Merciless: The Comic Vision of Rick Mercer
by Marc Glassman
When you're 28-years-old and already heralded as the Canadian Parliament's unofficial opposition, what do you do for an encore? The only person who has to deal with this question is an intense Newfoundlander who has made a national name for himself over the past six years on the weekly satirical review show, This Hour Has 22 Minutes. And now Rick Mercer has decided to reinvent himself and the form of comedy in which he acts.
The result, Made in Canada, aired last fall on the CBC to wide critical acclaim. Ratings were good, too, spurring the sometimes timorous national broadcaster to negotiate for another 13 episodes of Mercer's sardonic look at the machinations inside a successful Canadian television studio.
For the six episodes that made up Made in Canada's first season, Mercer and a small creative team did it all. Mercer wrote all the scripts with Mark Farrell while Gerald Lunz and Michael Donovan acted as executive producers and Henry Sawer-Foner directed. All of them have performed the same tasks on This Hour Has 22 Minutes. Mercer admits that it's hard to "pinpoint how it (Made in Canada) happened because we all know each other and live in the same town (Halifax)." For years, they traded industry stories until the inevitable occurred and the darkly comic episodic series was born.
Made in Canada is a tough-talking, bitter and wicked take on the television industry. Mercer stars as Richard Strong, a screenwriter who will stop at nothing to rise to the top of Pyramid Productions, a Toronto-based production company. During the first show, which is almost entirely staged during a standard "schmoozerama" party, Richard dopes his brother-in-law, the head writer, setting him up to take the fall for a nonexistent sexual assault on the studio head's daughter. Taking over the head writing position, and poised to move higher in the company, Richard, who has already bedded the boss' daughter, looks directly at the camera and comments, "I think that went well."
Thanks to a fine ensemble cast including Leah Pinsent as Pyramid's underpaid, underappreciated and therefore cunning No. 2 person, Dan Lett as Victor, the sycophantic head of film production, Alex Carter as the deliberately dumb actor playing Damocles, the studio's Hercules clone, Emily Hampshire as the boss's daughter and Peter Keleghan as Alan Roy, the studio head, Made in Canada's world of pernicious schemers seems all too real. Richard's corporate ascent, the main thrust of the first five-and-a-half episodes, is given dramatic weight through the show's ensemble cast and the well thought out scenarios of Mercer and Farrell.
Richard's cruel movement upwards parallels that of a classic Shakespearean villain. Mercer readily admits to playing a modern-dress version of Richard III throughout the series. "If we called him Richard," he says, "people would say, 'it's an homage.' We're not hiding it." Shakespeare's Richard spent a good deal of time explaining his wily plots to the audience. Mercer chose to parallel that device even though he knows that "in television, that's a big risk. There's only a few rules in television and one that has always been consistent is 'don't break the fourth wall.' If you're doing a drama or anything, the actor can't look at the camera. We decided to do it anyway and I think it paid off."
Allowing Richard the privilege of direct address made the job of writing easier for Mercer and Farrell. "You're constantly worried about getting Richard from place to place and making sure that the scenario you set up can be understood by the people." Richard's sly asides allow Made in Canada's complex intrigues to be relished by all viewers. Adds Mercer: "You want to go from A to B but if you're writing a comedy, you want a joke to happen and Mark is really good at that."
Both writers worked hard at creating strong characters. It was an important challenge for them as they are associated with sketch, rather than situation comedy. Mercer had a practical reason for spending considerable time on writing his own character of Richard. "I know if I got a script as an actor and heard it was written by one of the guys playing a part in it, my immediate concern would be, 'Let's guess who's got all the funny lines.' So I knew it would fail dismally if it looked like Richard was well-written and everyone else wasn't. I made a conscious decision not to write Richard funny and no one else funny. I think I was even guilty of putting jokes on the other side of the page, which I'm sure no else minded."
While depriving himself of some of the script's plentiful jokes, Mercer did not forget to make his Richard the main scoundrel in the show. His eyes relentlessly focused on the main chance, Mercer's Richard never has anything less than betrayal on his mind. In one episode, he convinces a major U.S. network to buy his company's cop show by setting up the broadcaster's number two man to oppose it, knowing full well that the head of production will fight anything suggested by her underling. In another show, he sleeps with and then arranges the firing of a co-worker with this withering comment, "She's the smartest person in here and she's in my department. She's got to go."
If Mercer is unafraid to set up his character to be reprehensible, it's because that fits with his edgy comic style. The actors in Made in Canada have followed his lead, most notably Dan Lett, who plays Victor, Richard's main antagonist. "Victor is a different guy now than we envisioned him when we wrote it because Dan ended up playing him. We didn't know that when the head of the company leaves a room Victor is the first one to pick up his luggage and scurry after him," says Mercer. "We didn't know those little things about him. That's what an actor brings to the script and it's just really very funny and it works."
Mercer is now concentrating his writing efforts on Made in Canada. The first thing he has to do is extricate his character from the embarrassing position he was left in during the series' closer. "He was doing the boss's daughter on the desk" when her father, Victor and the rest of the cast entered the room. "It's definitely going to affect his rung on the ladder. Plus everyone is just thrilled to see this happen to him. He's essentially been burning bridges his entire way."
It's a lot of work for Mercer but he seems to relish his tasks. As a story editor, a new role for him, he already has an idea. "We want writers to tell their worst show biz story." He pauses, then adds, "And we'll put it on TV!"
Marc Glassman is a Toronto freelance writer and editor of several books on Canadian film.