A Canadian film editorial brought to you by The Great Canadian Guide to the Movies & TV

Rick Mercer and the Death of "The Crocodile Hunter"
...or: Who's laughing now?


Steve Irwin, TV's "Crocodile Hunter" who brought a guerrilla anarchy to nature documentaries by happily plunging into death defying situations, while exclaiming "Crikey!", died a few weeks ago...killed by a stingray while filming another documentary. I was kind of surprised by the media reaction to his death, at least the reaction I've come across.

It's almost respectful.

You see, I kind of figured the media to be snarky and to unleash a torrent of barely repressed journalistic rage.

After all, Irwin was a so-called "environmental warrior", who, despite the ironic use of the term "Hunter" was all about promoting the wonder and beauty of nature. It sometimes seemed like he hadn't met an insect or a fungus -- let alone a lethal reptile -- that he couldn't proclaim "Amazing!" in his signature Australian accent. His whole death defying antics were very much about personalizing and humanizing the mysteries of nature -- okay, yeah, it was also about stunt filmmaking in an increasingly sensationalistic TV landscape, but anyway...

And it's seemed to me that media types, particularly in Canada, have a very low tolerance for environmentalists, animal lovers, tree huggers, and what have you. Oh, sure, there are exceptions. Dr. David Suzuki is largely respected. But of course, he's a geneticist. When a geneticist tells you not to mess with Mother Nature, you listen -- kind of like if Victor Frankenstein wrote an op ed piece "Why it's wrong to play God and create life". Some guys have creds you don't scoff at.

Anyway, so with that in mind, I had expected Irwin's death to lead to editorialists assuring us he got what he deserved, that he was a loon, and that that's why the sooner we get rid of this nature thing the better off we'll all be. But so far -- not.

And that's where Rick Mercer comes in. Mercer is a popular English-Canadian comedian and political commentator who has been a mainstay of CBC TV for, well, seems like decades, currently starring in the eponymously titled Rick Mercer's Report. I used to like Mercer on This Hour Has 22 Minutes, and his caustic, incisive, and very, very bitter rants about current affairs. But I kind of lost some of my enthusiasm for him over the years. Oh, I still think he can be funny -- I still enjoy him from time to time. But he also can seem a bit smug, and condescending, and more.

Anyway, on a recent blog, Mercer decided to buck the trend and mock Irwin's death with the line: "Laugh and the world laughs with you, get killed by a benign piece of seafood and the world laughs too apparently."

Hmmmm. Except, of course, the world isn't laughing. Only Mercer. And, presumably, the people with whom Mercer hangs out.

Which reminds me why I don't tend to watch Mercer that much anymore.

Oh sure, maybe Mercer meant it was "laughably ironic", y'know, an environmentalist killed by an animal. But by that thinking, a Canadian soldier in Afghanistan killed by American "friendly" fire, as has happened more than once, is kind of funny, too. But I don't suppose Mercer sees any humour in that.

In the same blog, Mercer mocked Liberal Party leadership hopeful, Michael Ignatieff, for using the seeming redundant phrase "anticipatory hypothetical". Except a response left at yet another blog, by someone who was actually there when Ignatieff uttered the line, claimed it made sense in the context, that Ignatieff himself pointed out hypotheticals are generally anticipatory, but that the question he had been posed was a "retroactive hypothetical". So, assuming Mercer was wrong, and the guy who claimed to have actually been in the audience was right, Mercer basically went off on a rant about something that he had misunderstood because he didn't know the full context.

Which is the problem with blogs, and editorialists (and, yes, people like me, too). So desperate for "material", so eager to meet deadlines, you can pounce on things without really knowing if it's worth pouncing on.

I don't know if Ignatieff would make a good leader, let alone prime minister. I do harbour a secret, puerile thought that it would be fun to see the reaction from ultra-conservative quarters of the United States if Canada elected a prime minister with a Russian surname -- the fur would fly, then, boyo. But make fun of him for things he says and does...not for things you heard from a friend of a friend of a friend that he might've said in an unspecific context.

And that got me thinking about something that I had been brooding about for a while.

Namely how kind of, well, indiscriminate a lot of modern comedians are. How any and all sundry are seen as legitimate targets. How so much of modern comedy seems to be "attack" comedy.

Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems to me a lot of older comedians tended to be self-mocking. Heck, Jack Benny created a whole, largely fictitious persona (a penny pinching, lousy violinist) in order to act as the butt of his own jokes. Johnny Carson used to mix up his monologues with "attack" comedy, lampooning public figures...but also self-directed barbs mocking himself. They were still lampooning human foibles...but they themselves were the humans in question.

But it seems like a lot of comedians these days don't go for the "self-mockery" bit. Convinced that they serve a higher purpose, that they are the voice of wisdom and reason, their humour seems to exist entirely of "attack" humour. Humour that's based on a kind of elitism, as the comedian is saying: "I'm smarter than my target" and that, by extension, is meant to play into their audience's sense of superiority, as they all share laughs at the "other" -- the stupid, the uncouth, the undesirable, the "not one of us".

Attack humour in a political context is fine -- should be encouraged. That's satire, that's political commentary. But when a comedian is directing vicious barbs at a politician, then shifts to mocking an apolitical movie star, then slides into belittling some man in the street, it actually undermines the initial sense of any political truth in need of telling. It's just snide and petty.

A few years ago there was a Canadian late night talk show in the Tonight Show vein called Open Mike with Mike Bullard which, surprises surprise, was actually a success for a few years. Host Mike Bullard was sardonic and funny and, yeah, generally of the "attack" brand, but he was comfortable in front of the camera and knew his stuff and I generally brushed off the meanness, the prickliness that sometimes emerged. But as people who know me will tell you, I have a kind of low tolerance. It doesn't take much for an entertainer to lose my patronage.

With Bullard it was a joke he did about Stephen Hawking -- y'know, the wheelchair confined physicist with Lou Gehring's disease who can only speak through a computer? Hawking had been in the news then because of reports he had been assaulted, but wasn't talking to the police about the incident. And Bullard...made fun of it. Made fun of Hawking in particular. And, in a way, it wasn't just the joke that turned me off. Okay, sure, it was in bad taste -- but hey, Bullard and his writers were working to a deadline. Maybe they wrote that joke late at night after a few beers. We all say and do things that are in bad taste, hoping to get a rise. No, what threw me was when the audience reacted -- or rather, didn't react, but sat there kind of stunned.

Did Bullard back off? Did he cough, make some self-depecrating quip, and move on? No, he made some remark explaining who Hawking was. In other words, even then he couldn't comprehend that he had crossed a line...he just thought his audience was too stupid to get the reference.

And that's the problem with "attack" comedy. What should be legitimately angry and bitter and "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore" political commentary gets watered down into just wild, indiscriminate, childish lashings out by self-styled elitists who just like to make fun of people who are different from them.

Rick Mercer may think he's being astute attacking Michael Ignatieff over a comment he may've uttered in a context that Mercer failed to properly grasp, and he may think he's being clever "laughing" at Steve Irwin's death. But really, he's not.

He's just being mean. And when did meanness become a substitute for incisive?

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

September 20, 2006

Back to The Great Canadian Guide to the Movies and TV