The phrase “feminist sitcom” might seem like a bit of an oxymoron to some. After all, sitcoms are all about trite plotlines that play stereotypes for laughs and wrap up neatly in roughly 22 minutes including commercials, while it seems that the popular opinion on feminism is that it’s a conspiracy started by Lindy West to take away rights from cisgender white men.
Of course, it’s possible there’s more to it than that, and a new project from a trio of Ottawa comedians is looking to challenge those misconceptions. Created by Jenn Hayward, a two-spirit indigenous comedian and the force behind the one-woman show Jesus Loves a Crazy Horny Feminist, Crazy Chicks tells the story of the New Bedlam Women’s Mental Health Centre and its staff.
Hayward — along with cast members Jessica Huether and Jesse Reynolds and director Kevin Preece — is developing the show as part of CBC’s ComedyCoup accelerator program (which Hayward calls the best PR spin she’s ever heard for a competition), which gives comedy creators the opportunity to develop and produce original show concepts. Teams of three complete weekly missions over a 10-week competition, and the public votes online for their favourite projects, one of which will ultimately be given $500,000 to create a half-hour pilot.
Hayward says the idea for the show came about when she heard about the CBC accelerator program and decided she wanted to create a sitcom that was funny but also had feminist values at heart. She says comedy gives her the opportunity to portray feminism in a positive light while also gently poking fun at it.
“I’m known as a feminist comic, for better or for worse,” she says. “Some people don’t like that and some people love it.” Indeed, feminism remains a touchy subject in the world of comedy — something Hayward says she’s struggled with over the years. “At the comedy club, no one is told not to say the word dick, right? But I’m continually told, ‘Oh, the word vagina — people don’t like it.”
The staff of the New Bedlam Women’s Mental Health Centre are played by Hayward, Huether and Reynolds. Hayward plays Jenn, the somewhat jaded older feminist who runs the centre, while Huether is Jessica, a free-spirited young hippie, and Reynolds is Jesse, the privileged gay son of the president of the board. On the surface, the characters all embody different stereotypes, but the show will provide opportunities to dig deeper into each of their personalities and examine their relationships with each other.
Reynolds says the cast was originally supposed to be three women, but one actress had to drop out for personal reasons. Hayward contacted him about participating and rewrote the role for him specifically as a gay man. This has allowed for some interesting plot elements around the idea of privilege: as the son of the wealthy board president, Jesse has lived a comfortable playboy lifestyle, but on his father’s orders has joined the staff of the mental health centre. With no concept of women’s issues, he appears every inch the privileged young man, but he’s also gay, putting him in an interesting position when it comes to how he experiences discrimination.
“[Jesse is] a very different queer character than we typically see in the media,” Reynolds says. “He represents like a bitchy, intimidating power-gay, and I love that because I find that a lot of the time LGBT characters in media are portrayed as a victim . . . This guy’s a strong character that could really care less what anybody thinks of him.”
Jesse’s privileged background and take-no-prisoners attitude are the source of some tension between his character and Jenn, who Huether says has trouble accepting a man as a member of the women’s centre staff. The two characters learn from each other, and Jesse also learns about himself and the lives of the women with whom he works. “It’s going to be interesting to see how he adapts,” Reynolds says. “I think there’s a lot of learning to happen between all these three characters.”
Huether’s character, Jessica, provides the final piece of the puzzle. With her free-spirited mannerisms, she embodies the stereotypical flower-child, but Huether, who is also a co-writer, says that as the show progresses the audience will learn that there’s much more to her. “She definitely gives the impression of being maybe a little bit away with the fairies at times . . . but at her core there’s so much more to her than that. She’s very wise, she sees a lot more than people give her credit for, and she’s usually right about a lot of things that are going on.”
Huether says the fact that the show is approaching serious topics through the lens of comedy makes for a difficult balance but also opens those topics up for discussion in a more accessible way. “The great thing about Crazy Chicks is it’s not just about feminism. It’s also about politics, it’s about unemployment, it’s about mental health.” She says the show is also very topical, given the recent public discussion of mental health surrounding the death of comedian Robin Williams.
The trio plans to develop the show even if they don’t make it all the way through the competition. “Everyone can go out and do what’s been done, but this accelerator program specifically said they want to see different things,” Hayward says, adding that first and foremost, she wants to create an entertaining show that doesn’t force its message. “I want it to be not an after-school special, but a really smart, engaging sitcom.”