Many performers’ biggest fear is becoming typecast. A successful actress may question signing on as the lead in a romantic comedy, worried she will miss out on more challenging roles. A band may think twice about cutting another ballad, fearing they’ll get trapped singing love songs.
So when a new comedy act places the developmental disorder that they all share right onto the name of their group, it’s clear they are openly embracing the very thing that others might seek to de-emphasize.
Noah Britton, Jack Hanke, New Michael Ingemi and Ethan Finlan make up the comedy team Asperger’s Are Us. The foursome are traveling the country as part of the first comedy troupe to consist of openly autistic people. “We’re driving around in a van and (ticking) each other off, just like all touring acts do,” says Britton. “We’re cracking each other up, too.”
While the four – performing Wednesday at DSI Comedy Theater in Chapel Hill – are nearing their sixth anniversary as a comedy troupe, they are still wrestling with the expectations they find from fans. While more people are becoming familiar with Asperger's syndrome, there are still common misconceptions about what stand-up comedy from a person who identifies as being on the autism spectrum may look and sound like.
“I knew immediately from the beginning that there would be a lot of people showing up at shows out of a sense of guilt and support,” says Britton, “rather than thinking that there was a chance that we were actually funny. We’ve put on a lot of great shows, and have fans that know us from our YouTube clips that think we’re really funny, as well as a lot of people with Asperger’s who share our sense of humor. Then there are the people who just love sketch comedy and improv. We love everyone that comes out, and hope that everyone leaves appreciating us for just being funny.”
The crew makes it clear that while they may identify as having Asperger’s syndrome, they do not use their platform to poke fun at the disorder. The members of the troupe believe that Hollywood has done enough damage by ill-conceived comedic performances that telegraph an unspoken diagnosis of autism onto characters, and that the most revolutionary thing they themselves can do onstage is to just perform “regular” comedy.
“Historically, we have had people show up expecting ‘The Big Bang Theory,’” Britton says. “which is a show that I would say exists mostly on the premise of ‘Let’s laugh at the awkward social skills of these people.’ The show has never didactically explained that the characters have Asperger’s, but the actors have said that their characterizations are based on Asperger’s, and that is the most popular show on TV. There are people who come and say, ‘Oh, this is going to be so funny. These guys make fun of how they have very serious, difficult problems in life.’ That’s not what we do at all. The only time we reference autism at all during the show is when we really just do a satire of our audience. The rest is just us using our autistic brains – the literal sense of humor, the wordplay, the absurdism that a lot of people with Asperger’s have – and using that to write very silly stuff.”
After time spent on the road, the group has already found by traveling together that they share more than just a diagnosis.
“We usually see things eye to eye, just because we are all so similar, and we value that in each other,” Britton says.
“Three years ago, we did a show that sold out in Times Square. Afterward I said, ‘OK guys, we have a ton of cash in our pockets. We’re successful, we’re young and we’re in New York City. What do you want to do?’ The typical response from guys our ages would have been to go to a bar, but all four of us wanted to go to Toys R Us. We didn’t spend any of that money we had just made, had a great night, and went back to our hotel rooms for bed.”
What: Asperger’s Are Us
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: DSI Comedy, 462 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill
Info: 919-338-8150 or dsicomedytheater.com