Five years ago, Meredith MacNeill moved home from England as a single mom without a job. In 2018, the Pictou County native is a cast member of two of the country’s most popular comedy series and is nominated for four Canadian Screen Awards.
She even defies the laws of physics by competing against herself in the best performance, sketch comedy category for her work on This Hour Has 22 Minutes and the Baroness Von Sketch Show, proving that you can be in two places at once.
“I’m in a pretty good position as an East Coaster,” says MacNeill with a smile, just prior to a This Hour Has 22 Minutes rehearsal at CBC’s Bell Road studio. “I get to go to Toronto for part of the year, and then I get to come back and do 22 Minutes, which has been going for 25 years. I feel pretty lucky.”
The luck part seems to lie in the genetics that provided her with elastic facial expressions and a seemingly boundless energy. But make no mistake, a lot of hard work went into becoming this funny, whether she’s delivering topical punchlines alongside Cathy Jones, Mark Critch, Shaun Majumder and Susan Kent on This Hour Has 22 Minutes, or contorting herself as the most physical of the Baroness Von Sketch Show quartet with Carolyn Taylor, Aurora Browne and Jennifer Whalen.
For a start, she grew up watching pioneers like Carol Burnett and CODCO/22 Minutes co-founders Mary Walsh and Cathy Jones, whom she now works alongside. That was enough to stoke her desire to perform, attending Dal Theatre and joining Neptune Theatre’s Young Company and Shakespeare By the Sea before crossing the Atlantic to hone her skills at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
“I was watching women creators of a show writing what they wanted, based on what they saw around them and what affected their life,” she recalls. “Day-to-day things, relatable things, and I was fortunate enough as a young woman to see that happen.
“Mary Walsh and Cathy Jones, if they wanted to play men, they’d play men. If they wanted to play women, they’d play women. They embodied whatever would get the message across the best. So when I got the idea for an all-female show, it wasn’t crazy to me, it wasn’t this mad idea. I just thought, ‘This is pretty possible.’”
After RADA, MacNeill acted at the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre for Academy Award-winning Mark Rylance as artistic director and worked with Simon McBurnie at Complicite before being cast in the BBC-TV sketch show Man Stroke Woman and scoring a memorable guest spot on the cult favourite comedy series Peep Show.
In turn, her episode of Peep Show as manic Merry brought her to the attention of This Hour Has 22 Minutes producers after she’d moved back to Canada, landing her her first hometown gig after a period of writing and trying to drum up work. It was there that she formed a friendship with writer and future fellow Baroness Taylor, who would connect MacNeill with Browne and Whalen, and a show was born.
“I noticed that in the U.K. there was a lot more female-fronted work, including women who were older, like French & Saunders, Victoria Woods, Absolutely Fabulous, and Smack the Pony, which was a huge influence for us,” says MacNeill.
“But I wasn’t seeing a lot of female-fronted shows in Canada, especially in comedy, and having experienced that on Man Stroke Woman, I started talking to Carolyn about it. ‘So, here’s the thing…’ and we started putting together what it would be.”
MacNeill has found time to appear in Nova Scotia-shot features like Bretten Hannam’s acclaimed drama North Mountain and earned an Atlantic Film Festival Award for her role in Iain MacLeod’s microbudget comedy Your Money or Your Wife, and is eager to find more Maritime projects. But as an executive producer, writer and performer on the Baroness Von Sketch Show, which goes from six episodes to 10 in its upcoming third season, more of that time is spent in Toronto.
That makes sense, though, as the sketch comedy series finds a broader audience beyond Canada’s borders, thanks to its sharp writing and performing, and expertly honed setpieces that are whittled down to their primal essence in a minute or two to become instantly shareable on social media.
Even though the show’s viewpoint is essentially that of women in their 30s and 40s, the cast members strive to make the material as relatable as possible to a wide audience. MacNeill can wring big laughs out of situations like being caught without her own bags at the grocery store checkout, or playing a woman sampling food left on other people’s tables while waiting for a brunch date.
She throws so much of herself into her sketches that even the process of writing them involves a great degree of physical performance.
“I’m not really a sitting-down kind of person, so sometimes I become the character, and try things out and just do it,” she explains. “I’ll be typing away and then stand up and move around to see if I can actually do it. There was a sketch I wrote about forcing yourself to eat salad, called Psych-Up Salad, and at the end of the sketch I fly across an eight- or nine-foot table.
“Everything else I knew I could do. I knew I could shove a lot of things in my mouth. The first A.D. goes, ‘Are you sure you can…?’ And I go, ‘I can do it!’ But secretly I’m thinking, ‘I’ve never done it!’ They got a stunt woman in just in case, but at 42 I knew I could absolutely do it, and I did. We got it in one shot.”
With the Baroness Von Sketch Show, MacNeill finds herself in a position unique to Canadian television, where all four cast members are also executive producers and make full use of the freedom that brings them. “I can really fit in the characters the way I want, and be them and do them,” says MacNeill, who expects their material in future seasons will become more pointed in the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp.
“With what’s happening now, there’s stuff I was writing or ideas that I had three years ago that were harder to get through the door, and now I think it might be a little easier to get those through,” she says. “There are things that should be talked about that aren’t talked about enough, and I hope there’ll be more of that in our next season.
“My daughter’s seven now, and I cannot begin to tell you the joy that I am feeling now with what’s happening with the women’s movement. When I look at my little girl and know that she won’t have to go through some of the same things these women have gone through. Or that, compared to my own personal experience, it’ll be a little bit easier for her.”