The hangovers may get worse after 40, but this brilliant Toronto-based comedy group proves humor only sharpens with age.
Since its premiere in 2016, “Baroness Von Sketch Show” has consistently delivered smart, unexpected, rip-roaring comedy on a range of topics rarely addressed by typical sketch shows. Whether it’s the absurdist escalation of Red Wine Ladies’ Night, or the anti-misogynist virtue signaling of a Queer Theory Reading Group, “Baroness Von Sketch Show” took advantage of under-explored scenarios to produce hilarity that resonated with the everywoman. In its excellent fifth season, the group continues to make good on that promise with no sign of slowing down. Produced by the CBC and airing on IFC in the U.S., “Baroness Von Sketch Show” not only proves Canadian humor translates just fine, but when it comes to sketch comedy, they reign supreme.
The troop consists of Carolyn Taylor, Meredith MacNeill, Aurora Browne, and Jennifer Whalen, all executive producers and writers of the series. Each bringing unique talents to the variety of characters they play, the performers prove that no amount of wacky voices or pop culture references can beat time and experience. All but MacNeill are alumni of The Second City’s Toronto Company, putting them in great company with Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Dan Akroyd, Martin Short, Mike Myers, and Gilda Radner, among others. MacNeill met Whalen and Taylor when all three were writer/performers on “This Hour Has 22 Minutes,” the CBC’s beloved mock news show and political satire, which has been running since 1993.
“Baroness Von Sketch Show” is unique amongst most TV in that it is written and performed by women over 40, but over the seasons the group has sharpened its particular style beyond this over-arching advantage. Sure, it’s hard to imagine any other sketch show making such fun with the dreaded “40-plus hangover,” but the casually deadpan way each comedic beat escalates to such delightfully silly ends is also uniquely “Baroness.” Experts at raising the stakes of the game (Second City credo), each member of “Baroness” has perfected the art of the coolly raised eyebrow or the semi-shocked straight woman.
The group dynamics have solidified and matured over the years, as well. Coming from a more traditional acting background, MacNeill plays the most character-driven roles, making a meal out of a wildly untamed Mom wig or some tasteful gross-out comedy. She’s quite comfortable going to extremes, whether it’s by hoovering a plate of sweets as a taskmaster boss or adopting an entirely new personality thanks to a red leather jacket. Taylor often provides queer visibility, while also taking on the naively innocent, deer-in-headlights characters. Whalen plays a mean basic white lady, relishing in poking fun at the good-natured overly polite mom-types. Browne is an endearing and versatile chameleon who never met a hippie trope or diet trend she couldn’t lovingly eviscerate.
At one to five minutes each, some sketches fly by more breezily than others. “Baroness” goes down like the ideal amuse bouche: never lingering too long on a joke or beating it into submission. Standout sketches from the fifth season include a fast-paced military style mission into an ex-boyfriend’s apartment, which features the warning shot: “Whatever you do, don’t smell his t-shirts,” and a sign on the door that reads, “No Entry. Dangerous levels of emotional reactivity.” A clever jibe at exclusive dating apps like Raya celebrates the first dating app for “actual garbage people,” as the women coo over men with jobs like “influencer” and “premium vodka rep.”
In general, “Baroness” remains decidedly upbeat and light-hearted; the darkest it goes is a game of celebrity that begins with a clue about a man accused of sexual misconduct and devolves into a never-ending list of names. The writers’ political leanings are obvious, but comedy is always front and center. A doctors’ visit for an “epidemic of eye-rolling” ends with the women sighing emphatically about a man who calls watching his kids “babysitting.” A sharp sketch called Mom Brain finds a high-level spy who can’t remember a secret code because it’s buried underneath grocery lists.
Though “Saturday Night Live” has dominated sketch comedies on TV for far too long, relying on celebrity impressions and silly voiced characters over solid writing, a recent spate of American sketch shows like IFC’s “Portlandia,” HBO’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” and Netflix’s “Astronomy Club,” have offered alternatives to the monolith to varying degrees of success. “Baroness Von Sketch Show,” with its exact writing, zany performances, and feminist satire, is a welcome breath of fresh air.
“Baroness Von Sketch Show” Season 5 premieres Wednesday, October 14 on IFC.