There’s a new superhero in town and she does not want the power of invisibility. Her name is Keelyn Klein and she is the first superhero with narcolepsy. Her story unfolds in the web series Super, created by Chicago comedians Sarah Albritton and Catherine Povinelli, who goes by “Povs.” You can get a free sneak preview at iO this Saturday night at 7:00 p.m. when Sarah and Povs hold a staged reading of the pilot.
Keelyn fights the epic challenges expected of all superheroes. But she also battles her own body, stereotypes and misunderstandings, including one especially terrible error perpetrated by that universal nemesis, the D.M.V. Let’s see Superman move those mountains.
Her sidekick is her non-super but stellar friend, Lee. The chemistry between Keelyn and Lee is fueled by Sarah and Pov’s actual friendship. But the profound authenticity of Super goes even deeper than that. Sarah has had narcolepsy since she was a teen and her real-life experiences are woven into Keelyn’s story.
Sarah and Povs met doing stand-up in Chicago and became good friends when they went to the 2015 Funny or Die Oddball Comedy Festival and hung out later at a party. A chance but fateful conversation led to the creation of Super, its comedic heroine and the goal of making an invisible illness visible.
The writing duo chose the Celtic name Keelyn because it means “lively.” Says Povs, “We were looking for the antithesis of what our character goes through.”
Keelyn’s motto is “Save the world. Stay awake.” Her super power isn’t what you’re expecting. Her power is making people dance, a rare and welcome ability in today’s morass of a planet. The story is also about the deceptive quality of the word “disabled.” If anything, this superhero is extra-abled with her hard-won talent of forging ahead and contributing to the world despite a medical condition that would hold her back given a chance.
The plot also revolves around the friends’ day-to-day shenanigans, with the added excitement that they “just happen to be in a world of superheroes.” Sarah and Povs describe it as “Broad City meets The Incredibles.”
Sarah and Povs have gathered a truly super cast which you’ll see on Saturday night, including Sarah as Keelyn and Povs as Lee, alongside Gregory Hollimon (Strangers with Candy, Shrink), Kristen Lundberg (Laugh Factory), Amanda Lynn Deal, Charles Belt, Elliot Lerner, Tom Donovan and James Zekis. The evening will include an opportunity for audience feedback.
They are currently in talks with production companies and will film eight two-to-five minute episodes of the web series in Chicago this fall.
Sarah and Povs kindly took time out to speak with me by phone about Super (and what happened to Keelyn at the D.M.V.), real life with narcolepsy, Keelyn’s super power and rejecting invisibility.
Teme: Please tell me about Super.
Sarah: It’s about a low-level superhero who lives in a world where superheroes and normal people co-exist as if it’s a normal thing. The superhero has the power to make people dance, but she also struggles because she has narcolepsy herself. What we’re trying to say is, hey, even people that are seen as super, even superheroes, still deal with struggles and because I personally have narcolepsy, I feel there are not a lot of things for those of us who live with invisible disabilities.
Teme: There really aren’t.
Sarah: I tend to talk about narcolepsy a lot in my stand-up and the whole idea came because …
Povs: We were having drinks one day and Sarah was discussing how she falls asleep. I said, “Wow, you would make the worst superhero.” We thought that was actually a really interesting idea. We wanted to flesh it out which now we have done. We’re making strides towards production, especially with the iO reading this weekend, which is really exciting.
Teme: What parts of the pilot are based on your own experience?
Sarah: A lot of films that depict narcolepsy aren’t very factual. They have people falling asleep in their soup. And I do fall asleep. It is a thing that happens.
But I wanted to make sure that whatever was done, it was the way it would really be done. For example, I’ve done that thing where you’re standing up and fall to the ground. It’s called a cataplexy. It happens at a heightened state of emotion. So when I’m really excited or really angry or really surprised, that’s when I would have a cataplexy.
Povs: One thing we start off with in the pilot is that it’s very difficult to wake Sarah up in the morning. The story starts off with my character and her best friend, Lee, making numerous attempts to wake her up with a foghorn. I jump on her and then actually have to physically push her to wake her up, which is pretty close to reality.
Sarah: Everything comes from a real place. I wanted to be sure that anything that brings narcolepsy to light happens in a realistic way. If something really surprised me, then that would be a reason I might fall to the ground and fall asleep versus having it happen out of nowhere, like most movies have it.
Povs: Which works really well for storytelling. Keeping it as realistic as possible opens up a wide possibility of scenarios we can place her in. It’s really fun to explore and see where we can take it.
Teme: That’s great, this presenting of the real picture. It’s so frustrating when you’re dealing with a health condition and you see misleading depictions in the media. Then the audience is absorbing something that is completely inaccurate and the misunderstanding just snowballs.
Sarah: I completely agree because I feel a lot of times there’s a big misunderstanding that comes with narcolepsy. Some people are just like, “Oh, you just need to drink more coffee.” I’m like, no, it doesn’t work that way.
There are deeper things we want to explore in the future, too. Like for me, if I can’t get my prescription filled on time that is a huge problem. If Walgreens doesn’t have it or I have to go a day without medication, it is a big deal. That’s a scenario we would explore, how she would handle that.
But her super power is making people dance. We wanted to make sure that her power didn’t have to do with narcolepsy. Her power is something else and she’s trying not to be defined …
Povs: … by her disability. Exactly. The story itself is actually about the archetypal story of coming into one’s own, finding one’s own path, overcoming stereotypes and, ultimately, about growing up, but growing up with something that not everyone has to deal with.
Teme: How long have you had narcolepsy?
Sarah: Narcolepsy is a life-long thing. The onset for narcolepsy is typically early teen years. I started having symptoms at thirteen or fourteen and I got properly diagnosed at about fifteen. I was actually very lucky. Part of the reason I like to bring narcolepsy to the forefront is that only 25 percent of people that have narcolepsy know they have it. There is a large amount of misdiagnosis. It takes an average of ten to twelve years to get properly diagnosed.
Teme: Wow, that’s really hard.
Sarah: Yes. I was very, very fortunate, and that’s because I have cataplexy. I had fallen down at school in front of my class and my parents took me to a neurologist. That’s when I found out.
But only 40 percent of people with narcolepsy have the thing where they fall to the ground like that. It’s very complicated because there are some people that could just feel exhausted all the time and not realize that, yeah, you have narcolepsy. It might not be as severe as mine is, but you might still have it.
Povs: It’s unfortunate what people can get labeled as, too. People with narcolepsy who don’t necessarily suffer from cataplexy can be labeled as lazy or depressed.
Sarah: I was absolutely labeled as lazy in high school. I had teachers who thought that, but thankfully, my parents know that I’m a very ambitious person and work really hard.
Povs: Tell me about it!
Sarah: Probably part of it was because I spent a couple years undiagnosed where I slept a lot. I feel like I’ve already slept a lot of my life away, so now I want do as much I can while I’m awake.
Teme: That use of “lazy” makes me so angry because a challenging health condition means the opposite of lazy. You have to figure out all sorts of work-arounds and strategizing and making use of the time you feel better in ways that people who feel well can’t imagine. It’s very much the opposite of lazy.
Sarah: Yes. I used to have a teacher who, if someone fell asleep in class, she’d spray them with a bottle of water. I laugh about it now because I think that’s the best way to bring awareness and truth to it.
Povs: …. and bring humor to it.
Sarah: And humor. Yes, it happened to me, but I’m lucky I’m at a place where I can write and create something to be seen by a larger amount of people that could, hopefully, at least get people talking about narcolepsy. Hey, we wrote this fun pilot about a superhero who has narcolepsy and by the way, every time she falls asleep it’s a realistic scenario because it’s written by someone who really has narcolepsy.
Teme: How does your superhero respond to stereotypes?
Sarah: She’s trying to prove herself. She tries to prove that even with narcolepsy, she can still successfully save people and successfully make her quotas, as we say, because she …
Povs: …. needs to fill quotas. There is a hierarchy in our world. There are superheroes in our series on the level of Superman or The Hulk. Keelyn is of the lower-grade-level superhero. She has to work for what she has. Her goal is to become a great superhero, but it’s difficult because she has a disability.
Sarah: She also has superhero parents who are very successful. She’s trying to also live up to that.
Povs: Oh, yeah. Expectation.
Sarah: Expectation. In their shadow. She’s trying to prove herself and make her own way without having to take handouts or …
Povs: … without having people feel sorry for her. She wants to go beyond that.
Teme: One of the many things I love is that she’s a superhero, but she’s really relatable.
Sarah: That’s exactly what we want. We want to make it relatable because even if it’s in this crazy fictional world, we’re still real people.
Povs: This concept, this story of someone coming into their own, of battling stereotypes has been told. Why can it be told again? It can be told again because we’re bringing narcolepsy into the equation, we’re bringing awareness, something that people do suffer with.
Sarah: It’s also about any invisible disability because invisible disabilities are something that people don’t take into consideration. They just assume you’re normal if you’re not in a wheelchair and you’re not physically obvious. That’s something that isn’t shown in television or movies very much at all. At least not realistically.
Teme: That’s such a good point. Do you hear, “But you don’t look sick.”
Sarah: No, no one ever said that to me.
Povs: You look totally sick.
Sarah: But I do feel it in the workplace. I may say, “Hey, these are some situations that I might need help with,” or “I might need to take a nap” or something like that. Even though they don’t say anything, you can see that people look at you weird.
Povs: You had that horrible situation with your last job.
Sarah: I’m at a job I really like now, but the job before, I was temping at a law firm. I told the HR person, “Hey, I have narcolepsy. Here’s a guide.” I printed off a sheet on narcolepsy in the workplace for them. Then the next week, I had a meeting where I wasn’t doing very much and I got bored. If I’m bored or idle, I will fall asleep. So I fell asleep for about ten minutes in this meeting. Then the HR person called me in and said, “Oh, I know you told me you have narcolepsy, but I still have to write you up for falling asleep in a meeting.”
Teme: Like they heard nothing you told them!
Sarah: The ironic thing is it was an employment law firm. I left and found something much better. But it is a difficult thing explaining to them that the mornings are very difficult and that it’s very hard for me to get up in the morning. Thankfully, I’m in a position now where they’re willing for me to be flexible. I have a half hour window. I can come in within the window and take a shorter lunch. It’s easier for me to try to get somewhere between 9 and 9:30, than to just have to be there at nine.
This office is very, very accommodating and I very much appreciate that, but it’s hard to find places like that and it’s hard because I am in the open about narcolepsy. If people google me, they see I have narcolepsy. I don’t know how many jobs I might not have gotten because they already found out I had it. I have no idea about that stuff.
I try not to make my disability define me and I think that’s what really connects me to the character because Keelyn, she’s called Super Narcoleptic Girl. That is her name.
Povs: By accident.
Sarah: That was an accident, a misunderstanding at the Super D.M.V. In that section of the plot, she’s stuck with that name and she wants to prove that she’s more than her disability so she’s fighting against that. That’s a big part of it. I’ve said that a lot in my life, too, that I’m more than just someone who has narcolepsy. There’s a lot more I can do.
I started being very open about it in college. Then when I moved to Chicago I was a little bit quieter about it. Then when I started doing stand-up I was like, you know what? This is who I am. Three to six months into doing stand-up, I started to do stuff about narcolepsy. I was like, well, this makes me unique and it makes me stand out.
I stopped apologizing and being afraid because everybody knew. If I happen to actually fall asleep in the back of the bar at a show or mic, I don’t feel embarrassed anymore because I know people know.
Povs: They know to wake you up, too.
Sarah: They know to wake me up. I have friends who are very close to me that can see when a cataplexy is about to happen and they catch me.
I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to make light of it. I do have a pretty severe case. It took me several years to find a doctor that had seen a worse case than me, but I feel very fortunate to be able to look at the light side and be like, hey, I have medication now. I have insurance. I can stay awake as much as I need to some days.
Povs: You’re awake more than I am half the time.
Sarah: Well, I did sleep for eleven hours last night.
Povs: Okay, sorry about that! Something we touch on is that a disability isn’t necessarily a disability. It’s part of you. It’s part of who you are and you shouldn’t be ashamed of having this quirk or tick that is part of you.
Sarah: I have a podcast where I interview people and talk about sleep problems. As I’ve interviewed people I’ve realized a lot of people have sleep issues. A lot more than I expected. Many people have sleep paralysis, experience insomnia or have experienced it. I don’t know if it’s a thing with creative people or what, but it’s been very interesting.
I’ve met people after shows who’ve told me, “My daughter has narcolepsy.” Or, “I just got tested. I might have narcolepsy.” Or even talking to someone who thinks they have it and I refer them to a doctor. These little things show me this is good. I’m doing the right thing. I’m making fun of it in my own way based on my personal experiences, but it also helps others get diagnosed.
Povs: I think a proper support system is a really big part of [being open about disability]. Sarah and I play roommates and best friends in our web series and pilot. That’s where my character comes in. She doesn’t have super powers. All she wants is to be like Keelyn. It shows that even though Keelyn has these afflictions, there are still people who love her, support her and want to be like her.
Teme: I think that is such an important part of it. Right, because it reflects back something positive and that’s just so reinforcing.
Povs: Right, and her friend doesn’t view her as any different. There’s a slight difference because Keelyn’s character is considered a superhero and my character, Lee, doesn’t have powers. That would be the main distinction but other than that …
Sarah: And that’s Lee spelled L-E-E.
Povs: Short for friendlee.
Sarah: So what’s great is that with Lee, she has a support system, a person that is there helping her.
Povs: Her cheerleader.
Sarah: Also just helping her by knowing when she’s tired or needs to take a nap. Reminding her. Things, honestly, that Povs reminds me of in my life.
Povs: We’ll be having a work meeting and she’ll get cranky and I’ll be like, “There’s no need for the cranky right now.” And Sarah will say, “You’re right. I’m sorry. I need to take my medication.” And I’ll say, “Awesome, thank you.”
Sarah: So we just found a good way to work together because we are close friends and we hang out a lot. She’s able to notice these things or see when I’m about to have a falling down moment or something like that.
Povs: With Lee, we want to show that different people can live together and be harmonious. Lee builds up Keelyn and it’s important that Keelyn builds up Lee because Lee feels sad that she doesn’t have powers. Keelyn also goes out of her way to let Lee know, “I don’t view you any differently because you don’t have super powers.”
Super’s pilot reading is Saturday, September 17 at 7:00 p.m. at iO in the Chris Farley Cabaret, 1501 N. Kingsbury, Chicago.
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