Noah Britton isn’t afraid of putting himself out there. After all, he’s the guy who started a punk music and performance art group, the Best Thing Ever, that performed nationwide—and unannounced—in bathrooms from the Waffle House to the Prudential Center. Now he’s founded another venture, the comedy troupe Asperger’s Are Us. All of the members have been diagnosed with the autism spectrum disorder.
Britton (CAS’05) met the other members of the troupe—Ethan Finlan, New-Michael Ingemi, and Jack Hanke—seven years ago when he was working as a counselor and they were campers at an acting camp for Aspies, as those with the syndrome refer to themselves. The boys had Britton laughing so hard he cried most days that summer. That got him thinking: why not reunite the group and take their show on the road.
So two years ago, Britton called his former campers, who are now 19 and 20 years old and either perform in a band or attend college on the North Shore. They started writing and producing sketches out of their homes and soon began branching out, performing in Salem restaurants, the Somerville Theatre, the Scottish Rite Theater, in Austin, Tex., and at several local schools—including Gordon College, UMass Lowell, and MIT. The troupe returns to Gordon College tomorrow for two shows, at 7 and 9 p.m.
The group’s comedy broaches the subject of Asperger’s syndrome (defined by the Mayo Clinic as a developmental disorder that affects a person’s ability to socialize and communicate effectively with others), but the comedians are more interested in making people laugh than in using their act to educate audiences. They often riff on the ridiculous—like in the sketch “I’m Pregnant,” in which one of the guys is “impregnated” by bubble wrap—or spin satire—as in “Blind Man Stand-up Act,” where they play audience members who support a blind comedian out of pity.
With Asperger’s, “there is a very particular sense of humor that’s based on things that are unexpected in life that don’t require explanation,” says Britton, recently interviewed sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with other troupe members on a couch in Salem’s Hawthorne Hotel. “Neurotypical comedy does require explanation, and that’s why we don’t like it.” Instead, the group is drawn to puns and humor that emphasize the absurdity in life.
Aspies tend to have intense focus, are internally driven, and hypersensitive—but not about touch, the comedians note. “It’s sensitivity that manifests itself in all kinds of different ways, especially socially,” says Ingemi, or during conflict.
One such moment of conflict arose during a rehearsal at Britton’s apartment. They were practicing a new sketch involving a bank robbery, and at one point Hanke shouted, “Help, I’m being stabbed.” Someone heard him and called 9-1-1. The Salem police arrived at Britton’s door within minutes. The experience left the guys shaken, even though the officers quickly recognized them from a recent article in the Salem News, and they decided to wrap for the day.
“Neurotypicals are like, ‘Oh, that was tense. Let’s take a minute, recover, and get back on track,’” Britton said. “But conflict in itself is punishing. Aspies recover more slowly from stress.”
Despite their social awkwardness (a hallmark of Asperger’s), the comedians say that performing in front of a crowd doesn’t bother them. “From the stage, the audience is sort of a large mass, a faceless blob,” Ingemi observes. And, Hanke adds, “It’s easier relating to a group of people rather than a single person.” The stage’s fourth wall does break down at the end of each show when the comedians answer questions about Asperger’s from the audience. That part of the show has grown so popular that the troupe recently announced on their Facebook page that they will lecture for, or consult with, schools, programs, or parent organizations “to know what to do with the Aspies you love.”
“We don’t want to be thought of as a group of people who are overcoming adversity,” Britton says. “The Original Kings of Comedy talked about being black all the time, ’cause that’s their lives and that’s where they get their material.” (The stand-up comedy film by Spike Lee he refers to is about the work of African American entertainers Steve Harvey, D. L Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Bernie Mac.) “We’re the same way.”
“Wait—we’re not black?” Finlan jokes.
“We are, that’s what I’m saying,” Britton deadpans without missing a beat. “All our jokes are about how we’re black.” Becoming more serious, he says, “I really want the world to start seeing Asperger’s the way that they see homosexuality.”
“That it’s a sin and I want to be cured?” Ingemi quips.
Ignoring that, Britton says that 40 years ago, homosexuality was in the list of disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. “Asperger’s is listed as one right now and in 30 years it shouldn’t be. It’s mostly genetic. There’s some environmental component. It makes your life different. It makes some things impossible, and you need to adjust based on this. And that’s the extent of it. It definitely doesn’t need to be cured.”
Britton was 19 when he discovered he had Asperger’s. At the time, he was reading an article about the syndrome for a School of Education course he was taking on children with exceptionalities. “This explains every single thing that’s ever happened to me,” he recalls thinking. Britton’s diagnosis propelled him to study psychology and later to earn a master’s degree at Hunter College. He is now a psychology professor at a college in Boston and is a member of the federal Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, which collaborates with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in an advisory role in regard to autism spectrum disorders.
“All of us grew up with horrible misconceptions about who we are,” Britton says. “I got into this field because I don’t want anyone else to have to go through that.” Asperger’s Are Us, he says, is part of that effort. The gifted comedians welcome everyone to their shows—those with personal ties to Asperger’s and those who simply want to have a good laugh.
“I think of it like P.T. Barnum,” says Britton, “where it’s a good circus and there’s something for everybody.”
Asperger’s Are Us will perform tomorrow, Saturday, December 1, at 7 and 9 p.m. at Gordon College, Jenks Hall, Room 237, 255 Grapevine Rd., Wenham, Mass. Tickets are $Pi for one (that’s $3.14, for the mathematically challenged), $10 for two. The show is for all ages.