 Sussex Drive, in reality a couple of hours at the prime ministerial residence hanging out with Stephen Harper and his children.
The show earned "The Rick Mercer Report" its second-highest ratings in its three-year existence, drawing close to a million viewers on Halloween night. Teamed up with "This Hour Has 22 Minutes," the two shows are beating the American fare they compete against every Tuesday night from 8 to 9 p.m. ET in the ratings _ a herculean feat for Canadian programming.
"It’s been a great year," says Mercer, sipping on a cafe latte in an east-end bistro. "Every time you finish a show you think: ‘I’ll never get another show like that,’ and every time the season ends, you think you’ll never have another season as good as that one.
"But this season I feel like we’re just totally in a groove and everything is clicking."
With increasing success has come, perhaps, some increasing scrutiny. The Newfoundlander is suddenly taking some heat. Terry Mosher, the cartoonist known as Aislin, skewered Mercer for the sleepover. The Toronto Sun has accused him of being too nice to Bob Rae _ they went skinny-dipping earlier this season _ and says he’s much harder on Liberal leadership rival Michael Ignatieff, an odd charge given Ignatieff has been deftly providing ammunition for comics and political observers across the country throughout his run for the helm of the party. Mercer is sanguine, and points out he’s an entertainer, not a journalist.
"I was happy to be in an Aislin cartoon, actually," Mercer says. "But my job first and foremost is creating a comedy show. I’ve spent time with Preston Manning, Jean Chretien, Paul Martin, Brian Mulroney and Ralph Klein. It’s my job. You can’t satisfy all the people all the time."
Not even children. One young boy approached Mercer backstage as he recently hosted the Governor-General’s Performing Arts Awards in Ottawa and told him to do away with his show’s popular "rant" segment _ the trademark Mercer gripe session that he does, remarkably, without an edit.
"He was nine or 10, and he came up to me and said ‘I like your show, but I find your rants really boring. I like when you’re a fireman and you drive the cars, but I don’t like it when you’re talking, so please stop,’ " Mercer says with a laugh.
The boy appears to be in the minority. At a recent business luncheon where Richard Stursberg, the CBC’s executive vice-president of English television, lauded Mercer’s ratings heroics, some in the crowd wondered why the public broadcaster doesn’t take advantage of his popularity and turn "The Rick Mercer Report" into a daily affair in the style of the popular U.S. hit "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."
Mercer isn’t so sure about that idea.
"My favourite part of the show is travelling Canada," he says. "It’s the adventures I love. I couldn’t shoot in Iqaluit, Vancouver, etc., and do five days a week."
In fact, he adds, it’s seeing Canada first-hand and allowing others to see it through the "Mercer Report" that is such a gratifying part of the show.
"Going up to northern Manitoba and seeing all the polar bears _ that was phenomenal. That’s a great trip that every Canadian should take. It’s just fantastic."
Hanging with politicians is also a thrill, says Mercer, especially for "a political junkie and a nerd like me. I just can’t believe I’m doing it sometimes."
Arranging to spend time with the politically powerful, however, is not always so easy _ and setting up the Harper shoot was a case in point.
"It was certainly a lengthy and complicated negotiation," he says with a wry smile. "Sometimes I felt like I was brokering a Middle East peace treaty. It was very complicated. Just standing next to the prime minister was a big deal, never mind sleeping over at 24 Sussex Drive _ and even though I didn’t actually sleep there, I might as well have."
Harper, he said, performed admirably during the segment, making Mercer a sandwich and tucking him in for a bedtime story _ the federal Accountability Act.
"There’s that old adage that the most important thing in politics is appearing sincere, and if you can fake that, you’ve got it made," he said. "That also has to do with looking like a good sport and having a sense of humour."
As for any inside tidbits about life at 24 Sussex?
"The place is crawling with kittens," Mercer says incredulously, referring to Laureen Harper’s work as a foster mother for stray cats and kittens. "There’s kittens running around everywhere. The minute you walk in the door, she’s trying to get you to take a kitten. I had to say to her as soon as I walked into the house: ‘I am not walking out of here with a kitten, do you understand me?’