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2022 - Mulling over the Mercer Memoir

Mark Critch’s book, An Embarrassment of Critches, made me laugh more often.  The Prairie Chicken Dance Tour by Dawn Dumont touched me with its poignancy and import.  But after reading the three books short-listed for the 2022 Leacock Medal, I thought that Rick Mercer, the other finalist and eventual winner, deserved the award for his memoir Talking to Canadians.

The Leacock Medal honours Canadian humour and humour writing, and Mercer, as one of the country’s better-known personalities, looms large as a source of smiles and laughs for many people across Canada.

But someone who did not know him could read his medal-winning book and see it as a work that was not all that humorous.  It doesn’t contain many joke-like passages or episodes of glaring comedy.  It is, as promoted, a genuine effort to recount the events and experience in the author’s life that led him to becoming the person we know.  That is the roving rant machine and small-town celebrator who anchored CBC’s Rick Mercer Report for close to 14 years.  The book ends on the threshold of this part of his career, leaving the door open to a likely sequel and keeping the focus of the formative prelude era.

Mercer tells his story with emphasis on the happier moments and has lighter takes on the more challenging events that shaped him, and he does this in the smile-inducing, tongue-in-cheek raging mode that is his iconic style.

Mercer also recalls the detail around his humour-laden work on the This Hour has 22 Minutes, the weekly comedy show that first brought his personality to the national stage. But when he does this, it is in a more nuts and bolts, matter of fact, or process-centred way. 

Overall, it could be read as a largely serious story by those who know little of the author.

Yet, for those of us who know Mercer well, it’s hard to read this book without smiling.

Like most written works, the humour flows at the confluence of the text, the author’s intent, and the reader’s receptors.  With written humour, we smile not because what's on the page or even in a joke alone, but because of the images, thoughts, and recollections that are stimulated,  congeal in our minds, and induce a laugh or smile.  And most of us reading Talking to Canadians think, as we flip the pages, about the TV Rick Mercer, how he makes us feel and how his work on TV and the stage has made us laugh over the years.  So, when he recounts the mechanics of specific projects,  such as the time he cajoled MPs to sing Raise a Little Hell  in a campaign to encourage young people to vote or the TV special Talking with Americans, we recall the people, the images, and the commentary.  And, that's what makes us smile.

When I think of Mercer's TV career, I remember, above all else, his interview with another Leacock Medal winner, Pierre Berton, in 2004. It forms my last memory of Berton, eighty-four-years-old at the time and fated to die later that year, Berton took part in the TV show  to demonstrate how to roll a  joint. At the time, I bemoaned the loss of personalities like Pierre Berton, but consoled myself that another generation of Canadian humorists, like Mercer, had taken his place.  Now, Mercer is at a point in life where he can legitimately look back on it in a memoir.

So, it is the mix of memories as much as the memoir that makes me smile and creates the humour of this book.   

But this humour, so-defined, is layered across a coherent story as well.  Mercer may not see it as easily as others, but his memoir has a coherent, cause-and-effect flow with the right mix of setbacks and success as he ascends his personal showbusiness career.

You can see the pieces coming together when his struggles in school and his small-town Bay boy efforts to fit into St. John’s resolve in the embrace of a theatre group at Prince of Wales Collegiate.  It’s also evident as his sexual identity and emergence as a gay man finds a love and life-long partnership that intertwined with his profession.  I think Mercer fans can leave the book feeling they know him a bit better, being reminded of the things that he's done in his life, and understanding the factors that came together to make that accomplishment.

So, Mercer’s memoir has its own kind of humour, it tells a story that pulls you along, and it is a bit revealing and informative. 

All good reasons to advance it for a literary award. But to my mind, the quality that pushes it over the top into Leacock Medal worthy territory is the pervasive and ever-present love for Canada and the people who populate it.

The sum of the book’s qualities linked to images of Mercer’s work and personality were on full display in his Leacock Medal acceptance speech in September 2022.  With a  story of dentistry and a pigeon’s wing wrapped up in interactions with typical Canadians, Mercer gave most audience members the best reason for laughing since the pandemic broke out in 2020.

So even though I can still say it's not as poignant as one book and not as obviously funny as another, I’d believe Rick Mercer’s Talking to Canadians more than deserves the Leacock Medal for 2022.