IFC’s Canadian sketch comedy import Baroness von Sketch Show just concluded its fourth season. Starring, created by, and written by the sketch comedy quartet Carolyn Taylor, Meredith MacNeill, Aurora Browne, and Jennifer Whalen, the critically-acclaimed (and hilarious) Baroness von Sketch Show has already been renewed for a fifth season. This past season tackled poignant topics like the horror and anger that comes with the realization that there are somehow full-blown adults who were born in the late 1990s, whether or not scrunchies are back in style and if they ever were “in style” to begin with, and the most important topic of all, binge-watching.
Paste Magazine recently spoke with Jennifer Whalen, who also serves as showrunner, about Baroness von Sketch Show and the comedic and cultural inspirations that have made it everyone’s favorite Canadian sketch comedy show (that is still currently on the air and led by four women).
Paste: Let’s just start off with the usual question: What are your comedy inspirations? Or as Marc Maron would say, “Who are your guys?” “Guys” can, of course, be “gals” too.
Jennifer Whalen: Who are my guys? Well, I think early guys were definitely Monty Python, and I loved Steve Martin and George Carlin. … Catherine O’Hara was huge for me. The first time I saw her on SCTV I was like, ”[gasps] Oh God.” She was amazing. Catherine O’Hara, Andrea Martin.
I would say that later, I really got into Saturday Night Live. The Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, and Amy Poehler era was really, really huge for me. I think probably I’m going to get off the phone and be like, “Oh my God, I forgot somebody key.” Those are definitely some of the highlight reel.
Paste: From an interview you and your Baroness Von Sketch Show partners did for Vulture, you mentioned Big Train and Carolyn Taylor mentioned Smack the Pony. How much would you say that British comedy is an inspiration to the show?
Whalen: I think it’s pretty huge. I think we’re all influenced by it. Canada, we’re a part of the Commonwealth, so we get a lot more British culture than I think the States does. In fact, Meredith [MacNeill] lived in England for many years, so we definitely have a British sensibility and a British-tinged flavor.
Paste: One thing I really enjoy about the series is that the sketches don’t ever really overstay their welcome. Every sketch is pretty much the right length, even if that length is just a few seconds, which is actually kind of that British sensibility. How important was it to you all not to adhere to a set length for each sketch in order to get to a punchline?
Whalen: Really important. We like to think of it kind of like a mix tape, where you can have some songs where you want to rock out and then you’ve got your ballad where you can slow it down, and so we like to have it very up to pace. We also like to think of the show as each thing is like making a little short film. So each thing should just be as long as it needs to be. And you’re right, sometimes we’ll actually shoot something longer, and then in editing, you’re looking and go, “Well the joke is there. Let’s just tell that great joke and then walk away.” I think in comedy it’s always great to leave people wanting a little bit more.
I think, collectively, all of us have shorter attention spans. One of my comedy gods that I loved back in the day was Richard Pryor, and I recently saw some of his sketch show on the internet and it’s really interesting to watch because, obviously, he’s so brilliant. But some of the sketches are, they feel like seven or eight minutes long, and the time that they take in those—it’s just time that we wouldn’t now. I think we’re so trained by the internet to just go, “Am I interested? No? Then I’m moving on.” I think we, as a culture, we speed it up.
Paste: Season Four just ended, and the show was renewed, so you have Season Five coming up. When you got picked up by IFC, how much of an adjustment was it to move from the six to seven episodes of the first two seasons to 10-episode seasons? Was there even much of an adjustment or were you happy because you now get to do more sketches that you probably would’ve had to cut?
Whalen: It was a huge adjustment. This show, we love doing it, but we wear so many hats on the show. The great part of it is we have a lot of creative control, but we sort of are always working on it. We have so many jobs because we’re acting in it, we write it. We’ve now expanded into trying to direct some sketches, we are also executive producing, and in my case, showrunning. There’s always questions and things that need to be answered, and just the bulk of material with 10 episodes, it was really fun, but we realized that’s the maximum. We could never do more than 10. It’s just too much.
Paste: Have there been any sketches in these recent seasons that you maybe originally cut or that you thought at first you couldn’t include?
Whalen: In Season Four, the “That Lady” sketch was a sketch that originally I had tried to write, believe it or not, in the first season. We filmed it, and it almost worked but not quite. There were some things about the idea that we kept sort of mulling and pitching over and over again. It wasn’t until Season Four that Aurora [Browne] re-imagined it, and we were like, “Oh yes, now we can do it, now we know.”
There’s definitely been sketches that we’ve filmed and not kind of loved and then revisited. Or just ones that we haven’t even filmed, the ones that didn’t make it out of the writing room for whatever reason, that we liked, and then we kind of didn’t quite crack. The bra shopping sketch from this year started in Season [Two] with this great writer, Ify Chiwetelu. She wrote this thing about bra shopping when you’re a larger size and we loved it, and for whatever reason, didn’t do it [then]. … We revisited it this year and just sort of gave it a polish, and it was a really fun sketch to do. We definitely revisit stuff all the time.
Paste: What exactly is the writing and production process like for a typical episode? Especially for you, as showrunner.
Whalen: Generally, if we’re shooting 10 episodes, we’ll break for 10 weeks. Within that … the first day is like a pitch meeting, and then we go away and write our sketches either together or separately. Then on Wednesday, we have the readthrough, and then we give notes and people can do rewrites. And then on Friday, we sit down and look at all the material, and decide which of it we like and want to move ahead with. Or which [material] is great but maybe it needs a better ending. Sometimes, there are ones that we’re dancing around a good idea here, but it’s not quite there. It’s very rare that we throw something out entirely. Mostly, we sort of keep trying to work the material until we get it to a place that we like.
After that, we go into pre-production, where you’re making all the decisions about the costumes, and the hair and makeup, and all the kind of fun stuff. And sets and where the locations are going to be. But in addition to that, we also really like to rehearse, because we find that when we rehearse, you find another layer. Sometimes you’ll be rehearsing a sketch you’ll be in and realize, “Wait a second. This is a funny line I’m saying, that actually doesn’t really make sense.” So that’s an area where sometimes we find real gold and magic and part of the dynamics and adding a new layer.
And then we go to shoot. When we’re shooting, the days are long, but we have a lot of fun and we generally get the sketch to script, but we also improvise. So we’ll improvise a lot in the top and the bottom, and it’ll be funny because we really know the material by that time, because we’ve been with it in the writing room, rehearsing and stuff. And it’s really funny how sometimes you will be in the scene, in the moment, and you’re like, “I know what the ending of this thing is.” And then, you can improvise a line that ties it all up, which is really satisfying. So that’s really fun
Then once that’s all done, we go into the edit suite and we divide the sketches into quarters and everyone has their own, which they can make creative decisions over. And as showrunner, I oversee that. Then we edit it, so we all have a hand in that. That’s really been invaluable because it’s just a whole other skill. Usually if you’re a writer or an actor, you’re not allowed in the edit suite. It’s like, “What’s behind the curtain?” Editing is—you can make or break a sketch in it. So it’s amazing, and it’s been such a great learning experience. It’s made me, I think, a better writer and a better actor, being able to be in the edit suite. So, that’s really fun.
And then once that’s done, we fall apart, we rest for a minute, and then we start all over again.
Paste: All four of you play a range of characters, but are there any specific characters or bits that you personally prefer to play? My particular favorite sketch focused on you is “You’re Denver Now” from Season Three.
Whalen: Oh, thank you. I loved it. I love it too. Being Denver was fun. It was kind of hard to put her back in the box. I thought I wouldn’t be into all of the contouring. But the minute I took a selfie, I was like, “Oh, this is why people do this. Oh wow.” I couldn’t stop taking pictures of myself. It was crazy. I love her.
I actually really enjoy when we do office scenes, because often those ones that are really a combo of the four of us, and there’ll be times where you just have a line or two and those characters I really like. There’s a sketch in Season Four about, “Did you like the thing I posted on Facebook trying to cheer you up?” I’m just in the background, and decided on the day I saw my costume, I thought, “I want my office lady to have a cold.” And so I just had a good time pretending to have a cold. That’s just a little thing that most people wouldn’t notice, but I love that. I think in Season Four, one of my favorite characters to play is the mad wife in this sort of Bronte parody. I always loved Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as a kid, so that was really fun to get to be a mad wife. Anytime you get to be crazy, which I mean, Denver is kind of crazy as well.
Paste: A different kind of crazy.
Paste: Do you ever notice the States audiences reacting differently from Canadian audience to certain sketches? Not even Canada-specific sketches, because the Hamilton/Toronto sketch this season was pretty relatable, even if you’re not in Canada—just understanding when your friends go to the suburbs and that commute. But do you ever notice that there are some times when Americans really gravitate to a certain sketch that Canadians for some reason didn’t? Or vice versa?
Whalen: Yeah, it does shift slightly, and it’s interesting. It’s like there are some ones that everybody agrees on, but there will be ones that, and I’m sorry I’m not able to pick out a specific one for you, but there will be ones that do better in the States and ones that do better in Canada. And then there’s just ones that somebody, somewhere on the internet will find, and it’ll be a sketch that we worked on that we’ve kind of forgotten about but will come back because some segment of the population that has an interest in whatever the sketch is about, will start sharing it around and then it’ll come back and people will get it. It’s weird, it’s really fun.
Paste: Do you ever find yourself worrying about having to play to the two separate audiences? Or are you just still thinking, “We’ll do what we think is funny?”
Whalen: You’re exactly right. We just do what we think is funny. I don’t think we really think about the audience other than trying to make an entertaining show. … We don’t think about the audience in terms of, “Will they think this or won’t they?” We really just try and make a show that we think is funny and that we think would be a fun show to watch. That’s sort of how we attack it. I think it would be too hard, I think if you start thinking about what people are going to like. I think it’s a slippery slope because people are all so different.
Paste: One thing I noted when I was writing about Season Four is that the series is very good not to fall down the rabbit hole of being too exclusionary or “white feminist-y.” In fact, it kind of actually mocks all of that. How cognizant were all four of you of that aspect of the show? And how important is it to you to be more intersectional and inclusive in the show’s comedy?
Whalen: Oh it’s really important to us. When I started my comedy career, I was kind of always the only woman in a room full of men. That kind of exclusion, like excluding half of the population because of their sex. Like when you think about if it’s going to be six guys who are getting a job and one woman, the economics of that is crazy. And then if you broaden that out to people who are not getting in those rooms because of the color of the skin, if they have a disability, because of their sexual orientation, because of any difference, that isn’t right. And I also think our culture is richer when we hear everybody’s voice, it’s more interesting.
We’ve heard it from one point of view for a really long time. I think it’s really interesting and valid and great to hear what everybody is feeling. I think it makes us better humans. As I said, I think it’s more interesting. I think it is hugely important to us and we are aware that we’re four white women in our forties and that it’s really important to us to try and bring in as much diversity as we can. And also to be open to new ideas. We love looking [and asking], “Where are our blind spots?” We love to do sketches where it’s hard to know who’s right and who’s wrong because I think, one of the things that I delight in, is the things when you catch yourself in a hypocrisy that you weren’t aware of. Because I think we all have those areas. You like to think that you’re on the right side of everything and then you’re like, “Oh wait a minute.” Somebody points out to you, “Hey you, have you considered this perspective?” And you’re like, “Oh no. I didn’t. And I didn’t even realize that I was doing that.” So I think that’s a really interesting area to play into.
Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, IndieWire, and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs.