Keelyn Klein is a new superhero who has the power to make people dance with the snap of her fingers. Keelyn also has narcolepsy, which is a first in the superhero world. Her motto is “Save the world. Stay awake.” Unlike most superheroes whose weaknesses are considered their Achilles heel, Keelyn’s medical condition isn’t something that haunts her or threatens to unravel her. Instead, she’s a superhero with an empowering anomaly that helps her save others while fighting crime and ridiculous stereotypes about narcolepsy.
And so begins Super, an upcoming comedic web series that will be introduced as Super Narcoleptic Girl with Keelyn as the central heroine reflective of the real world, where an estimated 3 million people have narcolepsy.
The series, which is currently in pre-production, was co-created by writers Sarah Albritton and Catherine “Povs” Povinelli who are both Chicago-based standup comedians. The writing duo expects to have a trailer of the series and a release date out by Sleep Awareness Week in March.
We interviewed Albritton, who’s had narcolepsy since high school and is set to play the role of Keelyn.
SR: The series is often described as Broad City meets The Incredibles, but what’s the show about for people who are just finding out about this?
Albritton: It’s about a low-level superhero in a world where superheroes and primaries, the non-superhero people, coexist together. There are also different levels of superheroes, you have high-level superheroes like Superman and then you have low-level superheroes, like Keelyn, Super Narcoleptic Girl whose power is to make people dance by snapping her fingers. Super Narcoleptic Girl is in this place where she is trying prove herself as a superhero, and she’s struggling because she does find that narcolepsy does get in the way a little bit. But she doesn’t want to be defined by her disability, which is a struggle because her name is Super Narcoleptic Girl. There are these different elements that come into play that I have personally struggled with in my life like falling asleep during a meeting or something like that. These little tiny things that might not seem like a big deal are actually very hard like getting up in the morning, which was very hard for me too. By the way, I know all of this sounds really serious but it’s funny and fun. Keelyn also works together with Lee, who is Pov’s character. Lee is a goofy person who wishes she has superpowers and doesn’t. You also have other people in the world like InsomnaBro, who is also a low-level superhero similar to Keelyn that finds that they’re trying to save the same people sometimes. We really try to play around with the dynamic of having to prove yourself and overcome a disability. You don’t have to be defined by it and a flaw could also be an advantage.
SR: What inspired you and Povs to come up with Super Narcoleptic Girl?
Albritton: My writing partner Povs and I are friends. Last summer, we were sitting and drinking one night and she said to me, ‘Hey you would make a really awful superhero because of your narcolepsy.’ And I’m like, you’re right. So we decided we should write that. So later that week, we scheduled to write something together and we did. We really started to develop these characters, which plays on a few different things. Like my character, even though she has narcolepsy and is a superhero, her power has nothing to do with narcolepsy or at least in this iteration of the series. Her best friend Lee, who doesn’t have these superpowers or narcolepsy, kind of takes care of her. It’s a friendship-like role where both characters help each other out. So the characters have similar personalities to ours that are heightened, so that’s how the idea came about. We have a great director onboard and everything else is coming into play.
SR: Whether it’s interviewing people about sleep, sex, and dreams for your podcast Sleeping with Sarah or co-writing the web series about a superhero with narcolepsy, it seems like your experience with living with narcolepsy has been central to your work as a comedian, producer, and writer. Tell me more about that.
Albritton: With comedy and with writing, you write what you know and you write with what experiences you have. I feel like having narcolepsy has made me feel very different from other people who talk about it, and it’s something that not a lot of people are familiar with and share about from what I know. I think only 25% of people who have narcolepsy are properly diagnosed, so three-fourths of people who have narcolepsy don’t even know that they have it. So that’s my way of sharing knowledge about it, and I don’t think there is enough attention that’s brought onto invisible disabilities as a whole. I feel like a lot of people think that you’re normal and you’re fine, and I mostly am with medication. But for the most part, it is a struggle but I do get into situations that I think are funny so I think it’s pretty easy to share my experiences. It’s a really big part of who I am and I don’t think it’s good to hide that as a performer. With doing the podcast, I find out that people have a lot of weird sleep stuff. Some people have insomnia or experience sleep paralysis and it’s been great to talk to people about sleep cycles and sleep habits.
SR: Do a lot of people with sleep disorders or even narcolepsy reach out to you about their experiences?
Albritton: Yeah, it’s one of my favorite things. A lot of times it’s when I’m doing a show or after a show someone from the audience will tell me, ‘Oh, my son just got diagnosed with narcolepsy’ or ‘I have narcolepsy’ or ‘My sister has narcolepsy’ and I’ve even gotten someone who was like, ‘Hey, I think I have narcolepsy.’ I’ve talked to them and given them information about sleep specialists and have tried to help them out. It means a lot when people say stuff like that because it makes me feel like it is making a difference by just bringing awareness out there. A lot of people don’t know about narcolepsy. People don’t know that just because you don’t have cataplexy doesn’t mean that you don’t have narcolepsy. I think narcolepsy is highly misdiagnosed and by sharing [my experiences] on stage and having people talk to me about it afterwards means a lot. People also reach out to me after listening to my podcast, a couple of other comedians I know too have reached out and I talk to people on Facebook, so it’s been really great.
SR: In previous interviews, you’ve talked about how narcolepsy is misrepresented in the media. For example, I’m thinking of this movie Deuce Bigalow, in which this woman goes on a date and has her hair tied to a chair to avoid falling asleep in her soup, something like that. What are your thoughts on some of these misrepresentations of narcolepsy?
Albritton: Personally, when it’s done in a comedy film I’m not offended by it unless people actually think that it’s something that I actually do. Like eating for example, I’ve never actually fallen asleep while eating because it’s usually a thing that keeps me awake. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened to somebody. [In regards to the way the media represents narcolepsy] I am pleasantly surprised when they do something that’s accurate or try to. For example, I think in the last season of the Simpsons where Homer gets diagnosed with narcolepsy and they mention cataplexy. They even mention GHB being a medication, and there are some things that they get wrong like Homer going to a normal pharmacy to try and get GHB and it doesn’t work like that at all. But the fact that they even mentioned cataplexy that they did some research is pleasantly surprising, especially when they try to use terms that are correct. But for Super Narcoleptic Girl, I want to make it realistic in a way that I have personally experienced narcolepsy and I understand that everyone is going to have their own feelings about it.
SR: How do you hope your web series impacts the way narcolepsy is portrayed in film and media? Is it your hope that your series is going to spark a different conversation about narcolepsy?
Albritton: Absolutely, I think that we do need to talk about narcolepsy differently. There aren’t many shows that cover invisible disabilities. In fact, Maria Bamford’s new show Lady Dynamite on Netflix is the only one I can think of at the moment because she has bipolar disorder. But other than that, I can’t think of any other TV show that talks about invisible disabilities like you can’t see it. I look like a normal person but I struggle every single day. People don’t seem to understand that or get that connection. When I was in high school, people used to assume that I was lazy and put this stereotype on me that I was this lazy person. I got very good grades in school and even though I was sleeping through a lot of my classes, the lowest grade I’ve ever gotten was like a C. I used to have this teacher who used to spray kids with this water bottle when they fell asleep. I had another history teacher who would just show movies all the time, and once I got diagnosed with narcolepsy I gave him a note and explained things, and basically anytime anyone would fall asleep they got an F for the day. There were people who treated me differently and even chose not to believe me and thought I was making it up and assumed I was lazy. I think that’s a reason why I try to do a lot. I have podcast, I’ve written a couple of pilots, I have this web series, and I do standup. I’m definitely not lazy and don’t feel lazy. That’s one thing we do touch upon in Super Narcoleptic Girl because her trigger word is lazy. She hates being called lazy and that’s something she does not want to be identified with. I want people to relate to these characters and have a character that relates to them. The show’s characters are imperfect and some have invisible disabilities and are still kicking ass and saving the day. I think it’s important for people to have positive role models and the thing is this series isn’t just about narcolepsy. It’s not like this is a character with narcolepsy that is a token character in a sitcom. No, no, no. This is the main character and she happens to have narcolepsy. That’s not all of who she is and I think that’s a big thing. In a lot of shows, when somebody has a disability then it’s this token thing like their disability is their storyline. That’s how it used to be for LGBTQ characters and then that made a shift and I would like that shift to happen with characters with disabilities.
SR: So you had your first staged reading in Chicago a couple months ago, how did that go?
Albritton: That was awesome it went really well. We had a great cast, we had Greg Hollimon from Strangers with Candy and he happened to be in town so read for one of the roles so that was really awesome. We also got some great performers like Kristen Lundberg, Elliot Lerner, Amanda Lynn Deal, Charles Belt, Tom Donovan, James Zekis, and a bunch of super talented people who read with us. We’re hoping to do other readings in New York and LA to move forward with more representation.