In the latest issue of the recently reanimated magazine The Baffler, Steve Almond takes aim at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert for, among other things, being “parasites of the dysfunction they mock” and “remaining careful never to question the corrupt precepts of the status quo too vigorously.” Even if you accept that Stewart and Colbert are corporate quislings, at least they are frequently very, very funny, which is more than can be said for new books by the much-loved Rick Mercer and the tandem of Chris Cannon and Brian Calvert.
Mercer, who has spent the last two decades as a stalwart of CBC television, is best known for his political commentary. His latest book is, primarily, a collection of his patented rants, transcribed from his weekly show, The Rick Mercer Report. Inserted between folksy segments that feature Mercer interacting with soldiers, athletes, or students, and helped somewhat by the reactions of a studio audience, Mercer’s televised rants about the latest outrage on the domestic political scene occasionally delight. Collated chronologically in a 250-page book, however, they track closer to the sort of political commentary one might expect from a columnist in a one-newspaper town. (One entry even takes aim at people who block escalators in malls, a classic subject for newspaper columnists who have already penned that award-winning piece on hard-to-open plastic packaging.)
There is something almost simplistic and even illogical about Mercer’s populism. He criticizes politicians of every stripe, but has endless reserves of admiration for average Canadians and our system of government, even though both must surely bear some responsibility for the mediocrity of the country’s political class.
The most engaging parts of A Nation Worth Ranting About are not rants. In a comparatively lengthy and truly heartfelt section about the bullying of gay youth, Mercer delves into his own adolescence. The pitch-perfect mix of genuine laughs and sincere emotion is a welcome break and leads one to the conclusion that memoir, not satire, may be Mercer’s forte.
By contrast, there is almost nothing to recommend about America, but Better. Conceived as the platform for a party that would run in U.S. elections to make that country more like Canada, the book is a collection of clichéd jokes comparing Canada and the U.S., the hoariest of hoary gags for lacklustre Canadian stand-ups.
The book gets off to a bad start, resorting to a Céline Dion joke on the fourth page. The authors compare the singer to “rough patches” in Canada-U.S. relations like the War of 1812 and Vietnam. (Why Vietnam is included is unclear.) There are, of course, cracks about Fox News, because Canada’s own news media is never biased or misleading. And what would a book like this be without maple syrup jokes – lots and lots of maple syrup jokes? For example, the Canada Party makes this bold promise: “We will continue building oil pipelines, but they will carry maple syrup. If there’s a spill, at least the animals will be tasty.”
Cannon and Calvert are not even able to keep their flimsy premise, which debuted as a series of YouTube videos, afloat for a mere 150 pages. The end of the book is padded with a Canadian glossary and nonsensical job application forms.
Neither A Nation Worth Ranting About nor America, but Better meets the standard Almond set for Stewart and Colbert. Far from challenging the status quo, these books positively reek of it by repeatedly delivering the printed equivalent of cheap applause lines intended to flatter the recipient. What’s more damning is that they fail to meet the much lower standard of being clever enough to be worthy of your cash or your time.