The third season of the Baroness Von Sketch Show started airing in Canada this past September, and November 8th it hits the States on IFC, Thursdays at 9 PM.
The Baroness Von Sketch Show filmed its third season in what the production team continually described as a derelict former office building that developers forgot to tear down, although the posi vibes make it hard to believe there’s anything bad to say about it. Rooms full of vibrant costumes, hallways piled with cheerful props and silk tropical plants, a tall atrium letting in November’s muted sun, and posters asking “What would Joni Mitchell do?” made the location more dreamy than dilapidated. I’d move in, to be honest, if I could room with that day’s guest stars: a toy poodle and Carolyn Taylor’s actual cat, in a luxury hotel room production designer Naz Goshtasbpour created, the only clue it was once a conference room its mineral fiber ceiling tile.
The baronesses Meredith Macneill, Carolyn Taylor, Aurora Browne and Jennifer Whalen are equal partners in writing, executive producing and acting in the show. Before this, the women crossed paths at Second City and while writing for the news satire This Hour Has 22 Minutes, as well as other sketch projects.
Perhaps because our culture sees women artists as somehow fringe, or because it doesn’t occur to Americans to watch things made outside of our borders, these women are not yet regarded here in the States as the geniuses they are.
Lucky for us, this well-loved CBC program was picked up by IFC and the first two seasons aired back-to-back for US viewers.
The sketches are fast-paced satires of everyday life. Sometimes you’re the fly on the wall of an absurd situation, or you’re seeing a day in the life of an absurd character, but the baronesses aim to show you the kernel of truth in off-the-wall scenarios. The baronesses are inspired by their lives and experiences. They preserve the humanity and dignity of the characters, even as they roast them.
Here’s Meredith’s ballerina-Carol Burnett rendition of me personally:
It’s great to see so many sketches featuring all manner of relationships between women. The characters presenting as lesbian or gender nonconforming are not labeled or made to identify their orientation, so there’s no tokenization. It also means that Carolyn Taylor, a real-life lesbian, is not pigeon-holed into always playing gay roles.
They try to make details as factual and accurate as possible, and steer clear of dynamics that reinforce stereotypes. This is the clear result of a feminist politic that aims to show kernels of truths through a diversity of experience. While sketches like Queer Theory Reading Group, which, again, with attention to detail and loyalty to accuracy, feels like the characters literally crept into my gender studies seminar the way they talk about Judith Butler and Louis Althusser, might not speak to everyone’s experience, it’s a pretty familiar feeling to be unsure of how your new partner makes you look to your friends. And if lesbian content is alienating you as a viewer, well, Carolyn Taylor doesn’t mind if you’re bored for three minutes.
“Ladies Over 40” was the first sketch aired online two years ago. “We were talking to each other the night before, and realizing, whoa we might get attacked for this,” said Meredith Macneill, knowing that people (mostly dudes) are often overtly hostile when women are not playing accessories or objects. But the response was overwhelming, “a rush of love came back, it was completely moving. It’s time.”
Men, be they other comedians/writers, or viewers, sometimes demonstrate their belief that this sort of comedy is “for women” because it’s not “universal” (which is to say male). Jennifer Whalen describes men reacting online to the show, saying “it’s always some guy with a profile picture of a classic car and 35 friends saying something about not liking the show and it being a waste of taxpayer money” (CBC is publicly funded). She says female viewers show up to these posts like, “well I’m a taxpayer and I’m very happy. I pay a lot in taxes and that’s a great use of it.”
The writing team has grown each season, and has remained about 90 percent female, which was very intentional, according to Taylor, from short gigs to staff positions, members of the writers’ guild or not. The first season had six episodes, the third season, which will air in the summer, has ten. The baronesses and the entire staff are breathless when describing the coming season’s bigger and better sketches. Aurore Browne says “We know what the show is and we’re doubling down on it.”
They wrote more than 500 sketches for the fourth season, which began airing on CBC in September. They aimed to get 190 approved by the network. From there, about 145 made it to the screen. “We overshoot and overwrite so we can try it,” said Whalen.
Some of these sketches last 30 seconds, or will have two lines, or no lines at all. Nevertheless, every detail is immaculate. Everything in the frame is part of the storytelling.
Costume designer Nicole Manek described the Baroness Von Sketch show as setting, costuming and shooting about 6-7 separate films in one day. In season three, she costumed over 800 characters. The derelict warehouse helped keep everything contained, but they also shoot on location around Toronto.
They pretty much stick word for word to the script, although sometimes while shooting, new ideas will come to them. There was one sketch that they tried in season 2, which Whalen says, “for whatever reason didn’t gel, so we did it again this year and it’s way better for it.” The result of sketches written a year in advance and worked on and refined with the help of the whole team is a feeling of watching something which is technically perfect. If you look away, you’ll miss something, but you can also walk in at any point and be surprised. This makes it extremely bingeable and great for watching with friends.
Macneill describes the process “we all write together and we all write around the table, so we’re heavily involved in every sketch.”
The writers’ room composed of women sounds like a magical place, especially in an industry where dominance, hierarchy and machismo are baked in. All of the writers talk about the difference in this job, after consistently having been the only woman in the room on various other shows and therefore being called in to speak to a “woman’s perspective.”
In this room, it’s OK to feel your feelings. That sounds so cringingly stereotypical of women: processing and encouraging one another to cry it out (an experience so relatable you should look out for it in a coming sketch), being each other’s cheerleaders, with a pep talk for every insecurity, whether about writing for TV or being a mother. But maybe it’s novel. Maybe more workplaces would benefit from the creativity that arises from a safe space for vulnerability and failure.
The impression I get is that without men around, the pressure to be competitive with other women for the chance at being inevitably tokenized anyway really tapers. It’s OK to bring just the germ of an idea and work through it. When the team takes on edgy subject matter, the baronesses try to get as many women to look at it as possible. What they end up with reflects a diversity of experience and avoids the hazard of ‘punching down’ which so alienates women, people on the LGBT spectrum, and people marginalized on all the other axes of oppression, and makes it impossible to enjoy so much popular media.
Because the show is not overtly political, it’s surprising how radical it feels. It feels like you’re watching them get away with something, sneaking in a feminist political agenda by virtue of the fact that the show depicts characters without gendered stereotypes, where virtually every sketch passes the Bechdel test. However revolutionary the show, Macneill acknowledges they are not exactly pioneers, saying, “this door was kicked open long before us. We give huge kudos to the women who came before.”
I asked the baronesses about their approach to content explicitly addressing male violence and systemic inequality (a past sketch about reporting intimate partner violence comes to mind, and there are more hot topics you’ll see in season 3). Macneill spoke about her inspiration, “there was an article in the Globe and Mail about untested rape kits and the same writer did one about missing and murdered Indigenous women. Let’s pick up the gauntlet,” at this point she rose from her seat to act out her words as if speaking to the women who came before her, “Where was the baton left there? Don’t worry I got you. This is my field as an artist and human being; this is where I have a platform and a voice and share it with so many amazing people.” It’s pretty serious stuff to tackle in a three minute sketch, sandwiched between slapstick. “What can we do? Let’s try.”
It doesn’t always fly with the studios. She says, “Sketches get dropped and that’s what happens,” but for the baronesses it’s worth the trying. “You know, can we make a conversation about this topic happen in people’s homes?”
The time has definitely come for such conversations. 2018 has been the year of women’s rage, and comedy by and for women is some of the best medicine.
Season four shooting is now underway, this time out of the warehouse and on location in Toronto, ferried about by a caravan of box trucks, like the props truck filled with dildos, fake wine, and fake placenta. The costume truck is the size of an 18-wheeler, stuffed with more costumes, some 900 this time, including bespoke leather superhero suits and eco-consciously hand-dyed cast offs from seasons past.