Aurora Browne is one of the four creators, producers and stars of CBC’s Baroness von Sketch Show. On top of a case of impostor syndrome, Browne has earned two Canadian Comedy Awards and four Canadian Screen Awards for her writing and performances on stage and screen.
The native of Thunder Bay, Ontario, took up improv after graduating from York University’s theatre program. She describes learning to perform without lines as a weird lucid nightmare. In 2000, Browne was recruited to perform on the mainstage of renowned Toronto comedy venue The Second City, where the nightmare turned into a weird lucid dream.
She recently sat down for a chat with Feathertale contributor Natalie Pressman. Browne likes to bike to work, and as demonstrated by her kind offer to move the interview picnic table into the shade, is very aware of sun safety.
JUST THE FACTS
Question you’re most often asked: Are you named after the northern lights? Which I am.
Funniest thing on TV right now: Always Be My Maybe. It’s on Netflix. It’s very funny and I love it. But I’m also still waiting for season 4 of Rick and Morty.
Biggest misconception about working in comedy: That we’re all really confident. Nobody is confident.
In your pocket right now:Old Kleenex.
Advice for an aspiring comedian, writer or producer: Get on stage as much as possible. And be nice. You’d be surprised how many people need that advice.
Favourite thing about the Baroness von Sketch Show: The doing of it, because we all come from a performance background. But being in the edit suite is a real close second.
JUST THE ANSWERS
Feathertale: CBC comedy is kind of having a moment right now. I think people have always known about This Hour Has 22 Minutesand SCTV, but now Baroness, Kim’s Convenienceand Schitt’s Creekare really coming into the spotlight as well. How did that happen?
Aurora Browne: Maybe Canada is learning to trust itself a little more. There’s always a little bit of that, will other people think it’s cool? I love it when Canada says no, we think this is great and you’d enjoy it, and then other people enjoy it too.
FT: Is there something unique, do you think, about Canadian comedy?
AB: I think we’re uniquely situated in the world in that we’re right next to the huge cultural producer in the States. When you [are] a bit outside stuff, but have access to all of it — I think humour takes a bit of perspective and that little step away does give you perspective. We have perspective on the UK too because we have the Commonwealth connection, so you have all of these things, but we’re a little out on our own. I think that weird loneliness and exclusion gives us just enough perspective to make jokes about it.
FT: Weird loneliness does breed creativity.
AB: Yeah, we’re lonely and cold and we know the weather can kill us, so we may as well make jokes.
FT: Since comedy, like everything else, is always evolving, I’m curious if there are jokes that you might have done even a couple of years ago that you wouldn’t do anymore.
AB: I wouldn’t put up a sketch like G20 anymore. I think the editorial on that was too self-congratulatory. And I think I wouldn’t do anything that glorified Canada as a model of decency, because I’m always learning more and more about how dirty our hands are when it comes to human rights. Wow, that sounds so pretentious. No more fart jokes!
FT: That’s interesting. Do you think that’s a result of comedy evolving, or more yourself?
AB: I think I can thank Jordan Peele on both fronts. And reading Lainey Gossip.
We examine social power dynamics a lot on our show, so as our own understanding evolves, so does the show’s.
Carolyn Taylor does particularly great scenes on that front. She’s very meticulous about what she’s saying, even if the scene is bonkers — we all are. It’s a fun room to be in when we are chewing over a scene at the writing table. Everyone is very thoughtful and very interested in getting to the heart of things, which you have to do anyway to make good comedy. If you don’t have any viewpoint at all, what are you making jokes about?
FT: What makes a good joke?
AB: That’s the question we ask ourselves all the time at the writer’s table. Surprise. Recognition. A little bit of absurdity. A little bit of familiarity. Sometimes you don’t know, though.
Any time something is really true — and I don’t mean that it has to be like a kitchen-sink recreation of exactly how things went down — but if there’s a truth in there that people go “ha haw” and people recognize, that’s definitely where we try to write from. We usually go from “isn’t it funny that” rather than “wouldn’t it be funny if.” So it’s usually something that you recognize as true, and that can be true even in an absurdist kind of way.
You know, humans are really conceited. We love to see ourselves up on screen and something reflected back. So if somebody has that moment of “ha ha, yes, I recognize that!” that usually gets that laugh.
FT: Did you always see yourself as part of this world? What did you want to be growing up?
AB :I, from very early on, wanted to be an actor. I didn’t think of going into sketch comedy, although when I look back I spent so much time listening to Monty Python records and to stand-ups, and watching The Muppet Showand SCTV. I went to York University and I got a BFA in acting, and they’re very anti-comedy there. There’s a big divide in Canada between the comedy and the drama world, and they’re like, don’t try to make it funny, so we were being super serious for four years.
I do love doing that, but at the end someone was like, you should think about Second City, and I had never even gone to see a show. But it feels right. I like especially in a sketch show having a wide variety of characters. If I’m playing the same thing all the time, I get super bored. I don’t think I could ever be on a procedural playing a cop for real and never moving my face and always wearing the same thing. I love having like a whole tickle trunk of stuff to try out.
FT: I’ve done exactly one improv class in my life, and I was very bad at it, but it was really fun. Kind of like comedy therapy.
AB: Totally. But it’s also so unfair when people say that, because it’s like saying, “I played basketball once and I wasn’t very good at it” — like, of course, but it’s tons and tons of fun.
It’s like having a weird lucid nightmare the first time you’re on stage doing improv and then you slow down, ’cause it really is a nightmare. Especially coming from an acting background where it’s like, I don’t know what I’m going to say, this is horrendous. And then you just get super comfortable with being in the moment. It’s funny, when I was on stage at Second City and doing it every night, that’s when I think I finally synthesized everything they were trying to teach me in acting school about being in the moment and really getting under the text and not speaking the subtext and getting it across and, yeah, it takes a while but it’s great once you do it.
You just get really okay with whatever people throw at you. It’s like lucid dreaming, but in a good way.
FT: Second City is known as a launching point for so many incredible comedians. Does it still live up to its reputation?
AB: It does. In and of itself it is kind of a crucible. You’re performing every night for a couple of years, and you’re doing it with six other people who are also talented. It’s the ten thousand hours thing. You get your time in and you get good at it.
The scene in Toronto is really thriving because there’s a place where there are jobs to be in comedy. [Second City] is a touring company and they have classes, so a lot of people come. In a way, Second City is responsible for a scene happening here, but also Second City couldn’t exist without the scene. They have that and the fact that now you have Comedy Bar, you have Bad Dog, which has been going on for ages, and theatre sports happening and all these other things. The more people you have and the more lively it is and the more talent means Second City can exist, and of course they hire people and those people get paid. It’s a really, really valuable part of my career, that’s for sure, and even this show, one of the things people mention often are the little short scenes that are so great, but Second City does that all the time. They’re called blackouts, because the lights come on and then they black out and there’s a small joke in between. So that was just natural for us because we know how that feels on stage. We have years of experience with how that feels on stage.
It is a great thing. It’s certainly not the only game out there, but it’s part of what makes the scene here, and I would never have met Carolyn Taylor and Jen Whalen without it.
FT: Do you read the reviews of yourself?
AB: Of course. We have a Facebook page and I’ll go on it, and thankfully they’ve been pretty good. Occasionally somebody says something and I, like any other performer, the negative things stand out more, but I think the fact that we’re doing what we want to do and we feel really clear about it — about what we’re making and why we’re making it — so when you’re in that situation, negative things seem to fall off your back more easily. When I’ve been involved in shows that I wasn’t in charge of and I wasn’t really sure about the direction we were going and then when people were shitting on that, it hurt much more. It’s like, ugh, that’s so embarrassing. But when it’s your thing, it’s like, well, we’re doing our thing. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. But we’ve also been pretty fortunate that mostly it’s been positive — unless I haven’t been Googling myself deeply enough.
FT: The issue of the magazine is the Mistake Issue, so I’m wondering if on that note you might be able to share a professional failure or regret, or something like that.
AB: Hmm, which do I choose? I’ve talked about this a little bit in other places, but I was involved in a project — I won’t name it — but it was in and of itself bad. It was a bad project. And on paper I don’t think I would’ve known that. It looked like it should’ve been great and it wasn’t. But it paid well and the contracts were coming up for renewal, so I had to decide to stay in it or not, and it seemed like, how can I turn down work? And I was really wrestling with this. I knew that I didn’t want to be a part of it, but I was like, I don’t know, maybe I should — just kind of waffling on it.
I had a dream — and I dream a lot but this dream was super long, super vivid, super detailed — that me and all my Second City friends died in a nuclear bomb that hit Toronto, and I died a little bit later than everybody. I watched everybody disintegrate. It was very detailed, it was very long. I died and I went to some weird mid-staging spiritual area and then I woke up.
It was such a detailed, horrifying dream that I woke up and I was surprised to be alive and I was freaking out, and once I calmed down I realized that I had a near-death experience without actually having to be hit by a car or anything. Once I was calm, I realized I had to quit that thing. I had this clarity, so I was able to not make the continued mistake of doing the show.
FT: Do you often look to your dreams or subconscious things to guide you?
AB: That one really stood out, so it was easy, but I dream a lot and I like talking about them. I look to them as a Jungian — you’re all the parts of the dream, so I do like analyzing and saying like, hmm, I think I’m stressed out, or why was I taking care of this baby all of the sudden? It’s like maybe I need to take my “baby” — my new project — and take care of it, feed it, that kind of thing. But as I get older I can’t remember my dreams quite as much.
FT: I never remember my dreams, or even remember that I dreamt. When I talk to people who dream a lot, I’m like, how come my sleep is so boring?
AB: I think you’re more mentally stable, is what it is.
FT: I doubt it.
AB: I don’t know, but I’ve always been that way. Since I was a little kid I can remember nightmares I had.
FT: What makes you feel most creative?
AB: I don’t want to sayweed. I like writing and chatting with other people, so a fun writing partner. Also, awkwardness and embarrassment.
But it’s also true that you fire up a joint and it’s like, this would be a really funny blackout, and boom [you have a sketch]. I know that there are some that have made it to air and it’s like, yeah, I wrote that on my back deck.