The first segment Baroness von Sketch Show released online was called “Locker Room,” and it was a jubilant celebration of the age when women finally stop giving a fuck.
In it, a woman walks into her gym having just turned 40, and finds she has graduated to the special section of the changing room where modesty has been thrown out the window. “Welcome to your 40s, Kelsey!” says the gym employee cheerily. “Welcome to not giving a shit at the gym.” Kelsey (Meredith MacNeill) surveys the room: a flock of naked middle-aged women sprawled and spread-eagled, nonchalantly shaving their bikini lines and plucking their armpit hairs without a care in the world. “You’re one of us now Kelsey! You own this room! You can hang out here naked all day,” says another woman, toweling her ass crack with abandon. “Oh my god,” breathes Kelsey. “I’ve never felt so entitled to a space.”
In a way, the sketch is the inverse of Amy Schumer’s “Last Fuckable Day”; instead of pointing out the ingrained misogyny that women face as they get older, it locates an underrecognized kind of joy in getting old — aging not as a burden, but a source of liberation. Yet the sketch’s viral success surprised its creators, who were concerned that the sight of so many nude women over 40 would garner trolling instead of praise. “When the response came back, it was so moving,” says MacNeill. “When you have an idea and are blessed enough to see it through, and then everyday people talk back to you and say ‘I see myself in this’ — that means a lot.”
Baroness von Sketch Show (whose first two seasons are airing now on IFC ) is a half-hour Canadian sketch series created by and starring Meredith MacNeill, Aurora Browne, Carolyn Taylor, and Jennifer Whalen. It draws its humor from the minutiae and idiosyncrasies of everyday life — in particular, the everyday lives of middle-aged women, whose perspectives have traditionally been absent from the sketch comedy landscape.
“I think one of the things the four of us saw was a space. When I was in Britain I was seeing a ton of female-fronted shows, like French and Saunders, Victoria Wood — women of a different age that made their own work and had a voice,” says MacNeill, sitting in a bathrobe in their trailer in downtown Toronto, where she has just come from shooting a scene from their upcoming third season.
The Baronesses all have deep roots in the Canadian comedy and theater worlds. Taylor (who serves as showrunner), Browne, and Whalen are all Second City alums, while MacNeill is a classically trained actress who has worked with Royal Shakespeare Company. In 2012, MacNeill and Taylor — who were both working on the Canadian news satire show This Hour Has 22 Minutes — started putting together the pitch for BVS. Taylor brought Browne and Whalen into the fold, and they sold the show to the CBC, which offered them the freedom to do things their way, such as writing and shooting at home in Toronto with a predominantly female crew and writers room. (IFC picked it up after its second season.)
Given the scarcity of sketch comedy that deals with so-called feminist themes, it’s tough to watch the show without thinking of Inside Amy Schumer, one of BVS’s only counterparts in that respect. Some of the more on-the-nose sketches definitely feel Schumer-esque; in one sketch, a female detective giving a press conference about a murder case is subject to sexist interview questions like “What’s in your purse right now?” and “How do you balance being a police chief and a mom?” In another, called “Run the World,” set in the year 2050, a global summit of women convene to discuss world issues, only to find they’re short on problems to address. (“Conflict? Any war?” “No, we just talk it out these days.”)
Yet while Inside Amy Schumer’s approach to wokeness could feel a bit rote, BVS tends to approach political and social issues in a more roundabout fashion; you’re not going to see any of the Baronesses in a Trump mask (or Trudeau mask, for that matter). Rather than taking on the outsize villains that sometimes made Schumer’s comedy feel didactic — from rape culture to Republican congressmen — BVS tends to focus on everyday villains (some of whom turn out to be not so bad when you give them a chance). And, while Schumer’s celebrity meant she was always playing some version of herself, the strength of BVS is how the four women slip inside the skins of different characters that we all recognize from our daily lives: the passive-aggressive co-worker, the overbearing hostess, the habitually boring storyteller.
The best BVS sketches are those that latch onto specific details and small injustices and absurdities of daily life — the weird way that moms say hello, say, or people’s tendency to get really overexcited about dry shampoo. One sketch deals with the perpetual annoyance of LinkedIn notifications; another satirizes people’s slavish devotion to their Fitbits.
“It’s refreshing on pitch day when someone will bring up the minutiae of something that they deal with and we’re all like, Yeah, I know!” says MacNeill. “It’s like: Let’s bring that to a wider audience and maybe they’ll have the same reaction. And then you have a real relationship with your audience.”
Simply by showcasing the perspective of women over 40 and in privileging queer voices, Taylor considers the show to be inherently political. “We act under the philosophy that the personal is political,” she explains. LGBT characters abound throughout the show, yet never as a punch line or token, merely as real people who populate the show’s world. “I am a lesbian woman, and it was imperative to me that that voice was heard on the show,” she explains. “Not just that, oh, there’s a gay character in the scene, but as a way of looking at things and a lens to approach the work.”
In a sketch called “Gender Studies” (a spiritual sibling to Portlandia’s feminist-bookstore owners), a member of a queer-theory reading group is embarrassed when her partner shows up and starts using gendered language, like referring to them as “girls” (“she can’t shake her essentialist view of gender,” the reading-group member demurs in embarrassment). It was essential to Taylor that sketch not merely be a broad parody of progressive academic jargon, so she called in her partner, a Ph.D. candidate, to make sure all the theoretical language the characters were using was rock solid. With its hyperspecificity and attention to detail, the sketch will certainly strike a chord with anyone who has ever taken a class on Judith Butler. It also exemplifies BVS’s generous, gentle humor, wherein it’s possible to point out absurdities even while remaining fundamentally sympathetic to the characters and their worldview.
While the emphasis on queer voices was deliberate, it also sprung out of practical considerations; the Baronesses simply didn’t want to relinquish all the good parts to men. “Sometimes we just write a couple scene and there’s two great parts,” says Whalen. “It’s like, we don’t want to give up the parts, so we’re just going to take them.”
“If we are playing into stereotypes we’ve put some thought into it and there’s a reason we’re doing it,“ explains Taylor. “We don’t assume people’s genders, we don’t assume people’s orientations, and sometimes you’re like: huh, I’m not sure. Sometimes in comedy it feels like ‘who’s going to be the bitch and whose the dumb one?’ and it’s like, well, in real life there’s actually a lot more fluidity.”
“There’s this quote from Ava DuVernay where she is asked, What do you think of Hollywood’s embracing of diversity? And she says: It’s not diversity, it’s reality,” adds Browne. “Anytime a show is reflecting the way your world actually is it’s like: Thank you. It feels like a relief to see people being the way they actually are.”