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Rick Mercer drops in at home for LSPU Hall fundraiser

Rick Mercer has jumped from a plane, floated in zero gravity and even, yes, spoken to Americans. (Gasp!)

Yet, before starting on more outrageous exploits for the eighth season of "The Rick Mercer Report," he will return home to St. John's to perform at the Arts and Culture Centre on July 14.

Rick Mercer has jumped from a plane, floated in zero gravity and even, yes, spoken to Americans. (Gasp!)

Yet, before starting on more outrageous exploits for the eighth season of "The Rick Mercer Report," he will return home to St. John's to perform at the Arts and Culture Centre on July 14.

The show is in benefit of the LSPU Hall, the theatre space where Mercer, now one of the most recognizable figures in Canada, gave his first professional performances.

"We have to be aware of how important the LSPU Hall is and we have to support it - always," Mercer said, speaking with The Telegram this week from Toronto.

There was no joke in the statement.

"There was a group of us many, many years ago, 20 years ago or whatever, and we started out when we were in high school, and we were doing sketch comedy in school and quickly it became apparent that the material we were doing wasn't appropriate for high school stages. And Lois Brown, who is a well-known director and writer in St. John's, was my drama teacher and she said, 'Well you can't keep this up 'cause you're just causing too much trouble here. You should go to the LSPU Hall and see what they'll do for ya,'" he said.

Brown recalled Mercer's early days when contacted by The Telegram. She said she sent him to the hall to find a larger audience rather than to stay out of trouble.

"He's so funny. All I did when he was in high school was laugh and beg him to go on stage and not be my stage manager any more, 'cause he talked so much and I was not paying attention to the actors," she said. "He went on tour with Beni (Malone) the third year of high school - he was an absentee head of the student body."

Mercer said it allowed for those early experiences in downtown St. John's.

"We went to the LSPU Hall and there was a group of us including Andrew Younghusband, who's now the host of 'Canada's Worst Driver,' and Christine Taylor and Sean Panting and Ashley Billard and Ken Tizzard and all this group of us who really had no idea how to do a show, and they helped us," he said. "And they gave us a home and it kind of was our home for a long time, and when I look back on my career, that was imperative - the development of my skill set and the ability to produce shows and it led me to where I am today I guess."

On stage, the hall allowed Mercer to run wild and test the boundaries.

"We used to do comedy and there was a lot of music involved as well for a long time, probably from the Wonderful Grand Band influence. You know, comedy sketch followed by music, comedy sketch followed by music. And there was lots of different things - there were no rules.

"That's important, when you're an emerging artist ... you're exploring and figuring things out and finding your legs and the LSPU Hall gave us the space to do that, late at night. It allowed us to build an audience and it allowed some of us to go on and have careers," he said.

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Now, Mercer wants to help the place and the people that helped start his career, performing "Rick Mercer's Adventures in Canadian Television" as a fundraiser (Tickets are available through the Arts and Culture Centre box office at 709-729-3900).

"It's a show I've done before. It's a fun show. Basically, I'm talking about the various adventures I've gone on," he said.

That includes stories from the creation of "Talking to Americans," the 2001 CBC television special. With 2.7 million viewers, the program became the highest-rated Canadian comedy special of all time, prompting articles in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Le Monde as well as appearances for Mercer on ABC's "Nightline" and "The Today Show" on NBC.

Mercer also talks about his experiences with "The Rick Mercer Report."

He references "some of the people I've just interviewed or had on the show over the years, whether it's Jean Chretien at Harvey's or bungee jumping with Rick Hansen last season," he said.

OK, there's a lot of experiences from "The Rick Mercer Report." But what's been most memorable to Mercer?

"I think with this show, because every week there's multiple adventures around the country, sometimes I get to do things I never, ever thought I would ever get to do. Like experience zero-gravity. That's something I wanted to do ever since I was a kid," he said. "That sticks out in my mind as probably the most fun 14 minutes I've ever had in my entire life. And it's just silly. I mean it's just me floating around in zero gravity spilling water, spilling gatorade on myself and floating around like a swami. But just in terms of pure life experience, that's something that I'll never forget.

"Then there's other things, like jumping out of an airplane with Rick Hillier. Well, I'm not one of those guys who wants to jump out of an airplane. I never have been. I have that reputation now.

"But this afternoon, if somebody called me up and said, 'Hey Rick, I'm going up skydiving. Do you want to come?' I'd say, 'No, you're out of your mind. I only do that when there's a camera on.' But I certainly don't regret it. I'm glad I jumped out of a plane. It's just not something I'd ever planned on doing and probably won't do again."

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Today, the Rick Mercer CV sounds made up.

He jumped from one-man theatre shows into television with "This Hour Has 22 Minutes" in 1994. In 1998, he joined as an actor and writer on the dramedy "Made In Canada." Then came "Talking to Americans," hosting gigs with "It Seems Like Yesterday," "The Next Great Prime Minister" and "The Rick Mercer Report."

He has received more than 25 Gemini Awards, a National Arts Centre Award and a Governor General Performing Arts Award.

He has hosted the East Coast Music Awards, the Gemini Awards, the Juno Awards and the Canada Day show from Parliament Hill.

Mercer's first book, "Streeters," took top spot on the Globe and Mail bestsellers list. He followed it with "Rick Mercer Report: The Book," another bestseller.

He has received the Canadian Armed Forces Commander Land Force, Command Commendation in recognition of his support for peacekeepers.

Then there's the co-founding and promotion of Spread the Net, the honorary degrees and, and, and ... And among his next work will be a fundraising gig for friends at RCA Theatre, for the LSPU Hall.

"It's something that I'm really happy to be able to do. The hall, I think Newfoundlanders support the Hall in general. They love the fact that the hall is there, but it's such an important resource for emerging artists," Mercer emphasized. "It's one of the few places where artists and actors and writers can be employed outside of the summer months and that's really important."

He will be joined at the show by the 8 Track Favourites and his nemesis from high school drama competitions, Seamus O'Regan.

"Seamus and I go way back," Mercer said. "He was in Lab. City and I was from St. John's so we were enemies, but we've since become friends. And the pub around the corner (Allen's in Toronto) is Seamus' local, even though he lives far, far across town."

As for what happens after the fundraiser, after the return to Toronto, after the next season of the Rick Mercer Report?

"I've never had a five-year plan ever in my life. I always wanted my own show, but that's probably what everyone in television wants on some level. But, it's hard for me to tell in terms of television what I'll be doing next week, let alone next year and I've never had a multiple-year contract. I always go year-to year because I only want to do the show as long as I enjoy doing it, but more importantly, as long as the audience likes to tune in and watch it. Because it's a comedy show. I'm not providing a public service. And it's ratings based, so that's where it stands," he said.

"I have no idea how long it will go. Last year was our biggest year yet in terms of numbers and that was personally very gratifying. So I'll keep doing it another year and we'll see what happens.

"I've changed hats a number of times in my life ... 'the Mercer Report' is something I'll do until it just doesn't feel right anymore, and then I'll think of something else to do. Maybe I'll open a bait shop."

afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com

Organizations: CBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal Le Monde Globe and Mail Canadian Armed Forces RCA Theatre

Geographic location: St. John's, Canada, Toronto Parliament Hill

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