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The Baronesses Are Coming! And Filling a Comedy Gender Gap

Ms. Taylor (the cerebral one, and the showrunner) and Ms. Browne (the one who pushes the joke toward the dark and dirty) met at the improv theater Second City in downtown Toronto in the mid-90s. They became good friends, living on different floors of the same apartment building. Both worked the city’s comedy circuit for years, writing and appearing onstage and onscreen. Often, they crossed paths with another Second City alumna, Ms. Whalen (the one who is known to take an unwieldy idea and distill it to a cleanly written half-page). All three had experienced what Ms. Whalen described as “development hell”: selling hot pitches that sat on network shelves until they cooled and evaporated.

Meanwhile, Ms. MacNeill was building a career in London. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Ms. MacNeill (the wild, physical one with a repertoire of deadpan reaction shots) had proved herself as deft at “Titus Andronicus” as comedy, appearing on series like “Peep Show” and “Man Stroke Woman.” But after becoming a newly minted single mother, she returned to a small town in her home province, Nova Scotia, with a baby and a foggy future. “I was in my late 30s, eating my parents’ mashed potatoes, and I needed to get out of their basement,” she said. “Luckily, I work well with desperation.”

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From left, Jennifer Whalen, Aurora Browne, Meredith MacNeill and Carolyn Taylor in a scene from “Baroness Von Sketch Show.”

Credit
Erin Simkin

So when her daughter went to bed at night, Ms. MacNeill wrote screenplays, pitches and series, plotting an escape route. She also caught up on Canadian TV and noticed the country lacked anything like the woman-led British sketch comedy series like “Smack the Pony” and “French and Saunders.”

In 2012, she had mentioned this gap to Ms. Taylor, who was in Halifax, Nova Scotia, writing for “This Hour Has 22 Minutes,” the CBC’s “Daily Show”-style faux newscast. Ms. MacNeill was working in the ensemble, and the two began to polish the pitch for a female-driven sketch show that would be naturalistic, observational and shot on location with a single camera. They wanted to be out of a studio and in the real-world strangeness of “The Office” and “Little Britain.” Ms. Taylor pulled in Ms. Whalen and Ms. Browne, who were also excited.

“I felt like I wasn’t truly hearing women’s voices on TV,” Ms. Whalen said. “We all talk about auditioning for ‘the mom’: ‘Does anyone want a sandwich?’ But in real life my girlfriends are so interesting, and the way they talk about their children and their lives is dark and hilarious and funny.”

Ms. Browne added: “There’s more tweezing, but the older you get the more fun it gets to be a woman.”

The production company Frantic Films partnered with the women, though its chief executive, Jamie Brown, admitted he hesitated about the name. “Possibly too German.”

“I have a love of baronesses,” Ms. Taylor explained. “It’s one of the lowest rungs of aristocracy, but they seem to be able to do what they want.”

After days of carefully rehearsing the pitch to appear off the cuff, they sold it to the CBC. Within a year, they were shooting on the streets of Toronto with Ms. Taylor as showrunner but all four equally involved at every step, right into the editing suite. They hired two permanent writers and rotated a large team of contributing writers and story editors, veteran and untested, and mostly women.

Last summer, the sketch “Welcome to Your 40’s” started upticking online. Now at 1.8 million Facebook views, it follows a woman (Ms. MacNeill) at the gym on her 40th birthday who’s relegated to the region of the locker room where aggressive middle-age nakedness is the norm.

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From left, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer in the comedy series “Broad City.”

Credit
Comedy Central

Lea DeLaria, the comedian and “Orange Is the New Black” star, was in Toronto visiting friends when she first encountered the bending, squatting (pixelated) “40’s” women. “My fiancée had just left me, and my friends were like: ‘Quit crying and watch this show.’ It made me laugh so hard,” said Ms. DeLaria, who later gathered castmates for “Baroness” viewing sessions on the set of “Orange.”

“What’s great is the perspective, which you never see,” she said. “Their humor isn’t going to be about how big their boobs are. It’s not the ‘hot comedian’ thing. They can go from total craziness to very light and sweet. It flies in the face of two adages: that girls aren’t funny, and lesbians aren’t funny.”

Ms. Taylor is the one creator who self-identified as lesbian during interviews, but the series over all runs on a casual gender fluidity, where drag and gay characters are part of the comedy and an unabashed raunchiness often tilts queer. So while the show isn’t capital-P political — there will be no Donald Trump or Justin Trudeau impressions — it feels political, just because it exists. “I like having queer characters represented and having that part of me heard,” Ms. Taylor said. “It’s a political act, to say: ‘Yeah, we have voices and we’re going to put them out there.’ It’s a political act to be unapologetically feminist.”

In a sketch called “Run the World” — clearly a Beyoncé shout-out — a global revolution has left women in charge. Turns out that at the all-female World Summit of 2050, there’s not much to discuss. “Conflict? Any war?” “No, we just talk it out these days.”

Baroness von Sketch Show | Run the World | IFC Video by IFC

Jennifer Caserta, the president of IFC, said she found the series “ridiculously relatable” and saw it fitting cozily into the network’s lineup (the show is a natural stepsibling to the similarly minutiae-obsessed “Portlandia,” albeit more Ann Taylor, less trucker jacket). So far, IFC’s only note has been about changing a reference to a Canadian cocktail called a Caesar (it involves clam juice) to the more American-friendly Bloody Mary. In June, the network brought the group out to Los Angeles for a panel hosted by Ms. DeLaria, who also guest-stars this season. Ms. Whalen said she couldn’t believe they got picked up at the airport in a car, and all four gushed about the quality of the hotel.

In Los Angeles, Ms. Caserta observed their dynamic. “Sometimes great creativity comes out of tension, but they’re the kind of collaboration born out of friendship,” she said. “I don’t think they take this for granted. They’re very grateful. When you see talent like that, it’s a little bit heartbreaking to think of the struggle before the breakthrough.”

Back in the Toronto writers’ room, the pitches flew. Some could easily be imagined as goofy slices of life (the hell of receiving “funky socks” as gifts); another was more high concept — sexual assault through the ages. That one didn’t make it. Repeatedly, and gently, Ms. Taylor asked: “Just to be clear, what’s the point of view here?”

Ms. MacNeill speculated later on how the show might land in the United States. “We’re four women in our 40s creating our first TV show,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s amazing or sad. The show has a vulnerability to it because it came from a vulnerable place. I do think that’s why people might tune in.”

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