- The Washington Times - Friday, June 1, 2001

TORONTO — Ever wonder if Canada will outlaw the polar bear slaughter in Toronto or make beaver meatballs the national dish? If so, Rick Mercer wants to talk to you.

A comedian who specializes in political and cultural satire, Mr. Mercers most popular shtick is "Talking to Americans" — a "Candid Camera"esque routine in which he travels the United States asking people ridiculous questions to exploit their ignorance about their northern neighbor.
The sketch is part of "This Hour Has 22 Minutes," a weekly comedy show on the government-supported Canadian Broadcasting Corp. So popular is Mr. Mercers "Talking to Americans" segment that highlights were compiled into an hour-long special that ran in April.
Similar to the Jay Walk, in which NBC "Tonight" show host Jay Leno asks random people easy questions to show how ill-informed they can be, the Canadian version has Mr. Mercer enticing Americans to offer serious comment on wildly fabricated news stories about Canada.
It focuses on U.S. ignorance of Canadian geography, culture and politics, a long-running joke to Canadians who know that Canadian-American awareness mostly is a one-way street. Beneath the guffaws, though, is a resentment over U.S. cultural domination.
Life in the shadow of a rich superpower makes Canadians all too aware of their relative insignificance on the world stage, said Geoff Deon, producer-director of "Talking to Americans."
"Were not even on the radar, and we find that kind of amusing," Mr. Deon said. "If we were Germans, we would be insulted, but were not. Were Canadians and we find this funny."
In one instance, Mr. Mercer asked an Idahoan if the United States should "bomb Bouchard" in response to fighting in Kosovo.
"Absolutely," said the respondent, unaware that Lucien Bouchard was premier of Quebec at the time and leader of the movement to separate the province from Canada.
"Americans dont know who we are talking about," the 31-year-old Mr. Mercer said. "We find that funny because we happen to know who Newt Gingrich is even if we dont want to know."
He has persuaded average Americans, politicians, even university professors to sign petitions calling for the end to polar bear slaughters in downtown Toronto or seal hunts in landlocked Saskatchewan.
In one interview, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee congratulated Canada for preserving its national igloo, which Mr. Mercer told him was an icy replica of the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
Other fake news he concocted plays to the worst of Canadian stereotypes, such as Canada getting its 800th mile of paved road or a ninth school grade. Nothing is sacred — Mr. Mercer has convinced Americans the Canadian government is set to proclaim beaver meatballs as the national dish and pondered putting a hockey puck on the national flag.
Even George W. Bush got caught by a Mercer prank during his presidential campaign. Mr. Bush publicly thanked Canadian Prime Minister "Jean Poutine" for a phony presidential endorsement relayed to him by Mr. Mercer, posing as a foreign journalist.
Mr. Bush failed to catch the fast-talking Mr. Mercer substituting the word poutine — a Quebec mix of french fries, gravy and cheese curds — for the real name of the prime minister, Jean Chretien.
To Canadians, it all is hilarious.
"I think the show illustrates exceptionally well our perceptions of Americans — that Americans know nothing beyond their own borders and have no problem with their ignorance," said Julie Longo, who crosses the border from Windsor, Ontario, to teach Canadian history at Wayne State University in Detroit.
Miss Longo, daughter of a Canadian mother and American father, tapes segments of "Talking to Americans" for her students.
"It makes Americans look stupid, but its more complicated than that," she said. "It gives us a chance to laugh at our own culture."
More than 1 million Canadians tune in for the show, which Mr. Mercer has convinced some Americans is the entire population of Canada. The real population figure is 30 million for the biggest U.S. trading partner.
For Louise Pohle-Bjolin, an American living in Toronto, the show brings embarrassment.
"How does he get people to say this stuff?" she asked. "Apparently they are this stupid."
At least one group Mr. Mercer questioned on Bourbon Street in New Orleans was unaware that Canada long ago changed its flag from the old British Union Jack to the red maple leaf.
When asked about a proposed design to replace the Union Jack, the unanimous vote was for a hockey puck.
"Thats what youre known for, isnt it?" one man said.


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