Why the women of Baroness Von Sketch Show are Canada’s new comedy royalty

Proudly feminist, queer-positive and wholly their own, the foursome behind one of 2017's best TV shows riff on their breakthrough year

I’ve never met the four women behind the Baroness Von Sketch Show, but I already feel like I have a deep connection to them – one of the side effects of re-binge-watching a series the day before an interview. Lucky for me, the actors  are as delightfully eccentric as the characters they play on their CBC show.

“When I was a kid, my best friend had clammy hands, so I used to lick my palms so I’d have clammy hands, too,” explains Carolyn Taylor, within minutes of meeting me, as she mimics licking her hands like a deranged kitten. 

On a sunny afternoon at the Drake Hotel, Taylor and her fellow co-creators/co-stars, Meredith MacNeill, Aurora Browne and Jennifer Whalen, are reflecting on weird childhood habits, the correct time to put up Christmas lights, and having to explain to terrible ex-boyfriends the need for Lilith Fair. They’re constantly riffing with each other, adding to anecdotes in a way you can’t help but imagine is a glimpse into their pitch meetings.

“You phrased that better,” MacNeill tells Taylor after she rewords a joke about the awkwardness of seeing someone watching their show on an airplane.

In the last year and a half, the Baroness Von Sketch Show has been called the “best thing to come out of Canada since Ryan Gosling,” “Canada’s answer to Amy Schumer” and the “funniest Canadian sketch show since Kids In The Hall.” Yet the Baronesses have created something wholly their own. 

Throughout two seasons, the foursome has deftly satirized everyday life: the way moms say hello, the politics of work husbands and work wives, being the last table called to the buffet at a wedding. Their sketches often start with a mundane scenario before evolving into the absurd. With razor-sharp wit and an outwardly feminist, queer-positive perspective, the second season was groundbreaking TV – and one of our favourite series of 2017. (See full list here.)

The show has developed a cult following that includes teenage guys, young moms, millennial women and middle-aged men. On average, season two attracted 227,000 viewers per episode, but the show’s breakout success can be attributed to social media.  While the show has over 56,000 likes on Facebook, videos of individual sketches regularly rack up hundreds of thousands and millions of views. 

In their most-watched sketch on Facebook, which has 7.5 million views, MacNeill attempts to eat a disgustingly healthy salad for lunch, a mission that downward spirals into her guzzling ranch dressing and chugging pulverized greens.

“When I’m writing, I’m thinking about what would make my friends laugh and whether it passes that litmus test in my head,” says Taylor. “You start to realize that a lot of people share a sensibility.” 

MacNeill adds, “The truth is pretty attractive. I wasn’t surprised [by the wide appeal], but I won’t lie – when you have a 19-year-old guy and a 70-year-old man coming at you about the show, it’s cool.”

Between the four Baronesses – all of whom are in their 40s, some with kids, some married – they have around 80 years of experience performing and writing for comedy in Canada and abroad. When the women pitched the show in 2014, however, there were few Canadian female-fronted comedy series – let alone sketch shows, a genre dominated by men. (That said, Browne and Taylor made history when they were a part of Toronto’s first Second City troupe in 2002 that had gender parity.) 

Now that their show is a bona fide hit – U.S. cable channel IFC aired both seasons this past summer and will air season three next year – the Baronesses hope it’ll open doors for other female comedians in Canada. 

“There are so many incredible voices waiting for a network to say yes and put their money behind them,” says Browne. “When there’s one success, other [networks] might be more inclined to open that door a little bit and give the creative reins to another group.”

Whalen believes we’re living in peak TV, a time ripe for more diversity.

“People trade TV shows in cocktail party conversations the way we used to talk about music,” she says. 

The third season, which they just finished shooting, is their most ambitious yet. Due to air next summer, it will feature more parodies of genres such as gritty action films, musicals, Shakespeare and cop dramas, all while broaching issues like gentrification, sexual assault, classism and climate change. 

They also bring back beloved characters from seasons one and two, like Red Wine Ladies (inspired by Whalen’s experience working as a server and witnessing perfectly coiffed women get progressively drunk and emotional throughout an evening) and conscientious construction workers Donnie and Billy. 

As in the two previous seasons, they hired some of Toronto’s best talents to help write, edit and direct, most of whom are women. Although plenty of local comedians are tempted by opportunities in New York City and Los Angeles, the Baronesses are devoted to Toronto – and not just because they didn’t want to uproot their families.  

“Maybe it’s a crazy dream,” Whalen says, “but Canadians are so known for comedy, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could actually keep that industry here and export it?” 

“Hopefully, [we’re] expanding people’s ideas of what’s possible,” adds Browne. “Toronto is getting a little more, ‘Okay, we are cool!’ We don’t have to be the New York of whatever. We can be Toronto, and that’s great.”

samanthae@nowtoronto.com | @SamEdwardsTO

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