Baroness von Sketch: how four women in their 40s are taking reign of the comedy world

CBC's hit comedy program the Baroness von Sketch Show debuted in the U.S. this week and has been featured in publications like the New York Times, Vogue and on NPR. Guest-host Rachel Giese speaks with co-star and co-creator Jennifer Whalen about being a big hit at midlife.
Aurora Browne, Meredith MacNeill, Carolyn Taylor and Jennifer Whalen are the performers behind CBC's hit series Baroness von Sketch Show. (CBC)

Baroness von Sketch Show is having a moment.

The Canadian comedy troupe is wrapping its second acclaimed season on CBC just as it debuts in the U.S. on IFC — the channel that's home to Portlandia

Vogue called Baroness Von Sketch "the best thing to come out of Canada since Ryan Gosling." One of the series' earliest sketches, "Welcome to Your 40s" — about middle-aged nudity in the locker room — has had nearly 1.8 million Facebook views.

Comedians Reggie Watts and Lea DeLaria (as well as her Orange is the New Black castmates) count themselves as Baroness fans.

It's a well-deserved and perhaps unexpected breakthrough for the show's four stars, co-producers and writers: Carolyn Taylor, Aurora Browne, Jennifer Whalen and Meredith MacNeill.

All are in their 40s, with backgrounds working in comedy, theatre and writing for television. They came together specifically to create and front the show.

With lightning-quick sketches that skewer contemporary social manners and 21st century neuroses, Baroness Von Sketch Show embraces a weird and unabashedly female perspective. These women have zero you-know-whats to give.

Jennifer Whalen is a co-creator, executive producer, writer and star of Baroness von Sketch Show. (CBC)
"We weren't seeing women reflected in pop culture the way we know them to be," Whalen tells Day 6 guest host Rachel Giese. "Women can be very dark and very funny. There are a lot of of micro-humiliations about being a woman. It's nice to explode them."

Celebrating female power

In one sketch about a future world summit in which women are all in charge, there are no more wars because, as one delegate says, "we just talk it out these days."

But Baroness doesn't hesitate to send up feminism, either: it mocks the pretensions of a gender studies reading group and reveals that a post-apocalyptic world without men isn't all it's cracked up to be.

It's a particularly fertile moment for political comedy. Late night hosts Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers and Samantha Bee are on fire. Saturday Night Live has had one of its best seasons in years covering the U.S. election and the unpredictable administration of President Donald Trump, crystallizing in Melissa McCarthy's brilliant impersonation of former White House press secretary Sean Spicer.

The profanity-laced Veep, which stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus, seems more like a documentary at times than a satire.

The second season of Baroness von Sketch Show sees the quartet up to more hilarious hijinks. (CBC)

But Baroness Von Sketch Show, which Vogue calls "acutely of the moment, as if precision-engineered for a time when women's issues are coming out of the margins," steers clears of mentioning specific current events. There's no talk of Trump or Justin Trudeau, NAFTA or Brexit.

Whalen, a former head writer of This Hour Has 22 Minutes, says Baroness tackles politics more obliquely.

"We're reflecting back society's anxiety, as it comes out in low-level things like ordering coffee and carpooling."

The season premiere of Baroness von Sketch Show. (CBC)

A quintessential Baroness sketch mines awkward social encounters and then pushes them to extremes — like a group of office co-workers who've arranged themselves into a creepily, too-close-for-comfort work family, or the hilarious "Red Wine Ladies" — a recurring bit where female bonding turns feral after a few too many bottles.

Nothing is sacred on Baroness Von Sketch Show. There are plenty of jokes about the messiness of the female body, including periods, mammograms and infertility.

Whalen says she finds bodies, especially aging ones, inherently funny: "you get hairs in places you don't them and lose it in places you do want it."

Yet with four women in charge  — and with the writing team and supporting cast almost entirely female as well — these jokes aren't cruel but hilariously compassionate.

Instead of being the butt of the joke, the Baronesses are in on it.

To hear the full interview with Jennifer Whalen, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.