MONTREAL - So, did you hear that Canada is finally granting the vote to citizens of Irish ancestry? And that diabetics in this realm of permafrost can take heart that legalization of insulin appears just around the corner? And the country's public school system is expanding to offer ninth grade?
That's the good news. On the downside, it's doubtful that Canada will find the moral fiber to end its unhappy custom of stranding old folk in the Arctic to cut social security costs. And global warming poses a threat to the national Parliament building - constructed, as everyone knows, of ice bricks in the form of a giant igloo.
What in the world do folks in the superpower next door think of all this?
That's the question that keeps Rick Mercer - whose deadpan interviewing style is familiar to watchers of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. - traveling with television camera from Boston to Berkeley, seeking the American view on the great Canadian issues.
And getting an earful.
Mining the depths of American ignorance about Canada has yielded prime-time gold for the satirical TV news show "This Hour Has 22 Minutes," produced by Nova Scotia's Salter Street Films and aired by the CBC. Probably the most popular and certainly the most outrageous segment is Mercer's "Talking to Americans."
Preposterous questions are put to unsuspecting Yanks - who ramble on cluelessly about whether Canada should become part of North America (university student: "I don't know."); should continue the national voting system of dropping pine cones or birch bark into ballot boxes (Louisiana man: "At least you are ecologically sound."); or whether Canada should keep its navy despite being landlocked.
One Floridian helpfully offered: "You don't need a navy if you don't have any water. Just use us Americans. We'll support you."
God bless America, they doubtlessly muttered in Halifax, St. John's, Quebec City, Vancouver, and scores of other seaports when that one aired.
Senior citizens on the floes
"Americans are our great neighbor. They are kind, they are generous," says Mercer, a 30-year-old comedian/actor from Newfoundland. "And they have an uncanny ability to go on and on about things they know nothing about."
On learning of Canada's heartless treatment of the elderly, a professor at New York's Columbia University doesn't mince words, demanding on camera "that the government of Canada discourage the tradition of placing senior citizens on ice floes, leaving them to perish."
Mercer: "How long have you been teaching here?"
Professor: "Nine years - history."
On the streets of San Francisco, interviewees show serious empathy for the ultrasensitive denizens of Hull, Quebec - pledging without hesitation to expunge a cruel if hitherto unrecognized slur from their vocabularies.
"I am one American who will never use the word `hullabaloo' because it is hurtful to Canadians," a most politically correct woman grimly assures Mercer.
In Des Moines, Iowans are happy to hear of Canada's desire to forsake the 72-minute hour in favor of "American time." No one challenges Mercer's assertion that Canada keeps a 20-hour day. And Gov. Tom Vilsack is happy to break from the demands of office to offer encouragement to the plucky people of the north. "Canada, congratulations on your new 24-hour clock," intones the governor, flanked by beaming aides.
You'd think Canadians might find this more painful than hilarious. But when the segments were spliced together and aired recently as "Rick Mercer's Talking to Americans," the one-hour show drew the highest ratings for a comedy special in CBC history.
The masochistic yuks in some ways typify the U.S.-Canada relationship. Canadian author Margaret Atwood once described the border between the two countries as the world's longest one-way mirror - with Canadians, invisible to American eyes, peering obsessively south.
"It's the ultimate Canadian joke, and it's really at our expense because we care so much what Americans think,'" says Mercer, who comes to American screens this fall as star of "The Industry," a comedy-drama about the entertainment business that is already on the air in some American markets.
"Every Canadian knows so much about the U.S. You know so little about us," he says. "Yet Americans are so kind and generous they'll almost always take time to talk to the poor little Canadian."
Hospitality was the order of the day when one Southern governor interrupted his busy schedule to offer moral support for Canada's scheme to encase Parliament in a refrigerated dome as a precaution against global warming: "Hi, I'm Mike Huckabee of Arkansas wanting to say congratulations, Canada, on preserving your national igloo!"
The reception was just as thoughtful at Harvard Yard, where students and professors furrowed their brows as Mercer sought reaction to Ottawa's plan to "give Irish-Canadians the vote as a counterbalance to Quebec separatists."