'Asperger's Are Us' Adds Laughter To A Serious Condition

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The four members of Asperger's Are Us, from left to right: Ethan Finlan, Noah Britton, "New" Michael Ingemi, and Jack Hanke. (Courtesy Noah Britton)
The four members of Asperger's Are Us, from left to right: Ethan Finlan, Noah Britton, "New" Michael Ingemi, and Jack Hanke. (Courtesy Noah Britton)

It doesn't feel quite right to laugh about anything having to do with Asperger's syndrome. But that's exactly what a local comedy troupe called Asperger's Are Us wants you to do.

The troupe is made up of four young men from the North Shore area, all with Asperger's, the autism spectrum disorder that can make it difficult to interact socially. They've performed twice publicly so far, both times at Salem restaurants. When their last show sold out, they decided they should try out their act on a larger audience. So they've rented out the 900-seat Somerville Theatre in Davis Square for their third-ever — and biggest-ever — performance, Thursday night at 8 p.m.

WBUR's All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with two of the Asperger's Are Us foursome, Noah Britton and Michael Ingemi, who goes by "New" Michael — the other two are Ethan Finlan and Jack Hanke — and asked them how they all met.

Noah Britton: I was their camp counselor at a camp for kids with Asperger's — an acting camp. They were 12, and this was five or six years ago. And the first thing I noticed when I came was that this place is awesome because it was the first place I'd ever been which was all Aspies and had the rules of Asperberger's in it.

"Aspies" is what people with Asperger's call themselves?

Noah Britton: Correct. So I went there, met these guys and was like, "OK, this place is great, it's everything I ever wanted." And, also, these kids are hilarious. Five years later they graduated from the program and I say, "Let's start a comedy troupe because we're actually too funny not to share it with the rest of the world."

Do you guys think that you're funny in a certain way because you have Asperger's, or do you think that you're just funny guys who happen to have Aspberger's?

Noah Britton: I think it's both. It's like you take your interest in humor and use the hyper-focus of autism and then apply it to being very, very specifically funny in a specific way. And I think we've done that.

I think that what the general public tends to think about Asperger's is that someone with Asperger's has difficulty communicating with people. It's sort of a social interaction issue. But by doing a comedy troupe, you're doing something that requires intense social interaction and public performance.

Michael Ingemi: We're not trying to have a conversation with them.

Noah Britton: Exactly. When we're on stage, it's very similar to being in our rooms alone, because the audience doesn't exist; they're just positive reinforcement that comes from this inanimate object. Whereas if we were doing observational comedy and doing the warm human interaction stuff, which none of us find funny, that would be really challenging. But the way this is, it's perfect, because we can concentrate on making ourselves laugh on stage and then you get to watch.

Are the things you're funny about all Asperger's-related topics?

Michael Ingemi: No.

Noah Britton: No. We do a few sketches about Asperger's, but it's about everything, and I think it can be appreciated by literally anyone. Autistic people, I think, will enjoy some aspects of it quite a bit because there are some jokes that are very autistic in the way they're written.

Such as?

Noah Britton: There's one sketch which is just New Michael taking his glasses on and off and going, "Now I can see. Now I can't see," over and over.

Michael Ingemi: Which was inspired by "Old Michael."

Your father?

Michael Ingemi: Yeah.

Noah Britton: Who actually does that. But we do a lot of mathematical puns — not relating to math, but the way our brains work is very mathematical.

Of course, you are allowed, in a sense, to make light of or poke fun at your Asperger's because you have Asperger's. It gives you that license. But do you think there's always going to be cringe aspect to people realizing that you've decided to sort of take material out of your Asperger's?

Michael Ingemi: We're not really poking fun at it.

Noah Britton: We never expected anyone to cringe at it because, to us, it's just like Richard Pryor can make jokes about being black and no one cringes. But to us, this is our lives.

Here's a piece of tape from one of your past performances. It's a part where you're making fun of people who go to see a comedy show put on by someone with a disability.

Comedian No. 1: Oh, I'm really glad to be here at this comedy show tonight.

Comedian No. 2: Yeah, it's great to support people with disabilities by just throwing your money at them.

Comedian No. 1: Yeah, I mean, I never have to befriend them in real life but it feels great to support them, though.

Comedian No. 2: Yeah, you know, I heard it's pretty funny, too. At least it will alleviate our prejudice and help with our guilt complex.

So I'm starting to wonder if that gets at something very serious, which is: do you guys feel labeled? You're the subject of causes and walk-a-thons and nonprofit groups.

Noah Britton: I'm really glad you brought that up. I mean, we wrote that sketch as a satire because — you know, feel free to come if you're just coming out of guilt; we'll take your money. But we would like it if you came because you thought it was funny and respected us as individual human beings.

What will define success for this performance?

Michael Ingemi: If we smile together and the audience just happens to smile with us.

Noah Britton: Exactly. We go home and we crack up the whole way home. That's success for us.


This program aired on June 23, 2011.

Sacha Pfeiffer Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.



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