The Viral Appeal of Baroness Von Sketch

At last, a wildly funny show for Canadian women over thirty-five

Screenshot from Baroness von Sketch Show
“Human Behavioural Study.”

There comes a time in a woman’s life between age thirty-five and death that I call cronedom, a period so abhorrent society does its utmost to neuter it, to shut the lid on its earthy melody. Apparently, nothing happens for women in cronedom—we just get wise and sit around waiting for someone to require our expertise. The crone shrivels up and dies patiently waiting and waiting.

But now, bam! For the last six weeks, the Baroness von Sketch Show has arrived like an anthem to the crone—a raucous, offbeat, gorgeous tribute. Set in (often recognizable) Toronto locations, the show comprises a series of sketches of varying lengths, that send up the tropes of contemporary urban female life: the book club; the girl’s night out; the locker room; etc. Baroness is a reminder to women that they should leave an effigy of themselves under the bedclothes, drop the house key in the river, and run for their lives. (In “Dry Shampoo,” a character literally does this—but with the help of that miracle of hair care products, her hair just gets better for it.)

In one episode, “Women’s Products,” a hard talking exec (played by the Second City veteran comedian Carolyn Taylor), is leading a group of creatives on the marketing of a new product for women. The group throws out the usual suggestions: use butterflies, make the bottle slim (“Because women are slim!”) A new employee suggests they make it pink. She is instantly slammed by the incredulous veteran: “Of course it’s pink, you idiot!” The skit is Femininity 101 as imbibed through mass consumer culture. Its funniest moment is when Taylor asks the group, as a focusing exercise: “How will the women know it’s for women?” effectively making transparent the dominant creed behind our razors, hand soap, even ballpoint pens, of women’s apparent and utter helplessness to make informed, individual decisions.

Conceived and performed by Taylor, Aurora Browne (another Second City alum), Meredith MacNeill (of the BBC comedy Man Stroke Woman), and Jennifer Whalen (This Hour Has 22 Minutes), Baroness von Sketch Show revels in the everyday lives of women. That is, it celebrates and spoofs the mundane realities in which modern, urban women find themselves depicted. And oh, how the Baronesses know the contours of the boxes in which we live. They have it mapped out like diligent and transgressive draughtswomen who, instead of yielding to the airtight edges of their inherited designs, work to erase them.

One sight gag has Browne staring at MacNeill’s very pregnant belly, and asking if she can touch it (by the way, don’t do this—it’s weird), only to instead plunge into MacNeill’s bosom to cop a languorous feel. At first, because the sketches walk an almost torturous line between satire and life, I don’t laugh so much as mutter, “My God.” But then I watch the skits again until the joy burbles and I am laughing from the very node of my being. Laughing such a belly laugh I can’t believe my good fortune. This is the disruptive “real” I’ve been missing in my real, everyday life. And it’s not just me. The show, which was launched to little fanfare, but instantly and widely shared on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, may be the first truly viral show to come out of Canada’s official public broadcaster . . . well, ever.

This show manages to be wildly funny while enacting a form of social protest. That the bodies, hearts, and lives of women are so circumscribed by external forces leaves a great deal of room to explore the complexity of our interior experience. This genre of comedy owes a debt to the winking insider feminism of Amy Schumer’s absurdist comedic approach, although it’s subtler, more deeply Canadian in its neurosis, and to my mind, way funnier. Baroness reminds me, too, of The Carol Burnett Show in its unfettered silliness (and the collegiality of the comics involved), or Second City in the good old days, or Comedy Central’s Key and Peele in the way both crews become so enchantingly immersed in character. Broad City and Baroness von Sketch Show share some delightfully salacious elements.

The skit “Private Vagina” features Meredith MacNeill buying over-the-counter yeast infection medication only to be degraded by a strangely suggestive, (wo)mansplaining pharmacist (Browne) who spends the skit relentlessly pushing MacNeill to own up to being a “dirty, filthy, filthy girl.” Is she wearing the wrong panties? Wiping from back to front? Sleeping with multiple partners? It’s hard to describe the outrageous real-life resonance of this skit, but let me just say that once, during a medical examination, the presiding MD proclaimed to me that I “had the best damned cervix” he had ever seen. I was supposed to be happy for the compliment, I suppose; instead, I noted aloud his “impeccable bedside manner.” This is the form of patronizing conversation routinely experienced by women, and it’s precisely because the skit keeps to just this side of hyperbole that it hits home.

“Human Behavioural Study” reminds me of a Skinner Box experiment gone terribly wrong. MacNeill, as the psych test participant, recklessly delivers shock treatments to another test subject (Taylor) until they massively pass the limits of the experiment. The wild glee of MacNeill’s psychotic character is a brilliant comic indicator not of women’s innate cruelty but rather the ease with which we become drunk on the tiny bit of power we are afforded in our otherwise circumscribed lives. In fact, many of the skits trade on female control, a hankering for personal power that inevitably ends up spilling into disturbing excess.

And where its starting point is often the domestic, that domestic is regularly bent and queer. In one sketch, MacNeill grills Taylor about her “Gold Star” gay status, and wonders what the equivalent nomenclature for a heterosexual who has never had gay sex would be. When Taylor says “Missing out,” and bikes off-screen, we watch a confused yearning scroll over MacNeill’s face. “I am!” she finally admits to herself (and to us), before rushing out of scene to catch up to Taylor somewhere on the margins. When, in the sketch set in a drug store, the pharmacist demonstrates proper vaginal hygiene and anal play with various eroticized hand gestures, the gender contravention is hard to miss. In “2CatShaPurr,” a veterinarian played by Taylor asks a lesbian couple (MacNeill and Whalen) whether “there is any excessive licking at home,” and MacNeill says “No. I wish,” before Taylor revises that she means their ailing feline. The unabashed, unapologetic homoeroticism is immensely well played in these moments because it is so softly aware of the unspoken, and often unspeakable, undercurrent to women’s relationships with other women. (In interviews, Taylor, who identifies as queer, has said that she always intended queerness to be part of the subtheme: an aspect of female experience that is all-too-often glossed over, even in media coverage of the show.)

That Baroness von Sketch Show somehow gets away with such explicit sexual content on a public broadcaster better known for the folksy and rural is a testament to its skill at double entendre, slapstick, and comic timing. Basically, the show is a bacchanalia of surplus—so much joie in what women have on offer outside the box—our quirky, queer, complex, neurotic, sexual selves—the show succeeds in defining just how very small indeed that box is to begin with. That this ground-breaking queer-feminist comedy sketch show finds its home on the CBC, typically a platform for safe, bland comedy and drama, is the perfect paradox—proof that if you develop a show that trades on authenticity, and that celebrates the gritty, uncomfortable truth of women’s lives, people will flock to it. Who would have thought?

Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is the bestselling author of the novels Wait Softly Brother, All the Broken Things, Perfecting, and The Nettle Spinner as well as the story collection Way Up.