When Jordan Morris started having meetings about a comedy television pilot he’d written, the network reactions were all the same.
“They all went some version of ‘We’re huge fans. So funny. So cool. It’s too weird, we’ll never make it.’”
TV’s loss is the podcast world’s gain. The show now lives in the form of Bubble, a scripted podcast on Maximum Fun. Bubble is basically a workplace comedy, following Morgan (Alison Becker) as she and her best friend Annie (Eliza Skinner), co-worker Mitch (Mike Mitchell), and ex-boyfriend Van (Keith Powell) navigate the gig economy and their questionable boss Bonnie (Cristela Alonzo) thanks to a new job at a popular service app.
Oh, and also the gig is killing monsters and they live inside of a giant bubble to protect them from the outside world that has been overrun by dangerous creatures.
“It’s that old classic tale,” Morris said.
While a podcast is significantly less expensive than a television series, costs needed to remain low, as Maximum Fun is primarily funded by listener support (in the interest of disclosure, this writer co-hosts Trends Like These, a show on the network). Jesse Thorn, proprietor of Maximum Fun, addressed some of the lucky issues that come with a low budget: You get to work with your friends.
“One thing that was clear is that we did not have enough money to ask people to audition,” Thorn said. “It was two things: Are you a brilliant funny person we know, and are you available the next two Sundays.”
The main roles were written with their actors in mind. Morris has worked in comedy with Becker and Skinner for years, and met Alonzo and Powell as guests on his other podcast, Jordan Jesse Go.
“Every time I write something, there’s some character that sounds like Alison to me, and this one in particular,” Morris said. “When it came time to make the show, it was like ‘Who are the funny people we know who will do a good job and who will show up on time?’”
The podcast is creative and ambitious and hilarious, but what it means to the cast goes beyond its entertainment value. “I’m a really big sci-fi fan, but I never get the chance to be in sci-fi, just as a woman of color,” Alonzo said. “I feel like this was my chance actually getting to play in the world I don’t normally get invited to.”
Doing a show purely through audio allows for a kind of diversity not generally the norm in television or film, both in terms of the voice actors and writers, but also in the characters themselves. The characters of Morgan and Annie and their relationship is particularly rare.
“It’s not just male characters made to be female because ‘Oh! It’s cool to have female characters now!’” Becker said. “Jordan did a great job creating these strong female characters that also have flaws and are real and are funny, and a lot of that is because of his amazing writing, but also because he’s very open to collaboration, and that’s invaluable.”
Skinner continued, “Part of that, to speak for Jordan and mansplain for him, is the group of people he brought in to write. He brought in a diverse group of writers [editor’s note: one such contributing writer is FANGRRL contributor Riley Silverman]. One of my best friends, Janine Brito, who’s a writer for One Day at a Time, wrote one of the episodes.”
What that means is a vaster array of representation than we’re used to on screen, a true act of blind casting, something of great importance to Alonzo.
“In the past year, I turned down a couple projects because I didn’t like the way they were depicting the Latino community, and I thought this is actually the project that I wanted to do. It was something that showed everybody what we’re capable of. Everybody’s allowed to act and go by their voice, and for me that’s a truer sign of talent. It makes it more of an equalizer. And how could I say no to something I’ve wanted to do since I was a little kid?”
The limited diversity in entertainment isn’t specific to race or gender. Within those demographics, women are often only allowed to be a certain kind of character. “So often, especially with early sci-fi stuff, the female characters were dude-approved, so they were either sirens or commanders,” Skinner said. “I am a huge sci-fi fan, and I very often will finish a movie or a series and be so excited, but then also have a slight feeling of ‘But how come it never looks like me? How come it never feels like someone like me?’ And this character is funny and a slacker and a degenerate and a weirdo and there’s no reason you can’t have all of those things in a sci-fi.”
Another issue facing women in geek spaces is gatekeeping, something that’s been getting more attention as fandoms become bolder in their toxicity. Alonzo and Skinner, as proud geeks themselves, are no exception.
“Eliza and I were talking today about how we’re both really big nerds, into horror movies, sci-fi, comic books, and the constant struggle is having to validate that we’re fans,” Alonzo said. “There was this emergence where it became so mainstream that now we get interrogated about what we like and have to prove it to such a ridiculous level. For me, what I like about Bubble is that it’s a very pro-female-character show where the women can be strong and the guys don’t have to be dumb.”
Beyond being strong, the women are allowed to be something even more revolutionary: human and flawed.
“Something that I think is really cool about the female characters is that in a show like this as an action show, female characters are kind of unassailable perfect ass kickers,” Thorn said. “Which is, I guess, kind of a progression on that superhuman monster violent dude character, but in this show Alison’s character is the best ass kicker of the group and she’s kind of a funny square. She’s not a steely-eyed destroyer of worlds. And that’s a really lovely thing.”