Rick Mercer’s sleepover at 24 Sussex Drive last Halloween.
By Whitney Hooper
A blond-haired boy rushes into the room, sliding over the glossy hardwood floor in his socked feet as he scrambles with his hockey stick, hoping to get to the ball before his opponents. His little sister is close behind, slipping even more in her bright turquoise pajama set. Bringing up the rear is a grown man in hockey pjs, pushing past the kids
in an attempt to get his own chance with the ball.
No, this is not a scene from Big and the man is not Tom Hanks, but Canada’s very own Rick Mercer.
This exciting round of ball hockey comes from Mercer’s sleepover at 24 Sussex Drive with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his two children, Ben and Rachel. The segment aired during The Rick Mercer Report at Halloween
2006 and almost a million Canadians tuned in to watch.
Satirical news programs such as The Rick Mercer Report and This Hour Has 22 Minutes often show the nation’s politicians in offbeat segments such as this. Generally, a politician’s appearance on these shows is considered to
be all in good fun, but it is becoming more and more common for politicians to use these programs to reach the general public in a more personal and lighthearted way.
Laura Peck is the vice-president of McLoughlin Media, a company that offers media training in addition to other communications seminars. She watched Mercer at 24 Sussex.
“This is the kid that comes to your house and you’ve agreed to the sleepover and you think, ‘Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?’ He’s making tents in the living room, he’s looking for hot chocolate and he’s wearing goofy pajamas,” she said. “Every parent has done that. It was hilarious!”
Peck said while this clip was funny, it was also heartwarming and allowed Canadians to see a different side of the prime minister. She also said that she would usually encourage politicians to appear on a satirical program.
“I’m very much in favour and I do think that a lot of politicians can use it as a tool to demonstrate their personalities,” said Peck. “Recently, Dion is saying that he’s got to show more of a personality. Now, he did go on Rick Mercer’s show. It wasn’t all that funny . . . but it’s a start.”
Lori Turnbull, assistant professor of political science at Dalhousie University in Halifax, agreed. She notes that most of the time Canada’s politicians are shown on television news fighting and bickering.
“In [the making of] policies in Canada, it’s all about the adversarial system,” she said. “It’s all about the government versus the opposition and it is strategically set up so that they can’t agree on anything.”
Turnbull said that the less formal setting of a satirical program can allow people to relax and be more thoughtful.
“I’m thinking of a bunch of times where Rick Mercer had people on and they looked a lot more human than they normally do,” she recalls. “Take someone like Paul Martin who people always thought of as very stuffy, that time he went to Canadian Tire with Rick Mercer, that was funny!”
But warming hearts doesn’t necessarily mean earning votes.
Becky Harding watches satirical news programs regularly and considers herself to be an avid follower of Canadian politics. She said she does not like Stephen Harper but she did turn on her television to catch him at 24 Sussex Drive with Rick Mercer last year.
“I guess in a small way I felt like, ‘okay, at least he’s trying’, trying to reach out to the public in some kind of light hearted way.” Laughing, she added, “But he’s just so stiff! [That segment] gives the impression that Stephen Harper tries desperately to have a sense of humour but just doesn’t.”
Despite her reservations, Harding does feel that appearing on the show earns Harper an honourable mention for good sportsmanship.
“I like that he jabbed a little bit at himself and I can appreciate that,” she said. “So I’d say maybe it warmed me to him a very, very mild amount. I’m certainly not going to vote for him or anything in the next election, but I like him an ounce more, perhaps.”
But what is it about satirists that allow a politician to relax and really be him or her self?
Mark Critch of This Hour Has 22 Minutes said that a lot of the time the politician is just trying to be funny, which can yield interesting results.
“When they try to help, that’s when you get your good stuff,” he said. “It’s great to have your jokes in your head and go at it, but it’s always good just to let it breathe and just see what happens.”
Critch mentions one occasion when a politician loosened up and went a little too far. It was an interview with Conservative MP Peter MacKay in November of 2006, shortly after it was alleged that he called Liberal MP Belinda Stronach a dog in parliament
“I started going on all these dog puns . . . and he said ‘Well, you know you sleep with a dog, you get fleas,'” Critch recalls. “Part of you goes, man, come on, don’t do this! You say it wasn’t captured on tape before, now there’s a guy with a camera and a microphone for God’s sakes!”
But Critch said politicians are not always so open, especially during the ambush interviews or “on the road” pieces that Critch usually does. He said Conservative Party members avoid interviews more than other politicians.
“They’re just told not to do it, or anything, or ever speak,” he said. “Like Harper keeps shutting it down all the time now, and before, when he was in opposition I’d be interviewing somebody and he’d kind of sneak in behind and then go, ‘Do you want me too, do you want me too?’ And I’d go, ‘Oh hi Stephen, yeah, whatever’. Just to be nice sometimes I’d do a fake interview.”
Ryan Sparrow is the Conservative Party spokesperson. After asking if the interview would be ‘on the record’ and agreeing to do it only if he could speak in generalities, he offered this explanation for hesitance among his party’s members.
“We’re the governing party in Canada, and you have to be prepared. If you’re not going into an interview prepared, you probably shouldn’t do that interview,” he said. “If you’re not familiar with the subject, you shouldn’t do it, and I think that’s probably just smart.”
Chris Waddell, assistant director of the School of Journalism and Communications at Carleton University said that he does not believe that satirical programs have much impact on the voting public, or that the programs offer much insight into a politician’s personality.
“I guess people like to laugh at politicians, but just because you laugh at politicians doesn’t mean you’re going to vote for them,” he said. “It doesn’t always make them look more human either; sometimes it just makes them look silly.”
Peck disagrees. She said that she and her partner, Barry McLoughlin, have been using the psychology of laughter in their training over the past 24 years. She explains that when people laugh, they release endorphins, which makes them feel good. As a result, Peck said that a politician who can make voters laugh is more likely to get votes.
Not only can a politician score a few laughs on satirical programs, but they often get more camera time on these programs than they normally get through the short clips used in television news programs.
“You might not be able to get your message out in 20 seconds; most people can’t,” said Turnbull. “So to have a little bit of back and forth, that way the person’s positive qualities are more likely to come out.”
While longer interviews are definitely part of Canada’s satirical shows, Critch notes that his program is not really journalism and should not be taken too seriously.
“Lately, there’s been a lot of articles about, ‘Is Canadian satire satirical enough? Are we hard-edged enough?’ Give me a break people, it’s jokes. ‘Is it funny?’ should be the first thing because it is a comedy show,” he said. “I think at the end of the day it has to be funny; it has to be insightful and make a valid point.”
Critch and his peers can take comfort in the fact that their points are most certainly being heard. In the CBC’s spring ratings report from BBM for Nova Scotia last year, The National, CBC News at Six, This Hour Has 22 Minutes and The Rick Mercer Report all had roughly the same number of viewers.
While Critch said that the intention of these programs is to be funny and insightful, he also notes that from time to time something does happen on a satirical program that becomes headline news.
Former Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish did an interview with Critch on This Hour Has 22 Minutes in October of 2004 where she infamously stomped on a George Bush doll. This incident ended up losing Parrish her status as a Liberal MP.
Similarly newsworthy incidents occurred on The Rick Mercer Report, such as Bob Rae deciding to go skinny-dipping with Mercer during the Liberal Party leadership race or Mercer’s auction on eBay for the leadership of the Liberal Party.
So while satirical programs are usually just for fun, they can also provide an outlet for the public to see a different side of politicians.
“They’re all very good outlets to reach out to different viewers,” said the Conservative Party’s Sparrow on the subject of satirical news programs. “Especially now when not everyone follows the news as closely.”
Satirical programs are offering Canadians a complete package; the softer side of the nation’s leaders, a different spin on the day’s current events and a good laugh.
“Sometimes it’s a bit like taking your medicine with some sugar,” said Critch. “It’s kind of like making it a bit more appetizing to a wider group of people who might not otherwise pay too much attention to the story or have read it in the paper that day.”
And just in case Critch, Mercer or any other Canadian satirists show up at the door in the near future, Peck has some sound advice.
“Relax, stay loose and whenever you’re making fun of yourself, you’re doing just great,” she says. “Be comfortable with it and have a good time.”