I fell in love with them at the gym. In the change room, to be precise. In my very first Baroness von Sketch Show viewing experience, a woman arrives at her health club, the receptionist wishes her a happy milestone birthday, and she is led into a new section of the locker room – where every woman is stark, un-self-consciously, gloriously, casually naked. “Welcome to your forties,” the receptionist tells the gym member. “Welcome to not giving a [crap] at the gym.”
I saw the skit not on TV, but on Facebook, where it was shared by a whole bunch of female friends (and “friends”) who seemed to share my sensibility. Welcome to comedy that actually spoke to us.
It was brilliant marketing. By the time Baroness von Sketch Show began airing on television in June, 2016, there were hordes of women who were already devoted fans after watching skits on social media; I was one of them.
Time sure flies when you’re peeing your pants with laughter. The show – co-created by and starring Carolyn Taylor, Meredith MacNeill, Aurora Browne and Jennifer Whalen – begins its fifth and final season on Tuesday on CBC.
The Baronesses are pulling the plug long before they are hook-dragged off the stage due to any sort of comedic decline. If you’ll excuse a mixed metaphor, they are nowhere close to the shark, never mind having jumped it. They haven’t even strapped on the water skis!
I wish them well. All the power to them. Go, women! But, well. It’s just that … it feels as if we need them now more than ever.
The hilarity they are able to wring out of not-hilarious situations: the difficulty in reporting a sex crime. Pay inequity. The indignities of undergoing a gynecological exam or giving birth, including the dry shave down there.
They have made delight out of the quirks of female middle-age: chin hair, dating after divorce. Being asked for ID – not because you don’t look old enough to buy that bottle of wine, but because you might just qualify for the senior’s discount.
They have reflected life back to us: weird office dynamics, the retail experience, the outdated clichés that still exist in marketing female-oriented products (obviously there are butterflies). And, of course, what passes for acceptable behaviour at the cottage.
We watch and are able to laugh at life’s uncomfortable moments: running into an ex at the bank, requesting a vaginal product at the pharmacy. That annoying person in the meeting who keeps interrupting with a “quick question.”
The life-saving properties of dry shampoo.
I have a particular fondness for the absurd wordplay; the comedy from taking things literally. In my favourite sketch from the first season, MacNeill’s character is digging a grave in the dark, while the three other women, all in muddied office wear, stand by as Browne’s character weeps, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.” It’s all explained when MacNeill utters the line that makes it clear they have taken an after-work drinks game just a little too literally. “Stop crying,” she says, irritated. “We all agreed: [screw] Tom, marry James, kill Todd.” The sketch ends with a phone call to Tom, who’s going to be so excited. Forty-five seconds of comedy gold.
It’s not just the writing. The women are supremely talented performers with spot-on timing and amazing versatility. Oh my gosh – their accents in their ode to British female buddy-cop procedurals such as Happy Valley were so spot on. I died (laughing). I could give dozens of examples of the wacky characters they have brought to life.
Back in 2016, after watching that locker room sketch and a bunch of others on social media, I got myself assigned to interview the women ahead of the TV series launch. We met in Toronto, at the Gladstone Hotel.
One thing that has stayed with me from that interview was what MacNeill told me about her life before Baroness. She had faced some serious life, career and financial struggles. And look at her now, I tell myself pretty much every time I watch. This is what tenacity and talent can do! For me, she is the personification of a pep talk in the form of a freshly minted 40-year-old at the gym or a middle-seat airplane passenger who really needs to pee.
MacNeill’s physicality is a thing to behold. I tried to figure out a way to spell the sounds she uses to describe her life and marital breakdown in that dry shampoo sketch, but it could not be done. The woman is a physical comic genius whether she’s cutting her own bangs, forcing herself to eat salad or refusing to let a customer return an overpriced flowy shirt big enough for two. There’s a sketch where she tries to take a nude selfie as she learns to navigate the online dating scene; when I watch it I think: how did everyone on that set not burst out laughing?
And huge kudos to the hair, make-up and costume artists whose talents make a crucial contribution to the comedy. Turning MacNeill and Taylor, for instance, into construction workers who aren’t sexist – they’re just guys who take things a little too literally (she’s smoking; she’s banging). Or creating fake Botox looks that have elicited actual LOLs in my living room. (“Denise?” “Hilary?” “Is that you?” “My God, you haven’t changed a bit!”)
I don’t do a lot of laughing out loud these days – never mind breaking into even a tiny smile – but re-watching the Baronesses has helped me survive these last few months. The show has made for some fine pandemic viewing. On Tuesday, it was a terrific antidote to the U.S. Presidential debate. After enduring those three men, I got under the covers with my iPad and re-watched those four women in some of my favourite sketches, including the Starbucks wrong-name-on-cups fantasy sketch “You’re Denver Now.” The entertainment equivalent of a shower.
In another sketch I watched, the Baronesses play guests at a wedding where tables are being called up to the buffet in numerical order. The women, at table 56, decide they’ll dive into the red wine to help with the long wait. They propose a toast. “To us, and those who want to be us.”
Over these four years, these women have done more than entertain. They have made us feel like we’re part of something. And they have served as a reminder of the joys of female friendship and the power of creative female partnerships. Here’s to you, Baronesses. Thanks for the laughs. And everything else.
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