About the Author:
RICK MERCER co-created and performed on CBC’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes, created and starred in Made in Canada, and created and starred in Talking to Americans, the most-watched comedy special in Canadian television history. He went on to host the hugely successful Rick Mercer Report for 15 seasons. Rick is co-founder of the Spread the Net campaign. In 2019, he received a Governor General’s Performing Arts Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award. He is from Middle Cove, Newfoundland and Labrador.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Pierre Berton: That's How He Rolled
They were called Celebrity Tips—a series of instructional videos starring Canadian icons.
In the early years of the Mercer Report, some of the nation’s most famous people appeared on the show, demonstrating simple, often mundane but crucial skills.
How does one safely boost a car battery? Every Canadian should know how to do that. And who better to teach the nation than the most glamorous woman I have had the privilege of knowing: Ms. Shirley Douglas.
Shirley was thrilled to take part. And so the daughter of Tommy Douglas, the famous actress, activist and member of the Order of Canada, grabbed the booster cables and taught the nation.
It was thirty below, her hair was impeccable and she refused to wear a hat. It should be noted for the record that she needed absolutely no direction when it came to the issue of which cable went where.
When she finished, she said, “While we are here, would you like me to show you how to change a tire?”
Celebrated novelist Margaret Atwood appeared in a Celebrity Tip to teach Canadians how to stop a hockey puck. I will always remember standing on location, in a hockey rink, with the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, explaining to her that her line about “protecting your five-hole” was an actual thing and not a double entendre.
Geddy Lee, the lead singer of Rush—considered by millions of Canadians and Latin Americans to be the greatest rock and roll band in the history of the world—taught us the importance of toboggan safety.
Yes, thanks to my job, I got to go tobogganing with Geddy Lee in the park by my house. Scratch that off the bucket list.
The problem with the Celebrity Tips, I discovered, was that in order for them to work, the celebrity had to be much more than a celebrity. They had to be an icon. And the thing about icons is that there aren’t a lot of them around. We were running out fast.
And then there was the matter of convincing these people to do something perhaps outside of their comfort zone—NHL enforcer Tie Domi gave tips on how to set a pretty Thanksgiving table. Tie is the kind of guy who is up for anything, but not everyone is quite so self-deprecating.
Ever since the tips began, we had always tossed around the notion of producing one entitled “How to Roll a Joint.” We never put any real thought into the logistics because, for the life of me, I could not think of a single Canadian icon who might be prepared to go on TV and roll a joint.
As I said, Celebrity Tips was an item in the early days of the show, as you can tell from the fact that we were even considering including one on joint rolling. This was before we realized that with our high ratings, we had inadvertently become a family show. We were thrilled when we got the data that showed college students were watching in droves.
And we knew adults were watching too. But when we found out that entire families and small kids were a part of our growing audience, that changed a few things.
We loved the idea that families were watching together, and Gerald and I decided that while we wouldn’t change the show, we would be careful to avoid embarrassing parents or kids while they watched together. That meant no jokes that might lead to conversations like “Mommy, what does autoerotic asphyxiation mean?”
These are the sacrifices we make for prime-time television.
But in the early days, I did find myself saying with regret, “We are never going to find someone famous to go on TV and teach people how to roll a joint.”
It was Gerald who said, “Pierre Berton might.”
I have long since given up figuring out how Gerald knows some of the things that he knows. He has better show business instincts than anyone I have ever met. But in this instance I was pretty sure he had taken leave of his senses.
Pierre Berton was not just an icon, he was an icon’s icon.
He was Canada’s first celebrity author. He wrote important books. A lot of them. I had four feet of them on my shelf. He was the reason I became enamoured with Canadian history. If it weren’t for Pierre Berton and the Heritage Minutes, most of us in Canada would be like goldfish—no idea where we came from or where we were going.
I said with authority, “There is no way Pierre Berton is going to come on the show and roll a joint.”
Gerald said, “Give him a call. I heard that back in the day he liked a puff.”
Remember, while this was no longer “back in the day,” this was still thirteen years before any credible political figure in Canada was actually using the phrase “legalize it.”
The prospect, no matter how slim, of booking Pierre Berton was too tempting. So at the risk of embarrassing myself in an encounter with someone I admired so much, I gave him a call.
Tracking famous people down to ask them a favour involves breaking through the lines of defence—publicists, managers, husbands, wives and protectors. It takes time and patience.
Reaching Pierre Berton was not hard. He was listed in the phone book.
I had remembered reading a profile on him years earlier in which he talked about his days as a columnist for the Toronto Star. For many years he was the most-read opinion columnist in Canada’s largest newspaper. He was often controversial, often cantankerous and wildly opinionated. He wrote the kind of columns that made people angry. And when he wrote something he knew people would complain about, Berton would say, “You don’t like it? Call me. I’m in the book.”
Throughout his entire career this most famous Canadian was reachable by any Canadian who could read or dial 411.
That was a different time. The drummer for Great Big Sea has an unlisted number to this day, and they broke up six years ago.
It was the end of the day and I went downstairs and got in the van. A young man by the name of Nik Sexton was driving. Nik was a new addition to the team. How he came to be with us is a classic Newfoundland tale. I knew Nik’s mother. Gerald knew Nik’s mother. Gerald had worked with Nik’s uncle, the late Tommy Sexton, on the CBC comedy show CODCO. Tommy was one of my comedy idols. I had known Nik since he was five.
Nik had come to Toronto from St. John’s to attend film and TV school. For whatever reason, Nik decided it wasn’t for him and dropped out before the tuition cheque cleared. Nik admitted that he was somewhat embarrassed that he hadn’t stayed in school, and rather than head back to St. John’s he decided he was going to stick around and make it on his own in the big city.
In that classic St. John’s way, Nik’s mother, Mary, said, “I’ll call Rick and Gerald,” which she did. Gerald said, “There is always a place for Nik,” and he came on board. He started as a production assistant. In television this can mean many things, but it is almost always what is politely called an “entry-level position.”
On this day I sat in the van and prepared to contact Pierre Berton. Nik was behind the wheel.
I dialed 411. “A number for Pierre Berton, please. Kleinburg, Ontario.”
Nik said, “Pierre Berton? Dude with the bow ties?”
This is when I knew that Pierre Berton and only Pierre Berton would be perfect for this tip. It was too good. He was a ninety-year-old historian and the nineteen-year-old skateboarder sitting next to me knew who he was.
The robot voice gave me the number and I dialed.
He picked up on the first ring.
“Hello, it’s Rick Mercer calling. Is Pierre Berton there, please?”
“Yes, Rick, hello. This is Pierre. What can I do for you?”
“Well, Mr. Berton, first of all, let me tell you I am a huge fan. I read Tales of the Klondike in high school, and then Dieppe, and then Vimy. I have many of your books. I just bought your latest a few weeks ago. But the reason why I am calling is, we have a segment on our show called ‘Celebrity Tips.’ Famous people come on and teach Canadians how to do things—”
“I am aware of the segment,” he said. “I saw June Callwood kick a field goal last week.”
“Yes, why yes, you did,” I said. “I was hoping you would come on the show and . . . well . . . do a tip.”
“I see. And what would I be teaching people to do?”
This was the make-or-break point.
“Well, Mr. Berton, you would be teaching Canadians how to properly roll a joint.”
Nik gave me a thumbs-up.
There was a pause.
“Go on,” he said.
“Uh, well, honestly, that’s it. I mean, that’s the whole bit. You are Pierre Berton and you teach us to roll a joint. Nobody would ever expect you to do that, because, well, you’re Pierre Berton.”
He said, “I like it. Come to my house tomorrow around ten.”
This was the best news and the worst news. The best in the sense that he was actually going to do the segment. The worst in that he said he wanted to do it the next day. TV doesn’t work like that.
“Oh, Mr. Berton, no. We couldn’t possibly do this tomorrow. I was simply checking to see if you would consider it. We need to book a crew, and I need to write the thing, and we have to figure out how to get people to the location. We can probably arrange a time next week.”
“Well, there’s no guarantee I’ll be here next week.”
I realized he wasn’t talking about perhaps taking off for Florida. This was what is called a cultural emergency. Extraordinary measures were necessary.
“Mr. Berton, you are right. We will figure it out. We will be at your house tomorrow at 10 a.m. It should take a few hours at most.”
“Okay,” he said. “One thing, though: you bring the weed.”
Now, this I hadn’t thought of. The weed!
“Right, of course. Well, I guess I will talk to our props department or our art department and we will figure something out—”
“No,” he said. “If I’m going to roll a joint on TV, I won’t be rolling oregano. People will know the difference. It will look ridiculous.”
Well, far be it from me to allow an icon to look ridiculous on my show. Part of my entire philosophy was ensuring that anyone who ever appeared on the show looked great, be they an icon or an oyster fisherman.
“One second, please,” I said.
I covered the phone and said to Nik: “Nik, when you pick me up tomorrow morning, it will be like eight or something. Do you think you could, I don’t know, bring a bag of weed?”
Nik didn’t bat an eye. “I can do that,” he said.
Nik fixed problems from the moment he showed up. He was an excellent hire. He stayed with the show for fifteen seasons, working his way up to associate producer. He also directs and writes feature films.
The next day, the very next day, at exactly 10 a.m., I knocked on Pierre Berton’s door.
He opened it and he looked just like himself. Elegant, somewhat frailer than I had expected, but resplendent in a jacket and bow tie.
“Welcome to my home,” he said.
It was a lovely house. Bright, airy, very comfortable and very lived in. Dripping in books and art. It was exactly where you would imagine a famous author would live.
After the warm greetings, Burton got down to business. He said, “Did you bring the weed?”
Pierre Berton was amazing to work with. He was a gracious host. He welcomed me and the small crew with open arms. There is an adage in our business: “Never let a film crew in your home.” I guess, as with the listed phone number, Pierre Berton never got that memo.
The finished product is my favourite celebrity tip. In it, he teaches Nik (now promoted to special skills extra) how to roll the perfect joint. As his rolling surface, he chose the cover of his latest book, Prisoners of the North. No fool he. Pierre Berton was always a master at selling books, and he had not lost his touch.
He never once forgot his lines. He was sharp. He entertained us with stories. And he was complimentary about the show and the rants. As he was one of the original great shit disturbers, this meant the world to me.
He signed all the books I had dragged along from my bookshelf and posed for pictures with everyone on the small crew. He told me that he was thrilled that his last TV appearance would be on the show and that it would probably cause some controversy.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said, “that so many young people have had their lives ruined because of small-possession charges.”
I, of course, assured him this would be far from his last TV appearance. But as so often before in his life, he was right. It was his last TV show. He passed away six weeks after it aired, Prisoners of the North still on The Globe and Mail’s best-seller list.
On my list of people that I was truly thrilled to meet, Pierre Berton is at the top.
And on the front porch as I was leaving, I got to thank him not only for the day, for being a gracious host, but for everything he did, including opening my eyes to Canada’s history.
“You are very welcome,” he said.
And I will never forget the last words this true Canadian icon said to me. He looked at me dead in the eye and said:
“Rick, leave the weed.”
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