The feminist Canadian sketch comedy series Baroness von Sketch Show has made a splash on the CBC and graces American airwaves on IFC tonight at 10:00pm. The half-hour show is written by and starring Meredith MacNeill and Second City alumni Carolyn Taylor, Aurora Browne, and Jennifer Whalen. Hilarious, smart, and original, the sketches vary in length and never fail to entertain. I talked to the talented bunch about the vibe of their writers’ room, their most humiliating moments as performers, and pigeons.
I think one thing that makes the show exceptional is that such a multitude of experiences are reflected. You have sketches that tell queer stories, mom stories, workplace stories, surreal stories – how did you bring so many different voices into the show?
Meredith: When we created the concept of the show we wanted to create a bunch of different POVs. In our lives, the show reflects ourselves, our friends, our moms, our babysitters – we’re totally influenced by what we are surrounded by. So that truthful inspiration is how we got a lot of inspiration for the show.
Aurora: We didn’t go in with the mandate of “We’re going to write about one particular subject.” It was really like, “Is this funny? Is this relatable?” So it ended up just being what our fantastic writers’ room was interested in, which ended up being a wide range of things.
Meredith: Yeah, and we were really lucky. The four of us get along so well that we fully enjoy hearing about each other’s life experiences.
Do you have a particular sketch that makes you laugh the hardest?
Jennifer: I’m going to say I really enjoyed “Book Club.” I think that was a really quintessential Baroness sketch because it was shot at the end of the day and we had to be out of the location in fifteen minutes. The characters make me laugh every single time and I still get just as annoyed every single time.
Carolyn: It’s so hard, we’ve got so many sketches. There’s some moments. I love when the pigeon shits on Aurora’s face in “LinkedUp.” She’s my favorite person to have in a situation where bad shit is happening. She’s so good at dramatic irony. I found that so satisfying to see Aurora in compromising positions.
What is your writers’ room like?
Meredith: Well, the show was built from a place of vulnerability. We wanted to continue that so that people could share their ideas and always feel supported. Even though you might have a sketch about a plastic chair that might not make it, we believe that the person who offered that idea spent the time writing the sketch and found truth in it for them, and it might not make it this round, but it could be turned into something. We call that “limbo.” That’s about as negative as it gets in our writing room.
Do you think there is anything inherently Canadian about the show?
Carolyn: Well, yes, in the sense that the creators are Canadian. If you’ve been to Toronto or you’re Torontonian, you can see it everywhere in the show.
Jennifer: Maybe from the point of view. As Canadians bordering a giant country, we are observers of America. And then as women, we’re also observers in a different way.
Carolyn: A lot of our sketches have multiple points of view, meaning there isn’t one bad guy and one good guy. You can kind of love someone a little and hate them at the same time, and that can be true of a bunch of characters in a scene. In Canada, you know, we can kind of be self-reflective and not always see the black-and-white. There’s not always the good guy and the bad guy.
Jennifer: I think it’s true to our nature. And maybe it’s a reflection of our weather. As someone put it to me once, before climate change at least, when we used to have winter, you do need your neighbor. You do need to depend on people and be open to other people’s viewpoints.
Carolyn: So that would be like a shovel? You need someone to shovel?
Jennifer: Yeah, you may be like, “My neighbor only wears blue clothing and I have a serious fundamental problem with that, but my car won’t start and I need their help, even though I really disagree with them.”
When were you first introduced to improv and sketch comedy?
Meredith: I never did it, I was classically trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, England. So I did theater, but I’d never done improv and I’d never done standup, then my first entry into comedy was when a casting director who casted The Office saw me do an advert over in the UK and thought I was funny and had me audition for a sketch show.
Aurora: I went to theater school and trained to be an actor and they don’t even mention improv, but then a few years later I went to see a show at Second City where my friend was doing a student class. And I thought, “That looks really fun, not pretentious at all,” which is where I was at at the time with the theater world, so I started taking classes. And Carolyn was in my friend’s class, that’s the first night I met CoCo, which is what I call her. That was in 1997. So I started taking classes and got hired into the Second City touring company at the same time as Jennifer and Carolyn. Going from being a regular actor where the nightmare is being on stage and not knowing your lines to fully embracing being on stage and just making it up was very freeing. It’s like getting steroids in your acting life. It’s amazing. The good kind of steroids, not the bad kind.
What’s the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to you as a performer?
Meredith: I was performing Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre, Mark Rylance was the director there at the time. We were doing the first all-female show because every year the Globe would do an all-male Shakespeare production and this was the first year they did an all-female production. It’s an open-air theater and I played Lady Anne in Richard III, which feels like a big part, but she’s killed off pretty early in the play. But there’s this part at the end where young Elizabeth comes out and takes reign. So they had me come out as her wearing this dress with like eighty layers. It took like an hour and half to dress, everything is handmade. I come out, I have no lines, I have a corset, I’m at the Globe Theatre, I’m like “Holy fuck, this is amazing.” And just at that point, a pigeon flew down and landed on my head. I lost my shit. I bent over and I lost it laughing. The pigeon didn’t even fly off right away. At the end of the play we did this jig, as was traditionally done in Shakespeare, and I kept whispering to the people next to me, “Is there pigeon shit on my head?” Classy.
Aurora: One of the more embarrassing moments for me was at Second City. We had a sketch on the show at the time called “The Naked News” because there was a real show on at the time called the Naked News where people would undress as they read the news. And of course, they were all young, attractive people. So, Carolyn and I decided to do the news as Barbara Frum and Ann Medina, who were like these older, scary, well-respected, senior news anchors here in Canada. So, we had built for ourselves these fake boobs out of nylon that would literally unroll from our bras. We made it to be the most awkward thing. So, at Second City, there’s a tradition that guys streak on somebody’s last night. So, it was our last night and Carolyn and I were like, “We can’t not go topless on our last night. That would be so cowardly not to.” So, we didn’t wear the fake bras, and when it came to the scene we both just took off our shirts. And I mean…my family was in the audience.
Carolyn: There are so many embarrassing moments, but on set with Jen, we were doing a physical scene at a coffee shop. And I had to – you know when you go to a coffee shop and you’re trying to find an outlet and you have to climb over people? So, in the sketch, I’m climbing over everyone and I climb over Jen and let out a fart. It just comes out with the whole crew there. And the camera is still rolling and Jen is trying to keep it together, and I farted loud enough - it was completely involuntary. I just had to bury my head and accept I can’t take it back. I can’t put my fart back in.
Jennifer: I think my most embarrassing was when I was in Second City. We used to do this sketch about James Bond films, and there’s a lot of running on and offstage. Anyway, I was running offstage and there was a wire that wasn’t taped down and it caught my foot and I went flying. Nobody saw, because it was backstage, but I run back onstage and as I get onstage, I realize that I’ve cut the top of my foot and I’m bleeding profusely. So, I’m running around the stage, leaving trails of blood everywhere and I can hear the audience gasping, but there’s kind of nothing I can do. But then it’s the next scene and my husband in the scene kept whispering, “Your shoe – it’s filling with blood.”
What kind of show do you think you would have written if you had this opportunity at the beginning of your career?
Jennifer: I think I was always interested in writing for women and talking about women’s experience and my own experience. So, it either would have been a less fully formed version of Baroness or it would have been a crazy ambitious sci-fi thing.
Carolyn: I think it would have been structurally really poor. I think it’s taken a lifetime of sketch and practicing the craft writing for us to really be able to tell a good story in thirty seconds or a minute and half. And then we wouldn’t have been influenced by all the great comedians who influenced us in so many different ways. When you’re younger you think you’re the first one to do everything.
Jennifer: Yeah, and as I get older too, I’m more able to see all sides of the issue. I think with our sketches we have many points of view. I may not agree with every character, but I can see how they got there and I have some empathy. I think if I’d done this in my twenties, it would have been way more black-and-white.
Carolyn: And also, really an appreciation for the straight man or straight woman. Really understanding that there’s so much comedy to be done with a straight delivery and playing with awkward moments. I think maybe when I was younger in my career, I didn’t have the same appreciation for that as I do now.
Have you had any surprising reactions to the show?
Jennifer: My parents watched the show and then I had to explain to them – they were like “You know, we really liked the show, but that one at the end, ‘Fuck, Marry, Kill’? What? We didn’t get that at all.” So I had to explain to them the game of Fuck, Marry, Kill. And my dad just looked at me like, “You’re horrible. You’re horrible people.”
What’s your best advice for aspiring sketch and improv performers?
Carolyn: I would say just write, write, write, hone your skills. Go see a ton of it. Perform it live, perform it on camera, even if it’s just with a pal on your iPhone or whatever. And really make sure it’s what makes you laugh, what you find funny. Because I think if you try to appropriate someone else’s style or humor it’s never going to resonate as true for you. Whatever makes you laugh. If it’s slapstick that makes you laugh, go for that. Just go for what is true to your sense of humor. Just hone it and try to articulate it in a form where other people can watch it and appreciate it.
Jennifer: Yes, and note that with sketch, it’s never a finished product. So be open to the rewrite, be open to – you know, if somebody says, “Mmm, I don’t get that,” it may hurt your feelings so much, but try to be able to listen to that and try to think about why that part of your sketch isn’t working. There’s so much rewriting, just being open to it makes it so much better.
Carolyn: And for us, we always leave room for improv on the day. So, for an aspiring comic, just to allow the room for some magic on the day. If you have an idea, don’t feel shackled to your script. Allow yourself to play a little bit, because that’s where the fun resides.
Jennifer: Yeah, sometimes you’ve thought about it, but only on the day do you realize, “Oh! That’s how it ends.”