Yes Rick Mercer really is like that

The set of the Rick Mercer Report

"And now it's time for...The Front Page"

That’s right. Whatever you see on the Rick Mercer Report, even when things are a bit scripted, that’s what Mercer is really like. At least as far as I could tell, when I went to a taping a few weeks ago. Mercer, who preceded the American Jon Stewart by several years when it comes to satirical poking at politics, really does have those lightning-quick responses to comments people make. Here’s a man who thinks on his feet. And he is very, very funny.

The studio was big and the audience was huge, compared to other CBC tapings I’ve been to. But this, understandably, is a very popular show. Booming rock music (just my kind!) filled the room as several interns escorted everyone to their seats, trying to keep groups of people together. The whole atmosphere was electric. And when Mercer finally bounded onto the set, nobody had to prompt the audience to applaud and yell at the top of their lungs.

Rick Mercer interacting with his audience

"My you're a tall audience."

His first comment as he stood there and looked out at us? “My, you’re a tall audience.” And it just went on from there. He had a running commentary going with the floor manager, whose name was Bob, as I recall. He took the time to chat with several people in the audience, and he kept us all laughing and feeling a part of the show. He even had Bob recount to us the adventures he (Bob) had had with flight cancellations and diversions on his way to a wedding in Winnipeg the previous snowy weekend in Manitoba.

All of this shows some definite people skills, because as anyone knows who has watched the show, many of the segments are pre-taped. It wasn’t like Mercer was going to take this entire audience down to the Maple Leaf Gardens to watch him film his Battle of the Blades figure skating segment with Tie Domi, after all. And the ad for taser-proof undergarments had already been made. So one might have wondered why an audience was there at all for the little bits that were left.

He stays afterward for everybodyBut Mercer made a great night of it. Even for pre-taped segments, he was back onstage to introduce them, with the usual hilarious comments. And always, in between segments, he kept in good contact with the audience and helped us while away the time till taping was ready to start again.

But he didn’t stop there, in his good audience relations. Or should I perhaps say his showing himself to be a really good guy? Because after the show is over, Mercer always sticks around to talk to people. So you can say a quick hello, get an autograph if you want, and even get your picture taken with him. And this can add another two hours to his night!

What Rick sees from his desk

What Rick sees

As one of the interns told an elevator full of us afterward, “He’s really nice.” That’s the impression you get when you watch him boat racing with a Canadian Olympian in a giant pumpkin in Pembroke, Ontario, attempting trick riding at the Canadian Finals Rodeo in Edmonton, Alberta, going on a tour of Parliament Hill in Ottawa, or visiting the Electronic Arts video game developers in Burnaby, B.C. Or, of course, figure skating with Tie Domi at Maple Leaf Gardens. Mercer really likes seeing all these different people and doing things with them, and getting to know Canada. And, of course, bringing all of that to his audience.

When you go to a taping of the Rick Mercer Report, you see the same funny, friendly, interested guy you always see on the show. You just get to be one of the lucky Canadians who sees all that in person.

George Stromboulopoulos IS “The Hour”

It was like CBC Celebrity Day or something. At least, that was how it felt as a crowd of us stood in line in the big hallway at the CBC Head Office building last week, waiting to be admitted to a live taping of The Hour.

We already knew we’d see George Stromboulopoulos, the show’s host. It was a bonus when he appeared in the hall as well, but what we didn’t expect was Natalie Brown, star of the comedy program, Sophie, to stroll by. Nor, soon after, an appearance by three stars from the other recent hit, Little Mosque on the Prairie. Sitara Hewitt (Rayyan Hamoudi), Carlo Rota (Yasir Hamoudi), and Zaib Shaikh (Amaar Rashid) happened along, and chatted with several people near the front of the line, giving out autographs and engaging in several impromptu photo shoots.

I remarked to someone in front of me, “This feels like Hollywood.”

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Steven and Chris: More than just two

“Honey, if you want to get the full picture when it comes to CBC TV’s new talk show, ‘Steven and Chris,’ you have got to attend a taping. Trust me!”

I confess to imagining that sentence spoken in Chris Hyndman’s voice. Because I went to a taping on Wednesday, and it was such fun that the impressions are still with me. What’s fascinating about a live taping is the insight into how much bigger the show is than what you see on TV. Chris Hyndman and Steven Sabados, veterans of three previous design series, are obviously the centre of this new production. But the mechanics of the show are bigger even than the two stars.

For the audience, it starts with makeup. Being a newbie, I didn’t realize even we would get powdered and glossed for the show. It stands to reason: if the camera pans across the crowd, you don’t want light flashing from shiny cheeks or noses. And you’d like people to look bright and engaged.

So as we waited to get touched up, we sat near a partly open door looking into the set of “The Hour,” CBC’s interview program with George Stroumboulopoulos. That was when the realization truly dawned for me: this is a taping of a TV show and I’m the “live studio audience!” There’s that newbie again.

After leading us into a bright, modern, very comfortable set, our guide situated us in the rows of seating. And again, a revelation: audience members are arranged very carefully. In fact, people are not only seated with care beforehand, but are sometimes moved between show segments as well. During our taping, an audience member with a design question was moved to the front, just before the question segment. It would have been harder to get a clear shot while she asked her question, if she’d remained in the back row.

Once seated, we were given instructions, about where to look if the cameras panned across, and when to clap. And of course we needed to turn off our cell phones. But I was impressed that our first instructions were about fire escapes. Although other elements of the show might be more crucial, we were well taken care of, from the moment we signed in downstairs, till our return to reception a couple of hours later.

But what about the actual show? you’re asking by now. It was grand. When Steven and Chris made their entrance, we didn’t really need to be cued to applaud. We were all happy to see the guys, and discover what goodies they had in store for us.

Their segments were both more and less personal than you’d notice on TV. After all, we were right there, and they frequently included us in their comments. But usually they talked either to the guests or directly into one of the three huge floor cameras that slid silently around the front of the set. Even with us there, the primary audience remained the television viewers. So if the big cameras had to block our view sometimes, to get the perfect shot, that was the priority.

And you know that smooth movement from one topic to another as Chris and Steven talk to a guest? A floor manager stands by the cameras, cueing them when it’s time to move to the next point, letting them know how close they are to the end of the segment, and keeping things on time. Other people move back and forth, seeing to other parts of the show.

You don’t think of these things, when you watch the program on TV. But how else would it look so polished, and work that smoothly? The fact that it’s so obvious, once you’ve seen it done, shows how well they do it.

Steven and Chris are clearly experienced professionals. They are as energized in person as we’ve seen on past series, yet they channel their energy so they don’t peak too soon or drag things too long. Between segments, they are all business as they consult with the producers, already plotting their tone for the next segment. Then comes the countdown (“And five, four, three…”) followed by the lead-in music and the audience cue to clap, and the show continues.

This was a learning experience as well as simply a fun time. One thing you realize quickly is that the people engineering the show are as professional as the two hosts. And we didn’t even see the deeper layer: the people who book guests, arrange audience gifts, create the teleprompter script, and so on. Steven and Chris may be the faces the viewers know best, and undoubtedly participate in the planning, but with all their skill and diligence, this show would go nowhere without the host of equally skilful people surrounding them.