From dry shampoo to yeast infections: How to spin comedy gold out of the terrible everyday
'At least it makes a great story!' The Baroness von Sketch Show team shares their creative process
When I see amazing sketch comedy, I often proclaim out loud, "Where the heck did that come from?" As in, what the heck happened to these folks that inspired this moment of brilliance, that led to them committing it to paper, that led to it being performed, that led to me watching it, that led to me squirting ginger ale through my nose in hysterical fits of laughter?
Case in point: everyone's favourite scene from Baroness von Sketch Show's first season (which just won two major Canadian Screen Awards), "Dry Shampoo." Over the course of several months, we watch a woman arriving late to a gal pal hangout at a café. Each time she enters, she informs her friends of the progressive breakdown of her marriage. Each time she enters, she shocks her friends with devastating news of her husband cheating on her with her kids' swimming instructor or being attacked by a bear or her kids being taken away. But none of that matters, because each time she enters, her hair gets more and more glorious thanks to the wonders of dry shampoo.
Of course, what we're actually seeing on television is the culmination of months of work.
"It generally starts with personal experience. It can start with a personal point of view, pet peeves, stuff about life that pisses you off or makes you laugh. It might even come from whatever happened to us on the weekend," says Carolyn Taylor, who stars in the series alongside group members Meredith MacNeill, Aurora Browne and Jennifer Whalen.
Monday is pitch day in the writing room, where a group of about ten rotating writers and story editors, in addition to the main cast, throw ideas around.
"It's an exciting place to be. How that room was going to run was not an accident. That was worked out before we started," says Meredith. "Especially as women in our 40s, if we have the opportunity to make an atmosphere for creating, we wanted to do it right. Going to work is amazing. I feel so blessed to invite other artists to come in. Hearing them talk and share their ideas I'm like, 'Jesus, I'm lucky.'"
As comedians, we have an acute sense of observation, taking the horrible things that happen to us and seeing the humour in them.- Carolyn Taylor
So comedy writers like Monica Heisey might pitch a sketch related to dry shampoo. Meredith might pitch a sketch about being body-shamed when buying yeast infection meds at the pharmacy. Every idea is worth something. Everything that is expressed in that room is given warm and generous conversation.
The week progresses with writers then breaking out into groups or working on sketches individually, which — depending on the feel of a scene — are either passed from one set of eyes to another, or stand on their own immediately. Sometimes dialogue is tried out amongst a group; sometimes writers jam together through improvisation. Each scene develops differently.
"There's extreme clarity about the style and voice of the show...I think [the writers] are particularly good at what they are exposing: foibles of average people that are relatable," says story editor Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, who worked on the much-anticipated second season. "As a story editor, I come in and half the people there in the room have seen the script before and the other half are looking at it for the first time, so the conversation around the piece is completely different. It creates this panoramic perspective on whatever the topic is."
A couple months later, they've put together an almighty binder with all the sketches that have survived the editing process. According to Meredith, the upcoming second season generated over 500 sketches — and only 100 made it to camera.
This is when these wonder women flex their comedic muscles.
"What really makes a sketch come alive is so many things. One of them being, you know this sketch so well that you can improvise on top of what is already written. When I was performing in the U.K., I knew a script was golden when not only could I say those lines, but I had so much more to say because the writer had done such an amazing job that I could see the full story and the full character," says Meredith.
The result? Scenes such as "Book Club" and "Red Wine Ladies" that are 50% brilliant script, 50% brilliant improvisation.
"As comedians, we have an acute sense of observation, taking the horrible things that happen to us and seeing the humour in them," says Carolyn. "I think all of us have said at one time or another, 'At least it makes a great story.'"
Watch season 1 of Baroness von Sketch Show here and stay tuned for season 2 later this year.