Comedian Sarah Albritton was 15 when she learned she had narcolepsy. One day in geometry class, she was headed to the front of the room to grab her Texas Instruments calculator when a classmate said something that surprised her (she can't remember the exact words now) and she collapsed into a cataplexy—a narcoleptic state during which patients lose control of their muscles for a few minutes.
Her new webseries Super Narcoleptic Girl, cocreated by and costarring fellow stand-up Catherine “Povs” Povinelli, makes light of her disease by transforming it into a defining characteristic of a superhero. She plays the title character Keelyn Klein, who fends off sleep in order to fight injustice by making people dance. Povs is Lee Snow, her sidekick and the person who encourages Super Narcoleptic Girl to engage in normal young-adult activities, like going on dates despite her tendency to nod off mid-conversation.
I spoke to Albritton and Povinelli about where comedy and narcolepsy collide, misconceptions about the disease, and a “very special episode” of Full House.
What drew you to the web series format?
Sarah Albritton: A webseries is a good way to show the world of a [series]. Nobody ever watches pilots online. But people watch webseries like High Maintenance, Broad City and Teachers. Also, if you open up a video and it's 30 minutes long, you probably won't get through the whole thing, but if you end up watching a three-minute video and you like it, you end up watching the next one, and then the next one.
Sarah, what kind of pressure do you feel to share with others the fact that you have narcolepsy?
SA: I'm very open about it now. It's very much a part of who I am. There are a lot of misunderstandings about [narcolepsy], and I think the more people spend time with me, the more they understand it. There's way more to narcolepsy than just sleeping. There's forgetfulness, there's a bunch of different things. [Povs] can tell when I'm getting tired or when my medicine's kicked in. People don’t think about invisible disabilities as much. It's not represented in media very often. The only example I can think of is Maria Bamford's show Lady Dynamite, and she’s bipolar.
What have you noticed is the biggest misconception about narcolepsy?
SA: People are like, "Why aren't you falling asleep all the time?" Some people don't believe me. They think I'm making it up for comedy. People believe there are simple cures to invisible diseases. Like, "Just have more coffee, just set more alarms."
This question is for Povs: What was your perception of narcolepsy before meeting Sarah?
Catherine Povinelli: The only real awareness I had of narcolepsy was from Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo—that ridiculous movie with Rob Schneider where he dates this woman who has narcolepsy where, for obvious comical relief, she falls asleep in her soup, or passes out when she's bowling. I’m able to tell when Sarah’s about to have a cataplexy because she almost did once onstage, and I was ready to run up and catch her.
SA: It happens at heightened emotions or [if] I'm really surprised.
CP: I'm gonna throw a surprise party for you someday. I use my friend’s disorder to my own personal pleasure.
How do you see comedy as it relates to dealing with a serious issue—in this case narcolepsy?
SA: I've always been a believer that comedy is a great way to create social change. TV shows like Modern Family helped contribute to acceptance and understanding [of gay marriage]. Narcolepsy isn't the butt of every joke in our series; most of the jokes don't have anything to do with narcolepsy. On a lot of shows, narcoleptic characters have been used as a prop to add comedy to something. On Modern Family there's an episode where Phil had narcolepsy, then it doesn't get brought up again. Even though [Super Narcoleptic Girl] is a comedy, we made sure that everything in the series is as realistic as we could.
So it’s not a "very special episode."
CP: [Laughs] My favorite one to this day is the Full House episode where the grandpa died and we learned about death.