Most articles about sketch comedy group Asperger’s Are Us begin something like this recent profile in USA Today:
“For members of the Massachusetts comedy troupe Asperger’s Are Us,” autistic quirks and a tendency to take life literally bring on big laughs. Performing since 2010 in small venues around Boston, the best friends use their oddball humor to help others understand what it is like to be on the autism spectrum.”
And while they are well-intentioned, those kinds of articles obscure the group’s real mission: Asperger’s Are Us wants to be funny. Unfortunately, it’s been difficult to get coverage to focus on the jokes, especially after director Alex Lehmann’s new documentary now available on iTunes looked so closely at the group’s unusual, emotionally compelling backstory.
“To his credit, [Lehmann] realized if he was going to make this film, he’d need to make it for people from another planet, basically,” member Jack Hanke told Inverse over the weekend. But there were some arguments, Noah Britton said, about just how they were presenting their comedy; of particular concern were the super-quick snippets of the sketches they were showing. “It’s like, ‘it’s a guy in a wig, that must be what these guys think is funny.’ With one-second clips, it looks like we’re doing, like, Bozo the Clown comedy. We had a lot of arguments in the editing room about that.”
The guys acknowledge that the film has done wonders to raise the group’s profile, and they’re excited to be doing a TV series with the same team (including producer Mark Duplass) right now. And Asperger’s Are Us members are quick to advocate for representation of autistic people in popular media. But they’re also acutely aware of the limiting effect of having their Asperger’s being the central focus of any story about them. The more time spent focused on their autism, the less time available for their intelligent, absurdist comedy.
During their cross-country tour this past summer (which was chronicled by Lehmann for a future project), the group happily conducted Q&A sessions after an hour of sketch comedy. I was lucky enough to attend and do some standup on one of these shows, and the live format provided the best balance possible for them.
“We’re happy to do stuff about autism to help, happy to help with organizations and answer questions,” Britton said. “But when we’re doing comedy, it’s just about our comedy. When you’re at a comedy show, it’s more like, you’re here to laugh, and if you’re not here to laugh, why the hell are you here?
“We wanted to give [Lehmann] a lot of credit for not making us look like dicks, which he could have done,” Britton admitted. “[The movie’s target audience] is not what our target audience is, but that’s who sees the movie and is interested in Aspie’s.”
Britton’s talking about the moms — they’re a common fixture at Asperger’s Are Us show these days, because of the documentary’s success on the festival circuit and now home video. But moms aren’t known for being fast on the uptake with the absurdist character pieces and high-minded social commentary they became synonymous with for half a decade in Boston, before the doc was ever pitched to them. The guys are grateful for the crowds, but it has introduced a pretty clear divide into their audience. One positive: The moms are often the parents of children with Asperger’s themselves, and the guys of Asperger’s Are Us are quick to teach them a lesson about condescension.
“The good thing about that is that we can rectify this erroneous notion that their kids can’t amount to anything,” Britton said. “What kind of parent are you that you can’t think your kid can’t amount to anything? Theres a lot of different kinds of autism, but if you’re verbal and witty like we are, then of course your kid can amount to anything.”
The group opened over the weekend for Emo Phillips during his show at the Boston Comedy Festival. Member Ethan Finlan said they were tailoring their act to another comedian for the first time, because even after a national tour, this would be the group’s first time opening for anyone.
“It’s easier to not have to open, because [with the documentary] you get to rent theaters because people think you’re stupid and interesting, and they feel guilty,” he laughed.
This, of course, is untrue, and the group tweeted the next day that the gig had absolutely gone well and confirmed as much to Inverse. And so sure, the group is making leaps and bounds for representation, but they’re funny as hell, a message that can sometimes get lost in the documentary.
The future of Asperger’s Are Us is certainly bright, with a profile that will continue to grow when Lehmann’s documentary hits Netflix in December. Just remember what it’s really about: the comedy.