Satire should make you laugh and squirm. Today, the word conjures up images of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert or the creators of South Park, artists who are renowned for deriving hilarity and controversy out of current events, issues and attitudes.
A particularly memorable example is the South Park episode in which a cartoon featuring the prophet Muhammad sends the town into such a frenzy that its citizens bury their heads in sand. The episode ridiculed the terrorized state in which the American public lives after 9/11.
However, its humour had a dark undertone that hit a nerve with some audiences. An earlier example of comedy satirizing current events is the story of William “Boss” Tweed, a New York City politician from the late 19th century. He served as chairman of the City Board of Supervisors and, with a gang dubbed the “Tweed Ring,” embezzled large sums of money from public taxes. Tweed was eventually brought down with the help of Thomas Nast, a cartoonist with Harper’s Weekly, who drew one satirical cartoon after another depicting the politician as a greedy, powerful thief. Nast’s satirical cartoons helped set the stage for Tweed’s eventual trial and imprisonment. A Google Images search of Tweed’s name turns up more of Nast’s cartoons than personal portraits.
With the rise in popularity of “fake news” shows, journalism and satire are becoming more and more intertwined. And although their methods and standards are far removed, the two seem to share a central ethic: A drive to get at the truth.
It is with this in mind that I turn to Rick Mercer, a Canadian political satirist who has made a name for himself through political comedy shows such as This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Talking to Americans and now The Rick Mercer Report. On 22 Minutes, Mercer was a news anchor poking fun at major Canadian politicians while taking a more serious and hard-hitting approach in a segment called “Rant” in which he would tackle sociopolitical issues such as media censorship and federal politics. The show, which only slightly concealed its serious undertones, was slapped with a warning before each broadcast that “some viewers may not share this sense of humour.”
It’s that warning – and the reasons for it – that I miss when watching the Rick Mercer Report. On 22 Minutes, Mercer found himself among a troupe of satirists who weren’t afraid to bring up hard facts with big-name politicians. He didn’t seem afraid to tackle serious issues such as American ignorance of its neighbour to the north in his “Talking to Americans” segments. He didn’t have qualms about reflecting on questionable ethics in the RCMP as one of the “Special Eds” with costar Greg Thomey.
The satirical element is one that’s been sadly missing from Mercer’s latest work. He’s provided with access to Canada’s most powerful politicians and yet his interactions shun hard questions in favour of PR opportunities. Bob Rae, for example, secured one of the most memorable moments of his 2006 leadership campaign when the two went skinny-dipping. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, meanwhile, found in Mercer an avenue to show off his lighter side when the comedian slept over at 24 Sussex Drive. Harper the bogeyman suddenly became the family man.
In his latest show, Mercer has gone the way of punditry, Through him we’ve seen a softer side of Harper, a bare-all side of Rae and a funnier side of David Suzuki. Mercer’s gentle poking fun of Canadian public figures often makes for great comedy. But where’s the satire? It’s unfortunate that a man of Mercer’s standing in the annals of Canadian satire would let his satirical edge fade away amidst segments that make great PR opportunities for federal politicians and other notable countrymen.
The home scenes with Harper could only benefit the politician – hardly the aim most satire strives for. It seems like Mercer has allowed his appeal to drain his edge. The value of satire like Nast’s cartoons is its commitment to reaching the truth. This often means reflecting on the shadier facets of public figures, not highlighting their more appealing sides. In future, for a laugh I’ll certainly tune in to the Rick Mercer Report. But if I want biting satire that takes aim at Canadian politicians in an effort to uncover some sort of truth, I’ll just turn to The Daily Show and hope to the memory of Horace that Jon Stewart will take aim at Harper.
JESSE FERRERAS is in his final year of a Master’s of Journalism at UBC. Prior to that he obtained a BA in Film Studies, also from UBC. His writing has appeared in the Vancouver Sun, the North Shore News, 24 Hours, Metro and the Ubyssey, where he served as culture editor in 2006.