For the Canadian all-women comedy troupe of Baroness von Sketch Show, all things tend toward chaos. “I think humans, on one level, will take something simple and make it extremely complicated,” says troupe member Meredith MacNeill. “That is a very common theme in the show. Something that looks really complicated on the outside, when you get to the kernel of it, it’s pretty simple what started it all.” The sketches on the women’s IFC show take a small moment of modern life and blow it out, showcasing all of its inherent power dynamics and absurdities. Not using enough emoji in your work emails? A sign of being a serial killer. Something as small as using dry shampoo instead of showering or being the last table at a wedding asked to the buffet can cause a person to descend into barbarity.
In advance of their new season (premiering on IFC November 8), the Baronesses shared the sketches that had the biggest impact on their comedic sensibilities. For Americans, they’re a crash course in all the comedy we miss. Sketch on American TV tends to be dominated by SNL and its alums, but in England and Canada, it’s been quietly flourishing for decades. And because there is a plurality of equally known sketch shows, it’s recognized that sketch doesn’t have to only do one thing. “Everyone should be looking to break the rules all the time,” says MacNeill, “but first you’ve gotta know them really well.” Here’s where the Baroness gals learned the rules.
Carolyn Taylor: Smack the Pony, “Without You”
Carolyn: It was two women in what looks like a factory setting, singing this song [Harry Nilsson’s “Without You”]. How they got the rights I’ll never know. I think it was ten years ago it was sent to me. My friend Jill and I were obsessed with how amazing this troupe was. It’s naturally lit; it looks like a real location. It’s not shot in that classic sketch way with that proscenium way of blocking, it really has a naturalistic look to it, and movement to the character. And these two characters were so relatable and grounded. So it was a slice of life, really playing on the interpersonal dynamic of competition. One of them is a great singer, humming along to herself. The other is not a strong singer, but there’s a lack of self-awareness.
I just love the tenderness and the truth of that competition and that playfulness that they had. They were able to go to extreme places but stay really grounded. It never felt like they were doing big characters or hamming it up; it really felt like it was coming from a place of truth. The departures that the lesser singer made, the chances that she took to one-up the better singer, I found it so truthful and believable and absurd and silly, but also really grounded in reality. It was really inspiring to see sketch look that real. That had a huge impact on me.
I found it really relatable that the singer who wasn’t as good was the first to sing, and that the good singer just took it as an opportunity to show off. The bad singer looks really mad, like she was feeling this song and now it’s a competition.
Carolyn: Yeah, exactly. I found that brilliant. And, of course, if you’re the good singer and you’re hearing the person who can’t sing, do you really have to sing? Can’t you just sit there and let the other person go off? But no, you gotta sing it, and it just speaks to the human condition.
Jennifer Whalen: Big Train, “Learning to Ride a Bike”
Jennifer: I have to thank you because I was looking at my favorite sketches, and I realized that I have a very dark sense of humor, which I didn’t even realize myself. What I love about this sketch is similar to Carolyn in that it’s outdoors, natural light, really real-looking. It takes this very simple thing that’s very relatable and takes it to a crazy level. It’s one of those sketches that’s in the writing and the performing, but almost more so in the editing. Obviously [Simon Pegg] did a bunch of stuff, and I can see where it’s the script and where he did whatever, and they went, “That’s funny, let’s put that in.”
Which take feels improvised to you?
Jennifer: When he takes the kid and throws him overhead into the bushes. That probably wasn’t in the script, but he was like, “Whatever.”
Do you all make room for moments like that when you’re shooting?
Jennifer: Oftentimes there are ones that are really tightly scripted, and we stay close to them quite tightly. But getting into a scene and getting out of it, we improv. We’ll improv a little chat off the top, and then oftentimes off the end; there’s a lot of improv. It doesn’t all make it to TV; some of it is just for us.
In your “Dry Shampoo” sketch, were the little brunch lines, the totally random dialogue before the Dry Shampoo User gets to brunch, improvised?
Aurora: Those were in the script, but we continued it on.
Jennifer: Monica [Heisey] wrote all of those, but we love that game so much that we have continued it in other seasons. Oftentimes you’ll notice that we’ll have this weird non sequitur that makes you ask, “What was this conversation?”
Meredith: There was a lot of ad lib during the dry-shampoo speech.
The Big Train sketch is different because it’s improvised cruelty to children.
Jennifer: I like the commitment to keeping the joke. You end on this thing that’s outrageous, with this kid spontaneously bursting into flames, and he says “You’ve gone on fire” like it’s the most low-key thing. I also truly love — I don’t know why, I think it’s from SCTV — when comedies insert a dummy and it’s very obvious. They make no attempt. There’s something about that DIY-ness that just delights my soul. It’s this great combination of bright and silly and dark and just dry. I love it.
Meredith MacNeill: The Muppet Show, “My Way”
Let’s go from one use of puppets to another. Meredith, your sketch is just … sad. What was inspirational about that for you?
Meredith: Well, The Muppet Show was really inspirational for me. It made me feel like I belonged. It made me feel like [entertainment] was something I could do. I think as a kid you didn’t really understand, or at least I didn’t, that these were puppets. I thought it was a real place, a real world. And I 100 percent related to them.
I think what The Muppet Show did for me that I took to our show was that it knew its format extremely well. It was a brilliant sketch show, and not only was it hilarious with typical pratfalls and physicality, but it was also extremely moving. There were layers. You could start out howling with laughter. You’d be really interested in the [relationship] dynamics, almost like a sitcom. And then you could be absolutely heartbroken. And what that did for me was let me know that sketch doesn’t ever have to be just one thing. How you laugh or how you enjoy something, or what message you want to get across, you can break the rules within the format.
Gonzo was often the butt of the joke, but when he says good-bye to the show, they let him have a really intense moment. And when Kermit goes to say good-bye, kind of the way we’ll do an ending you’d never expect on Baroness, I wasn’t expecting that. Kermit made a decision, “I’m gonna cut this off. This is a private moment.” I just love the chutzpah behind that choice. Even though it’s just sad, I think it’s a really powerful sketch. Everyone should be looking to break the rules all the time, but first you’ve gotta know them really well, like The Muppet Show.
Was Gonzo your favorite Muppet?
Meredith: It was Gonzo because Gonzo was Other. Gonzo was constantly searching for his identity, and I think it was really important for me as a child. I really invested in what that journey was. Gonzo gave me a certain freedom in this wonderful way that was completely subconscious. It’s only when I look back now that I realize they knew what they were doing. I feel really lucky that we had that as kids.
Carolyn: I fell in love with Bernadette Peters watching The Muppet Show.
All other Baronesses: Oooooh, yes!
Who was everybody’s favorite Muppet?
Meredith: I also liked the girl in the band, Janice. I really wanted to understand Janice’s life and how she got there.
Jennifer: I loved Animal. Just everything that Animal did. Shouting his name — “Animal!” — his hair, everything. And I really like Sam the Eagle. So really opposite sides of the scale.
Carolyn: I absolutely loved Miss Piggy. She was my person. My mum sewed me a Miss Piggy costume, I had a bust and a satin thing. And my best friend Medea went as Kermit the Frog; her mum sewed her a whole thing for Halloween. It was an obsession. I did her voice. I loved the dynamic that they had with each other. I could watch that forever. And “Pigs in Space.”
Aurora: Kermit was definitely my favorite. I had a bit of an unhealthy … well, you know, I had a little toy crocheted frog, which my son now has, actually. It wasn’t a Kermit, but I called it Kermit. He wasn’t a branded Kermit. I identified with Kermit. I was really in love with Kermit. It really hurt me when he and Miss Piggy broke up. I had some feelings about Kermit.
So you were upset when Miss Piggy and Kermit broke up, and you loved Kermit, but you didn’t identify with Miss Piggy?
Aurora: No, I identified so completely with Kermit that I felt what he was feeling. At some point, they do explore their backstory, right? At first, they were happy, but then she dumped him or stood him up or something. And after that, he’s like, “No, I won’t go back there.” And I was just really hurt for him.
Carolyn: And The Great Muppet Caper.
All other Baronesses: Ohhh, I love that movie.
Meredith: The creepy Swedish Chef with the real human hands. They knew that was a little bit odd. That again kind of broke the barrier. That’s the genius of the show.
Jennifer: I think I’m having a lot of breakthroughs with this [interview]. I identified with all the fringe characters. I like Statler and Waldorf. I like the Swedish Chef. I really liked when they’d have a giant Muppet like Sweetums who would eat smaller Muppets. I feel like maybe there’s something inside me that’s not quite right. I really like dark sketches, and I identify with the Muppets’ lunatic fringe. So there you go.
Aurora Browne: SCTV, “Michael McDonald”
Aurora: I love so much about that show, but this one stood out to me. It was a filmed one; they left the studio to do it. I remember hearing this song [Christopher Cross, “Ride Like the Wind”] and thinking, Who is this guy who comes in just to do the backups? So there’s that little bit of truth to it, and I love that they took it and made it that Michael McDonald actually just comes in to do that backup. I love how it follows the totally unrealistic reality that they would play the song, and he came just in time, did that, and left.
But also, as a filmmaker, I think maybe that particular scene made me love a good master shot. I know we talk about having to get close in comedy, but I’m always asking to let us play it in the master because it can be hilarious. He comes in, he’s so tiny, and he comes up to the microphone. And then they come out and have the whole negotiation with his contract, and you can’t hear what they’re saying, but you know what they’re saying. And suddenly they realize the part’s coming up, so they run back to their stations. Whenever that song comes up, I sing it like Rick Moranis, and I reach up to the microphone and hold on to my headphones. It just always stuck with me — what you can do in a single take, in a master, when everyone is following the silly rules. It’s not physical comedy, but with the physicality of it, you know exactly what’s going on.
I noticed almost everybody picked a sketch with a musical component to it. How do you use music on the show?
Meredith: It costs so much.
All other Baronesses: [Noises of anguish.]
Meredith: We try to build an episode like a mixtape. We love the musicality of language. I’m obsessed with the rhythm of something. When I write, it isn’t for the page; it’s for the performance. Sometimes on the page, I’ll know it doesn’t look funny. But I’ll know when we read it, the rhythm and the music of the language will be really funny.
Jennifer: We did do a musical bit this year.
Meredith: Aurora Browne is a phenomenal singer.