Rick Mercer & Canadian Identity

[I wrote this for a writing contest a few years ago, with the theme ‘the greatest Canadian’.]

In medieval times, the opinion of the court jester was sought by royalty for his view on their decision and was listened to in an open and respectful manner. This may seem odd to some, but consider: very often the royal advisors were parasitic profiteers, disregarding the greater good in favour of their own ends. The jester was given permission to parody any royal proposals made, revealing their absurdities and disadvantages―in effect, expounding a disinterested point of view.[1] The jester was an invaluable asset to the royal courts, and we Canadians have a fitting equivalent.

Rick Mercer may be looked down upon by some as being superfluous to society, yet his impact on the scope of Canadian culture must not be underestimated. As he himself has said, more Canadians receive their information regarding Canadian politics from his show than from CBC News[2]. Now of course, some may view this statistic as shameful, as evidence of the deteriorating intellectual fabric of our generation. When considering the hectic lives of Canada’s citizens, however, can one really point a finger? After a day of work, caring for children, and the vast array of obligatory duties which each Canadian must inevitably endure, must society also expect them to submit to the operose dronings of bleak, one-dimensional propaganda?[3] Rick Mercer provides a genuinely entertaining self and societal deprecation as well as informative news outlet; an effective multitasking for a stressed population which might otherwise be tempted to tune in to one of the surfeit of inane alternatives. Mr. Mercer provides accommodation for the vast demographic which might otherwise remain uninformed of Canada’s perspective of world events as well as its own political ineptitudes.

Truly, Rick Mercer is one of the great Canadian social critics, and is an invaluable blessing to Canadian culture.


[1]: Oech, R. (1983). A Whack on the Side of the Head. New York: Warner Books.
[2]: I’m not sure of the specific episode on which Mercer says this, but I saw it myself.
[3]: This is extreme, of course, to the point of being bombastic, but at the time of writing I had just watched an documentary on Fox News which seemed to justify such sentiments.


Since writing this, my thoughts related to Mercer have become more articulate, though I doubt I could compress them into 300 words.

On page 365 of Understanding Media, McLuhan writes:

Another way of explaining the acceptable, as opposed to the unacceptable, TV personality is to say that anybody whose appearance strongly declares his role and status in life is wrong for TV. Anybody who looks as if he might be a teacher, a doctor, a businessman, or any of a dozen other things all at the same time is right for TV. When the person presented looks classifiable, as Nixon did, the TV viewer has nothing to fill in. He feels uncomfortable with his TV image. He says uneasily, “There’s something about the guy that isn’t right.” The viewer feels exactly the same about an exceedingly pretty girl on TV, or about any of the intense “high definition” images and messages from the sponsors. […] The cool TV medium cannot abide the typical because it leaves the viewer frustrated of his job of ‘closure” or completion of image.

Rick Mercer entirely fits the McLuhanian bill of an optimal TV personage. What’s more, in a later essay I argued that Canadian culture is marked by its status relative to the rest of the world as exemplifying Lévi-Strauss’s notion of the zero-institution (advanced in his analysis of the Winnebago tribe), which Slavoj Žižek summarizes as follows (in Irwin, 2002: 251):

The tribe is divided into two sub-groups (‘moieties‘), ‘those who are from above’ and ‘those who are from below’; when we ask an individual to draw…the ground-plan of his or her village (the spacial disposition of cottages), we obtain two quite different answers, depending on his or her belonging to one or the other sub-group. Both perceive the village as a circle; but for one sub-group, there is within this circle another circle of central houses, so that we have two concentric circles, while for the other sub-group, the circle is split into two by a clear dividing line.

To phrase the matter concisely, the two tribes could not effectively coexist, each holding a tacit antagonism toward the other, which each subtribe attempted to symbolically resolve by positing a balanced arrangement of the buildings within the village. The merging of the two subgroups into one unified tribe is symbolically accomplished by what Lévi-Strauss calls the ‘zero-institution’―what Žižek calls an “empty signifier” (Irwin, 2002: 252), an imaginary/ symbolic common ground which allows, in this case, a unified circle. To utilize a simpler illustration, Mike Meyers once said “Canada is the essence of not being. Not English, not American, it is the mathematic of not being. And a subtle flavour―we’re more like celery as a flavour.”

Rick Mercer, in his television persona, is himself in some respects a zero-institution: he holds no defined partisanship nor idées fixes, and draws little attention to his personal life. This ‘blankness’, given the ‘cold’ nature of the medium of television (meaning that it is low-definition, and calls for the viewer to ‘fill in the blanks’, so to speak), is perfectly suited toward Mercer’s home medium: viewers are encouraged to participate in Mercer’s monologues (or ‘rants’, as Mercer calls them) by conjecturing, consciously or unconsciously, about his motivations, and thence to explicitly develop their own opinions by projecting their own unnoticed feelings onto Mercer’s ‘framework’. Mercer’s use of humor further builds upon the element of audience participation by building off of the facts known by the audience and showing the contradictions among them. To illustrate, in one of his shows Mercer reveals how the teachers’ union invests their pension plan money in stocks from cigarette companies, pizza companies, and malls, all of which are strongly related to youth, and constitute a flagrant conflict of interest. Though the average viewer may have been aware of one or more of these investment choices, they had likely taken these choices for granted, missing the irony which Mercer so trenchantly exposes.

As a zero-institution, however, Mercer is a microcosmic representation of Canada’s own ‘zero-institutionality’. Just as Canada’s zero-institution allows a multiplicity of immigrant cultures to coexist within its bounds, Mercer encourages citizens to transcend narrow categories of political stances and to judge issues for themselves. He provides well-researched information and points out any ironies that might exist, avoiding dogmatism. The following example excellently shows the quality of Mercer’s information. On March 19, 1997 Michael de Guzman, the exploration manager of the gold mining company Bre-X died from falling out of a helicopter (later the news was changed to ‘jumping out’) three days before allegations emerged that the gold deposits discovered by the company (which had triggered massive amounts of investment) were fabricated. The Rick Mercer Report was the only news show to deliver this information,* no doubt wryly drawing attention to the extremely suspicious circumstances surrounding the incident (including his wife’s name spelled wrong on the suicide note, which confessed that de Guzman did not wish to live any longer with hepatitis B, despite the fact that his form of hepatitis was entirely treatable, and that he had previously weathered 14 bouts of malaria without much complaint).**

In conclusion, Rick Mercer is an exemplar of both Canadian (non)culture and the poststructuralist spirit in action. He overcomes the binary thinking typical of political debate (such as divisions between Right & Left, Pro & Anti, Reformism & Reactionism) in favor of pointing out ineptitude where he sees it; he encourages multiplicity, such as when he interviews figures such as former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien who he had undoubtedly parodied innumerable times when Chrétien was in office, this time revealing the latter’s more personal aspects; and promotes methodological reflexivity, accounting for his own presence as a political maven in a self-deprecating manner (such as in his more playful segments, e.g. when he bungee jumps, skinny dips with Bob Rae, etc.) in order to purposely decentre himself and recover his endearing ‘blankness’, just as Pierre Bourdieu takes into account the fallacies common to scholastic perspectives in order to counterbalance any tendency toward such fallacies in his own academic work. Rick Mercer’s clever persona not only allows for optimal wit & reception on the television medium, but also engages viewers in a way that no other figure on Canadian television can. In every large society, just about all of its people could be replaced without changing the society’s overall structure, with the exception of perhaps six or seven people. Rick Mercer is one such person, and I would therefore not hesitate to nominate him as the Greatest Canadian.

*: I have not personally seen this episode, but have only heard about it via personal correspondence. If anyone could verify or disprove this, I would be exceedingly grateful.
**: For more information about the Bre-X gold scandal, see here, here & here. The two main conspiracy theories are that either foul play was involved, or de Guzman faked his death.



About Graham Joncas

We are a way for capital to know itself.

Posted on July 31, 2011, in Culture, Media, Politics, Review and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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