Laughing at Americans, on the Frontier of Ignorance

By DeNeen L. Brown, Washington Post Service
(International Herald Tribune, Zurich, Friday, July 6, 2001)

   TORONTO - For a Canadian, sometimes the hardest thing about talking to Americans is keeping a straight face.
   But Rick Mercer keeps trying, trying not to grin or giggle as he travels the States asking those astute Americans very simple questions about their neighbor up north - and bumping into mountains of ignorance.
   "Excuse me, ma'am," Mr. Mercer says, holding out a microphone in San Francisco, "do you have a minute for Canadian television?"
   "You have a TV station in Canada?" the woman asks politely and seriously.
   *Fact: Canada has four major television networks and dozens of stations in a country of more than 31 million people.
   Mr. Mercer walks up to an unsuspecting Ivy League student in Boston and asks: "Do you think Canada should join North America? It's a big story up north. Care to comment?"
   The university student, who says he is studying politics, looks deeply into the camera and answers, seriously, that he is not quite sure.
   *Fact: Canada obviously is a part - a very large part - of the North American continent.
   Another American, another question: "Should Canada outlaw the slaughter of polar bears in Toronto?"
   Answer: Definitely!
   *Fact: There are no polar bears on the loose in this bustling, urban city on a lake. Polar bears roam in the Arctic, about 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) north of Toronto.
   O Canada! How little Americans know thee. The United States' biggest trading partner, the only country with which it shares a long, unguarded border. Yet somehow that large landmass to the north was always cut off the maps that hung in the U.S. classrooms.
   It is a standing joke in Canada how little Americans know about it.
   Mr. Mercer's "Talking to Americans" proves the point.
   One of Canada's most popular satires, "Talking to Americans" is broadcast weekly as part of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.'s show "This Hour Has 22 Minutes."
   A recent compilation of "Talking to Americans," which aired April Fools' Day, received the highest ratings in CBC history for a comedy special, drawing 2.7 million viewers in Canada.
   Mr. Mercer says the segment is popular because it is as much about the Canadian search for national identity as it is about American ignorance of Canada.
   "Canadians spend a huge portion of their social life trying to define what it means to be Canadian," he said in an interview.
   "Americans never spend any time trying to define what it means to be American," he said. "Canadians have an identity crisis. We look like Americans. We sound like Americans. We know everything about Americans. They know nothing about us.
   "We find that funny," he added.
   So there he goes again with deadpan humor, wandering through the streets of Anytown, U.S.A.
   The Americans he finds are all too happy to congratulate Canada on what Mr. Mercer, tongue in cheek, tells them are its latest "achievements."
   "Congratulations, Canada, on legalizing insulin!" says a woman in New York City.
   "Congratulations, Canada, for getting a McDonald's!" shouts a man in a baseball cap.
   "Congratulations, Canada, on 800 miles of paved road!" says a man on the streets of New York. On a crowded Manhattan street corner, Mr. Mercer asks: "do you think America should be bombing Bouchard?"
   "Absolutely!" a man emphatically responds. Never mind that Bouchard is not a place but a man, the former separatist leader of Quebec, Lucien Bouchard.
   At Harvard University, Mr. Mercer asked students whether Canada should resume the seal slaughter in Saskatchewan. Student after student lined up in protest of a slughter, not one seemingly aware that Saskatchewan is a landlocked province with no seals.
   Some Canadians say they suffer from a national inferiority complex. As the late former prime minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, once said: "Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt."
   In the shadow of the United States, it seems that a measure of self-respect, perhaps self-worth, is for Canadians to believe that Candians are somehow better traveled, better read, better written than their U.S. counterparts.
   Rudyard Griffiths, a Canadian who heads the Dominion Institute, a Canadian research organization, opposes the great stereotype.
   "That myth is a part of a larger anti-Americanism," he says. "It is smug and self-serving and ultimately self-destructive. It prevents us from looking at our own knowledge of what we are as a country."
   Mr. Griffiths says that if a U.S. television anchor pointed a microphone at an unsuspecting Canadian and fished deep into Candian history, the anchor would find the same ignorance Mr. Mercer is finding.
   Mr. Mercer said he got the idea for the segment one day two years ago when he was in Washington working on a comedy show and ran out of funny ideas. The camera was rolling, "and I didn't have an idea in my head. 'Oh my God,' I thought. 'It all ends here. My career is toast.'"
   He was standing in front of the Capitol. And out of nowhere, a politician walked by. Mr. Mercer stopped him:
   "Excuse me, sir, did you know Canda's new prime minister, Ralph Benmergui, is visiting Washington for a summit with President Clinton? Should it be called the 'Clinton-Benmergui' summit or the 'Benmergui-Clinton' summit?"
   Immediately the politician began rambling on how happy he was that Prime Minister Benmergui was in Washington. Never mind that the prime minister is Jean Chretien.
   Later, Mr. Mercer caught up with George W. Bush, then a presidential candidate. "A question from Canada!" Mr. Mercer shouted at a Bush campaign stop. Mr. Mercer told Mr. Bush that "prime Minister Poutine" was supporting the Bush candidacy.
   Mr. Bush, on camera, said: "I appreciate his strong statement. He understands Canadians are strong and we'll work closely together."