Female stand-ups have made considerable headway in the male-dominated world of comedy over the past decade, but female sketch-comedy writers haven't been so upwardly mobile. But that's starting to change, and it's been a long time coming.
On last week's episode of I'm Dying Up Here, the seventies-set Showtime drama about stand-up comedy on the Sunset Strip, the nail-tough club owner Goldie Herschlag (Melissa Leo) is talking to comedian Cassie Feder (Ari Graynor) about male comedy writers on a women's sketch show. "It's two guys who haven't got laid, writing their idea of what a woman might say," Goldie says. "Why don't you take a swing at writing?"
The response of Cassie, the lone female comedian on the club's main roster, is telling. "Really, I can do that?"
The sketch show they were talking about was Girls are Funny Too. It was a different time – a different, more sexist, less funny time.
Among the hottest comedy commodities going now in 2017 are Jennifer Whalen, Carolyn Taylor, Meredith MacNeill and Aurora Browne, the four Canadian stars and creators of Baroness Von Sketch Show, a sharp and resonant series that's been a hit on CBC for the past two seasons and that is now having its moment south of the border.
Baroness Von Sketch Show Is The Best Thing To Come Out Of Canada Since Ryan Gosling, raved Vogue magazine, in its recent feature on the sketch troupe. The headline in an unusually excitable New York Times this past weekend said this: The Baronesses Are Coming! And Filling A Comedy Gender Gap .
Women can make people laugh? Stop the presses.
"The question 'are women funny?' seems so ridiculously outdated and inane," says Jordan Canning, who is set direct half of the upcoming third season of Baroness. "Even the phrasing of that question implies that it's somehow been women who are lacking, or as if there's been a dearth of female talent, which obviously couldn't be further from the truth. The better question to ask is why has it taken so long for there to be more equal opportunities and platforms for their talent to be showcased."
The question of opportunity and platforms has, in part, been answered by technology. First with cable television (which wasn't much of a thing in the 1970s) and now with streaming platforms, there's a content void that needs to be filled.
The American cable network IFC, long-time home of the quirky comedy series Portlandia, debuted Baroness on Aug. 2. The first two CBC seasons will be rolled into one longer first season on IFC. For the network, landing Baroness (produced by the Toronto-based Frantic Films and distributed internationally by Banijay Rights) was a match made in content heaven.
"We've been looking for a sketch show to eventually replace Portlandia for years," says Christine Lubrano, IFC's senior vice-president of original programming. "And we've also been looking for a show that was female-driven, that had funny, dynamic characters and that was also relatable. As it turns out, the show we were looking for already existed."
Speaking to comedians, television people and comedy-biz types, the key that has Baroness clicking with audiences is the relatability Lubrano mentions. Unlike a more absurdist comedic troupe such as Kids in the Hall or Monty Python – both with male cast members often in drag – Baroness keep it a little more real.
"Audiences are hungry for diverse stories, voices and points of view," Canning says. "We are recognizing our own experiences in the Baroness sketches. We empathize with the characters because we see ourselves in them."
Gavin Crawford, of CBC's This Hour Has 22 Minutes, has connections with the Baroness women stretching back to the 1990s and Toronto's Second City company, where he worked with three of the four comedians. "They write unabashedly about all the cringe-worthy, glorious and ridiculous things they have experienced and the specificity of that makes it very universal," Crawford says.
More specifically, when it comes to relatability and seeing life through a female's lens, what the Baroness ladies offer is the outlook of an older woman. They're not the Golden Girls characters, but they're not the young women of Comedy Central's Broad City either. It's not just a gender gap being filled, it's an age gap as well.
"Sadly there is still certain novelty, both here and in the United States in seeing women over 40 together onscreen doing comedy," Crawford says. "There is an appetite for their perspective."
It's an underused perspective, one presented by women who as performers have played the wives and the sisters – the servers in the stories of their male counterparts. Now, as writers (in addition to performing) the Baroness women are telling their own stories.
"There's a groundedness and honesty that's present in their writing that's maybe missing with other sketch-comedy properties that prioritize the goofy or the political-topical," says Paul Snepsts, the director and producer of the annual Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival. "This is everyday grown-up women making the comedy they want to make."
Beyond the adult-female perspective – episode topics included mom jeans and the lack of communication in the modern world – Baroness Von Sketch Show is thoroughly well-crafted.
"There is a rhythm to the quick scenes," explains Daniel Shehori, one half of the award-winning comedic duo Shehori Brothers. "They are able to get right to it without much set-up and then quickly moving on to the next scene without ever overstaying their welcome."
Michelle Daly, senior director of comedy for CBC, adds "It's beautifully written, well-performed, sophisticated, accessible, and the production values are second to none. It's simply a gem."
The first ever episode of Baroness Von Sketch Show is titled I Can't Believe This Used to Take Days. Times change, things get better, and while the United States still hasn't elected a female president, the baronesses are now sharing in the rule of the comedic landscape.