|The Boston Globe June 10, 2001
Canadian TV show puts one over on U.S.
BY COLIN NICKERSON
MONTREAL -- So, did you hear that Canada is finally granting the vote to
citizens of Irish ancestry? And that diabetics in this realm of permafrost
and muskeg bog can take heart that legalization of insulin appears just
around the corner?
And did you hear the country's public school system is expanding to offer
That's the good news. On the down side, it's doubtful that Canada will
find the moral fiber to end its unhappy custom of stranding old folk in the
Arctic to cut social security costs. And global warming still poses a
threat to the national Parliament building -- constructed, as everyone
knows, of ice bricks in the form of a giant igloo.
What in the world do folks in the superpower next door think of all this?
That's the question that keeps Rick Mercer -- whose deadpan interviewing
style is familiar to watchers of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation --
traveling with television camera from Boston to Berkeley, seeking the
American view on the great Canadian issues.
And getting an earful.
Mining the depths of American ignorance of Canada has yielded prime time
gold for the satirical TV news show This Hour Has 22 Minutes, produced by
Nova Scotia's Salter Street Films and aired by CBC. Probably the most
popular and certainly the most outrageous segment is Mercer's ``Talking to
Preposterous questions are put to unsuspecting Yanks -- who ramble
cluelessly about whether Canada should become part of North America
(college student: ``I don't know.''); should continue the national voting
system of dropping pine cones or birch bark into ballot boxes (Louisiana
man: ``At least you are ecologically sound.''); or whether Canada should
keep its navy despite being landlocked.
One Floridian helpfully offered: ``You don't need a navy if you don't have
any water. Just use us Americans. We'll support you.''
God Bless America, they doubtlessly muttered in Halifax, St. John's,
Quebec City, Vancouver, and scores of other nonexistent seaports when that
``Americans are our great neighbor. They are kind, they are generous,''
said Mercer, a 30-year-old comedian-actor from Newfoundland. ``And they
have an uncanny ability to go on and on about things they know nothing
On learning of Canada's heartless treatment of the elderly, a professor at
New York's Columbia University doesn't mince words, demanding on camera
``that the government of Canada discourage the tradition of placing senior
citizens on ice floes, leaving them to perish.''
The professor has taught history for nine years.
On the streets of San Francisco, interviewees show serious empathy for the
ultrasensitive denizens of Hull, Quebec -- pledging without hesitation to
expunge a cruel if hitherto unrecognized slur from their vocabularies.
``I am one American who will never use the word `hullaballoo,' because it
is hurtful to Canadians,'' a most correct woman grimly assures Mercer.
In Des Moines, Iowans are happy to hear of Canada's desire to forsake the
72-minute hour in favor of ``American time.'' No one challenges Mercer's
assertion that Canada keeps a 20-hour day. And Gov. Tom Vilsack is happy to
break from the demands of office to offer encouragement to the plucky
people of the north. ``Canada, congratulations on your new 24-hour clock,''
intones the governor.
In Manhattan, Mercer asks a group of construction workers whether they
think that ``given the situation in Sakatchewan'' the United States should
``escalate the bombing and send in the ground forces.''
Growled one hard hat: ``If we're going to get into it, let's get into it
all the way.''
You'd think Canadians might find this more painful than hilarious. But
you'd be wrong. When the segments were spliced together and aired last
month as Rick Mercer's Talking to Americans, the one-hour show drew the
highest ratings for a comedy special in CBC history.
The masochistic yucks in some ways typify the U.S.-Canada relationship.
Canadian author Margaret Atwood once described the border between the two
countries as the world's longest one-way mirror -- with Canadians,
invisible to American eyes, peering obsessively south.
``It's the ultimate Canadian joke, and it's really at our expense because
we care so much what Americans think,'' said Mercer, who comes to American
screens this fall as star of The Industry, a comedy-drama about the
entertainment business that is on the air in some American markets.
``Every Canadian knows so much about the U.S. You know so little about
us,'' he said. ``Yet Americans are so kind and generous they'll almost
always take time to talk to the poor little Canadian.''
Says Mercer: ``We keep upping the ante, thinking, `Here's a question so
absurd no one's going to believe it in a million years.'
``But they always do.''