That Time DAME Met a Baroness
We spoke with one of our comic idols, ‘Baroness von Sketch Show’s’ Carolyn Taylor, to discuss the new season on IFC, and her gift for transforming the minutiae of our everyday middle-aged lives into something to laugh about.
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Carolyn Taylor, Meredith MacNeill, Jennifer Whalen, and Aurora Browne—the four hilarious Canadian women who comprise IFC’s comedy series Baroness von Sketch Show—brilliantly mine the psyches and relationships of Gen X women for some of the most indelibly funny skits and jokes of recent memory. In fact, for many of us south of the Canadian border, this fab foursome has served as a kind of life raft since their 2017 American premiere (they are produced by the CBC) in the wake of our brutal presidential election, with courageous, at times absurd, feminist takes on subjects as searingly specific as Siri betraying a woman’s confidence during a one-night stand; being liberated from body shame in a locker room on your 40th birthday; to the excruciatingly humiliating encounters we regularly have with our pharmacists about basic feminine hygiene products. They even take dry shampoo to a very dark, dark place, in the wake of a friend’s divorce. So you can imagine how excited our editor-in-chief, Kera Bolonik, was to speak with Baroness’s Carolyn Taylor to unpack a few jokes, talk about the powerful bond of female friendship, and, in general, get a glimpse into how it all coalesces. You can catch season four, which premiered October 30, on Wednesdays at midnight on IFC (or on demand or online).
DAME: You four write and perform the kind of feminist sketch comedy we haven’t really seen before, but have so longed for—tapping into the minutiae of everyday lives of all kinds of women in their 40s and 50s. When Baroness was picked up in the U.S., did you have to alter the way you wrote?
Taylor: Actually, no. We always kept the vision the same. I think there was a little more pressure before we made our American sale from our producers, going: We want to make sure we sell in America so don’t say anything too Canadian. Once we were airing in the States, it was kind of like, we don’t have to woo the U.S. anymore. We’ll just talk about whatever we want to talk about. IFC was incredible—they were passionate about it. They were like, Keep doing what you’re doing, we love it. That meant a lot to us, because sometimes there’s a feeling—I don’t want to speak for the others, but that thought of, if something gets sold to America, that they’ll recast it with a bunch of 20-something hot models. For them to appreciate the show for what it was, and our voices, and our 40-something bods, it was really nice and affirming.
DAME: You brilliantly tap into Gen X women’s body issues, the insecurities, work lives, dating, parenting, sexuality. Our changing feelings about all of it. I’m thinking of the locker-room sketch and how as we get older, we let go of some of our self-evisceration.
Taylor: It was trusting that what we find funny, other people will as well.
DAME: You are especially frank in addressing queer life—I love the way you portray how we are often fetishized by our straight friends. How important was it to you to integrate the queer experience into the show?
Taylor: That was super important to me. I wanted to make sure there were queer voices in the writing room, to make sure it was authentically expressed. We needed it to speak to our experiences, and also be reflected in situations that have nothing to do with being a lesbian but seeing it still through our eyes. Like the sketch with the Queer Theory reading group—my partner, Moynan King, wrote that with me. She’s actually defending her dissertation on November 15. Part of it was like, ‘I want to write this fish-out-of-water sketch.’ So often in TV and film, if they’re satirizing academics, it becomes just blather. I really want this conversation to be grounded, like: What would you be talking about in a Gender Studies 101, Judith Butler–style group? Moynan is actually part of a Queer Theory reading group. I would say to her things like, “Are you going to gay book club?” And she was always correcting me: “It’s a Queer Theory reading group.” (This appears in the sketch.) So that comes pretty authentically from our relationship. I’m a buffoon around her friends.
DAME: Each of you travels seamlessly from heady, intellectual jokes to broad, physical comedy. You don’t see a lot of comics with that level of versatility. Was this something you did before you came together? Or do you push each other into those realms?
Taylor: I can only speak for me personally. I wrote a lot of my scenes with Aurora Browne at Second City when we were coming up through the ranks. I like playing those cringeworthy people, the grounded off-kilter characters, and love that idea of bringing people in and saying, “I’m just like you, totally relatable,” getting people on board and having them think it’s going in one direction and then just asking them to ask a little more of the characters or of themselves. One of our execs at the CBC calls them my coterie of villains—that everyday villain as opposed to the cat-petting bald villain is kind of fun. Aurora is a great gatekeeper, she plays those characters very well, too. My safe zone is the villainous zone. But I think we are all pushing ourselves as the seasons go on, to try other stuff, and see how far you can go.
DAME: Politically, you have this ability to write jokes and sketches that are timely and timeless, without name-checking specific world leaders or events. How do you do that?
Taylor: It’s a bit of a challenge because we write the season about a year to a year and a half before it airs, depending on the year. You almost have to act like a forecaster and not make it so specific. We try to keep it evergreen, and unfortunately misogyny is evergreen, it’s not going anywhere. I’ve never wanted to poke fun at a political figure, I don’t want to give them the air time. Yet we can still satirize the type of thinking that goes on in positions of power, and some ideologies that are popular, but it’s more fun to look at it in a way that doesn’t have to reference any specific political figure.
DAME: Do you improvise a lot? I’m thinking about a workplace sketch from last season, where Aurora and her work husband are dry-humping each other in front of Meredith’s HR director, and you and Jennifer are. You perfectly capture the raw emotion of their unresolved business.
Taylor: Yeah, that was pretty much improvised. And sometimes when we’re playing the smaller support characters, we give ourselves the latitude to be able to explore those kinds of things. Even in the lead parts, we will often do a few takes per script and then say, Let loose, put the script aside, and really feel the moment—and sometimes those little gems come out. I wanted that character to feel frazzled and get angry. You know when you’re angry and you’re not expressing yourself well and it doesn’t come out the way it’s supposed to? It doesn’t need to be the main thrust of the scene but a nice detail is really fun.
DAME: Is there a particular recurring character you do that resonates for you?
Taylor: I do have, not a recurring character, but certain personality traits, like the person who needs to set the record straight. It’s not really your birthday, so why are we singing Happy Birthday? I know it’s tomorrow, but …Those pedants. I guess there’s that part of me inside. But you don’t want to be like that in everyday life so you let it out in your characters [laughs].
DAME: Who were your comic idols growing up?
Taylor: 100 percent watching Nora Dunn and Jan Hooks on SNL. They were my people. I loved how off-kilter yet how grounded their characters were, and what great actors they were. They were so exciting. I never found their characters too broad. When they would go to those places, it was still rooted in an emotional truth or in a vulnerability.
DAME: Even the Sweeney Sisters was really poignant—the dynamic between the two of them, the wistfulness.
Taylor: I memorized the entire routine. I was obsessed. It was these female friendships. Smack the Pony, a female British sketch show in the late 1990s (with Veep’s Sally Phillips). Amazing—they were naturalistic and they were satirizing everyday stuff, and that was a huge influence.
DAME: Are there realms that you feel you hadn’t explored before this season?
Taylor: Yes, the only thing I wanted to write about this season was about the land acknowledgment (a formal statement that recognizes and respects Indigenous Peoples’ enduring relationship with their traditional territories). It was really well received, or seemingly so, in Canada. I’ll be curious to see how it’s received in the States. It’s a point of view that I wanted to express around the lip service that exists there, you know where people aren’t always backing up their words. It’s certainly a sensitive topic, and I wanted to handle it in a way that was acknowledging the importance of acknowledgment and asking: How are we furthering the conversation, and what muscle is being put behind that? Personally, that was one I felt scared to write but felt I needed to.
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