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Aurora Browne dishes on Baroness Von Sketch and Great Canadian Baking Show

There are three big changes viewers will notice when they tune in to The Great Canadian Baking Show on CBC this Wednesday night.

Gone is judge Rochelle Adonis, replaced by Kyla Kennaley. And co-hosts Dan Levy and Julia Chan have been swapped out in favour of Aurora Browne and Carolyn Taylor. Browne and Taylor are also, as legions of fans already know, the writers, stars and executive producers of Baroness von Sketch Show, which returns this Tuesday night to CBC.

And while I will miss Levy and Chan’s roles on Baking Show, I was immediately smitten by Browne and Taylor’s witty cold opening and their natural rapport with the 10 new contestants.

We spoke to Browne ahead of both programs’ debut.

How did yourself and Carolyn Taylor end up hosting The Great Canadian Baking Show in the first place?
Aurora Browne: The Great Canadian Baking Show approached us, at the beginning of this year. Carolyn and I have known each other for a very long time, obviously. Long before Baroness, even. It worked out in our schedule to be able to do it with only minimal overlap. Why not? It’s such a fun show. It’s fun and lovely and to be honest, being paid to taste things is like a dream come true. I don’t think that was difficult for either of us.

We actually spoofed it on Baroness. There’s a scene in the third season with Jen and Meredith. The patient is talking about her existential angst and how she can’t let go of any of her anxiety. The psychiatrist advises her to watch a gentle British baking show. We had a little, 10-second insert. Of course, it takes two hours to film, so Carolyn was like the Mary Berry character and I was a contestant. On the day that we were doing that, we were saying, ‘Oh gosh, I could do that all day,’ just talking about food and looking at food.

Two women smile into the camera.Was what you did as hosts scripted?
AB: They do have a very talented writer Elvira Kurt who has been our friend for a long time. She has actually worked on Baroness as well. A bit of the show is scripted. We don’t come up with all those puns on our own, that’s the job of a talented person. We were doing the cold opens of the show. That kind of stuff is scripted. Also sometimes, to be totally honest, there is so much technical stuff for some of the baking things, especially the French patisserie, I really needed that in the script. It’s like texty sci-fi shows you are remembering all these things. Thank goodness for the script on those parts, but the rest of it is just us interacting with the bakers. I think the best training that Carolyn and I could have had for the show is just attending a bunch of parties because it’s a party in a way.

Starting off with 10 people and then fewer as weeks progress you just have to be comfortable going in and chatting to them, it’s just like that part in the party where you wander into the kitchen and the host is trying to get something done or trying to get something in the oven and you ask them questions. Except here on the show they must answer our questions.

They were very easy to get to know, they were just such lovely, lovely people. They are in the middle of this very stressful situation with cameras in their faces and we were just there to encourage them and Carolyn and I didn’t find it hard at all. We were just encouraging them to do what they loved and to sometimes have a good laugh with them, and occasionally commiserate with them if they were having a stressful moment, which of course happens.

Let’s switch things up and let’s talk about season four of Baroness von Sketch Show. What was it like having Jennifer Whalen as the showrunner this season?
AB: Jen Whalen is exceptional. I mean it’s a massive job because you’re the one person who goes between all the departments. All four of us worked very closely on the creative and talking with each other about everything. Jen Whalen, I see her being the CEO of something, before very long. But we also have been doing this for several years now, so we have how we handle the editing and that’s in place, how we work out the sketches that are in place. I’m always just like thankful and in awe of Carolyn and Jennifer being showrunners and how willing they are to just always take those calls and emails. I personally need a little bit of time at the end of the day where I just won’t pick up the phone. I need to not answer emails. I’m always very grateful that those two have been willing to helm such a busy, busy show because we are all so involved.

But they are both fantastic at it and I hope someday that Jen Whalen is captaining the starship and I get to be her XO, I would happily be her second in command for anything.

Two women on a climbing apparatus.There are some great sketches in the first episode. Binge-watching television and translating that into kids’ years. Tony Nappo in the sketch where he uses his kind words to make women smile. The blood pressure cuff. All great relatable stuff. The end credits featured a large group of writers and story editors.
AB: We have a structure that really allows us to welcome in voices and ideas even for a short amount of time because we have a core group of four of us are always there. Then we have some staff writers who are with us all the way through. For Season 4 we had Jen Goodhue who has been with us for every season. We had Monica Heisey in and then Allison Hogg, who had also written for us before. Then with the other people sometimes they will only come in for say three days or four days. That fresh set of eyes is really invaluable and it makes for a really fun room. I don’t think there was one person that came in that one of us didn’t know already.

It’s a pretty joyous thing. Even though it’s a large group it was manageable and it just means that you have these really funny, really talented people who are really thoughtful and interested in the world and are really ready to sit and roll around an idea to get at what’s the essence of this, what’s the funniest take we can take on it. And we were so happy always to be able to offer a paycheque at the very least to our talented colleagues who live and work in this city and the country.

We are very happy to be able to make this show where we live, and other people can too.

Baroness von Sketch Show airs Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. on CBC.

The Great Canadian Baking Show airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on CBC.

Images courtesy of CBC.

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Tallboyz II Men take on television with Bruce McCulloch in their corner

You couldn’t ask for a better person to mentor a group of sketch comedians than Bruce McCulloch. That’s what’s happened to Toronto’s Tallboyz II Men, who have gone from becoming a troupe to starring in their own television series in just three years.

Tallboyz—debuting Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBC—stars Tim Blair, Vance Banzo, Franco Nguyen and Guled Abdi, who formed a sketch alliance after meeting in the city’s comedy scene. Collectively, their credits include Outstanding Comedy Short at 2018 Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival, appearances at JFL42, Comedy Brawl, CBC Radio, NOW Magazine and The Colin Mochrie Improvisation Award. Banzo was enrolled in Humber College‘s Comedy Writing and Performance program when he caught McCullogh’s eye.

“I thought, Wow, this guy’s amazing,’ and I actually brought him in on a writing room I was doing for a couple of days,” series executive producer and director McCulloch recalls. “Then he told me he had a troupe. I saw them and I thought, ‘Wow.’ They were super unformed, but they had what they have on the show, a kind of elegance, warmth and just a natural sense of humour. And I was like, ‘Yeah, we should do a show.'”

That warmth shines through in Episode 1’s first minutes, while the quartet is chased down a Toronto street by transit guards. I wanted to learn more about them and see the characters they’d invented. I was immediately drawn in by their twisty take on boy bands and body shaming, sex-ed classes, and a quiz show hosted by Banzo (that one had me laughing and shaking my head in shame). But as effortless as the writing and performances seem on-screen, it’s been a massive learning curve for Tallboyz II Men to write for television.

“I remember just being a deer in headlights,” Abdi says. “The first couple of weeks I was just nodding and being like, ‘I hope no one notices that I am lost.’ It went from being the four of us writing together at our own pace and being very comfortable with each other to a room where all of a sudden the numbers doubled. We had eight people in the room and people who had 15 plus years of comedy experience.”

McCulloch says that, when the writing room started, the troupe had amassed perhaps a dozen sketches written mostly by improv. Six months later, they had 100. One, about a sleepwalker, is particularly memorable for Abdi because he was injured filming it.

“I was keeping my eyes as close to shut as possible, just enough to see where my feet were,” he says. “I could just see, like, maybe a foot in front of me. The take that made it in is one where it was the eighth time doing it. I really committed and put too much energy into the flip and then landed on my side and being like, ‘Aw, that hurt.’ Then I had to play it off and get up immediately and get out of the scene.

Tallboyz airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on CBC.

Image courtesy of CBC.

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It’s a family affair on CTV Life Channel’s Holmes 911

Mike Holmes has made a career out of helping others sort through their construction debacles. Now he’s bringing his son and daughter into the mix.

To be fair, Mike Jr. and Sherry have been part of their father’s renovation empire in many of his past series. But this is the first time they’ve joined their father for a program that feels like the one that put him on the map. And on a new network too. Debuting Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CTV Life Channel (the rebranded Gusto, if you’re wondering), Holmes 911 recalls Holmes on Homes, the show that started it all (and scored me one of my first cover stories when I worked at TV Guide Canada).

“We’re going back to our roots and I think everyone loved Holmes on Homes,” Sherry says over the phone while cradling her active and vocal baby daughter. “I loved watching Holmes on Homes, and it’s nice to go back and give help to people who really need it.”

Sherry, like her brother Mike (listen to my podcast with him), never intended to join in her father’s quest to “Make It Right,” but once she accompanied him on the job site during television production, she changed her mind.

Two men and a woman look at a hole in a wall.“I did not want to do construction at all,” Sherry admits. “But I think, looking back, I was intimidated. I would do it for fun. On weekends, we would do odd jobs and do work with him. For me, it was just a fun, bonding time with my dad.” It wasn’t until 2009 on Holmes in New Orleans—the two-part Gemini-winner where Holmes and Brad Pitt team to rebuild homes in the city’s Ninth Ward—that Sherry decided to join her father full-time.

But back to Holmes 911. In the first of 12 episodes that focus on five houses, we’re introduced to two families. A weathered roof and odd electrical is just the beginning for a firefighter and his family, which includes his 13-year-old son, Jake, who has had brain surgery. The second home, owned by Bob and Barb, is the watery tale of an insurance claim gone hilariously wrong. In both, Mike, his son (Sherry stayed off-site for the first few episodes because of her pregnancy) and his crew uncover work that is head-scratchingly bad, all-out infuriating and, as always, informative.

“The whole reason my dad wanted to do television was to educate homeowners,” Sherry says. “You can’t stop what other people are going to do and if you run across a shoddy contractor, you want to know what to look for.”

Holmes 911 airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CTV Life Channel.

Images courtesy of Bell Media.

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Preview: Five seasons later Still Standing is still going strong

Back when Still Standing debuted, I remarked that Jonny Harris was becoming the next Wayne Rostad. Now, five seasons in, he really has. Like Rostad—who spoke to Canadians from regions of the country from 1987 to 2007—Harris has the wit and charm to win over strangers and get them talking, and a genuine warmth. You can’t help but like him.

Returning Tuesday at 8 p.m. on CBC, Season 5 follows Harris to a little part of the country I’d never heard of: Campobello Island. The New Brunswick community’s only year-round and direct access to the mainland is a bridge to the U.S. This, of course, makes for a unique Canadian/American cultural blend and many challenges.    Including, as Harris points out in the first minute, worrying about having your passport. If the ferries are running, you catch one from mainland New Brunswick to Deer Island and another to Campobello Island. If they aren’t you have to go through Maine.

It’s a unique trait not shared with the rest of the country. And, like the places showcased in Still Standing, makes Campobello Island’s 850 citizens unique. And, like those other communites, this one has fallen on hard times. A decline in fishing has seen the population drop; children are reluctant to stay if the area isn’t prosperous.

But while times are tough on Campobello Island, there’s lots to laugh about. And that, of course, is what Harris helps them do, whether it’s over outlandish border import rules or a wayward brining shed that made international new. Over the course of their visit in each episode, Harris and his writers craft fresh material based on the community and the people in it before entertaining them with a stand-up performance. The result? A funny, folksy look at smalltown Canada.

Future episodes include stops in Schreiber, Ont., and Harrison Hot Springs, B.C.

Still Standing airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on CBC.

Image courtesy of CBC.

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Preview: APTN’s First Contact returns to educate and inform

A year ago, First Contact debuted on APTN. The three-night broadcast event explored Indigenous culture through the eyes of six Canadians. Narrated by George Stroumboulopoulos, First Contact followed those six on a 28-day adventure to Winnipeg, Nunavut, Alberta, Northern Ontario and the coast of B.C. to visit Indigenous communities to challenge their preconceived notions and prejudices.

Now, First Contact returns for a second season. Hosted by George Stroumboulopoulos and broadcast over three nights—Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 8 p.m. ET on APTN—it once again seeks to inform and educate Canadians about First Nations people, culture and beliefs, and rid them of some preconceptions along the way. In my preview of Season 1, I wrote about growing up in Brantford, Ont. Located close to the Six Nations of the Grand River, I heard the awful, racist jokes uttered by more than one person in that city. In Season 2, a fellow Brantfordian takes part.

Sixty-two-year-old Larry Harris works in shipping and receiving and enters First Contact believing anything bad that befalls Indigenous Peoples are their own fault. So, does he change his tune over the 28-day experience? Certainly not within the first few minutes. Larry voices the opinion we are still shouldering the guilt for those who took the land away from the First Nations. Participants Brennan Kovic and Laurianne Bencharski say similar things, the latter that anytime a white person speaks about Indigenous Peoples they’re labelled a racist.

A group of people participate in a First Nations dance.Twenty-six-year-old Samantha Whitehead, meanwhile, has a different view. She has never met a member of the First Nations and is genuinely interested in being educated. As for Jackson Way, the 19-year-old from Midland, Ont.—who hopes to teach history one day—believes taking benefits away from Indigenous Peoples will force the community “to work to get certain things.” He wonders if the current system is trying to make up for what happened in the past.

The six head to Kanesatake, QC, and learn the other side of the story of the 1990 Oka Siege—a very different tale from what Larry tells Brennan and Samantha on the bus there—and then in Natuashish, Labrador, time spent with the local Innu Peoples sheds new light on its residents and history.

In Episode 2, the six participants travel to Thunder Bay, where a number of incidents have exposed racist attitudes towards Indigenous Peoples prior to a meeting with residential school survivors in southern Ontario.

In the emotionally charged final episode, the six travel to Saskatchewan. Once there, they meet with people from communities deeply affected by the death and trial of Colten Boushie. At the conclusion of Episode 3, the Indigenous hosts and producers will sit down in an interactive panel, live on Facebook

First Contact airs Tuesday-Thursday at 8 p.m. ET on APTN.

Images courtesy of APTN.

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