A comedy troupe with a tie that binds
With dog poop left by a roommate’s pet finally cleaned off the living room floor (and soiled socks replaced), the four men got back to what they like most: cracking each other up.
The puns, wordplay, absurd comments, and inside allusions bounced around a room that once may have hosted teas for Jamaica Plain society ladies.
The four resemble any other group of buddies except that their comedy has more purpose. They are, as they like to brag, the first comedy troupe composed entirely of people with Asperger’s, a condition on the autism spectrum characterized by social awkwardness and repetitive behaviors or obsessions.
“Our goal is to be funny and do shows for more and more people,” said Noah Britton, the group’s oldest member and unofficial spokesman. “And if people give us the opportunity to fix problems they’re having relating to autism, we’re happy to do that, too.”
For the last two years, Asperger’s Are Us has slowly gained a following and played in larger venues. The group got a standing ovation at the Somerville Theatre in 2011 and a Manhattan debut earlier this year.
They have two performances this weekend: Friday at 8 p.m. at the Cambridge YMCA and Saturday at 1 p.m. at Firehouse Center for the Arts in Newburyport. After that, they’ll take a nine-month hiatus because one member, Jack Hanke, departs soon for a year at Oxford University.
The new shows include many of their old sketches — including one about razor blade testers who have to cut themselves for a living — and a live adaptation of a TV show pilot they wrote called “Superhero Palace,” in which superheroes without special powers share a castle with their evil counterparts.
Their audiences usually include people on the spectrum and their family members, along with others who don’t care if the four have Asperger’s as long as they’re funny.
“Parents come out to shows expecting it to explain autism,” Britton said at a recent rehearsal. “It doesn’t in a direct way.”
“It does in a modeled way,” Hanke piped in.
“We’re very good at modeling,” added New Michael Ingemi, in typical Asperger’s Are Us banter.
“We model how to be a successful Aspie,” Britton continued, using a colloquial term for someone with Asperger’s. “They can’t. They will never start the first autistic comedy troupe, no matter what they do.”
The group members met when the three younger ones, now all 20, attended a summer camp for kids with social difficulties. Britton, a decade older, was their counselor, and they were the first kids like him he’d ever met.
“It’s like you’re Israeli and go back to Israel after spending 20 years living in a culture that doesn’t suit you,” he said.
They all knew they had started something good.
Their Asperger’s makes it much harder — and a little easier — for them to pull off comedy shows. On the plus side, Ethan Finlan’s obsession with train schedules means they always know where they’re going and what time the next train leaves.
They also seem less self-conscious than most people — or at least so used to being considered odd that it doesn’t bother them. At points during sketches, one of them might pretend to be pregnant, a giant wad of bubble wrap, Elton John, a Shakespearian actor, or a camp counselor job candidate told he has to take care of crocodiles.
But it’s always a challenge for the four to gather in the same place at the same time, all in a productive mood.
Britton was trying to explain these challenges during a recent rehearsal when the group got lost for a few minutes in jokes about people named Chelsea. “This is why it’s difficult,” Britton noted, mid-banter. “But it’s also fun.”
The four get distracted easily in part because of their sensitivities — common among people on the autism spectrum — to smells, sounds, and visual stimulation. One day it was the traffic that threw them off. While rehearsing in Britton’s Jamaica Plain rental, the smell of dog poop derailed the group for a while, leading to more than a few jokes about excrement.
Finlan, of Rockport, spent the last hour of the rehearsal slumped in a large armchair, not participating. Earlier, Britton had made an offhand comment suggesting it was impractical for Finlan to pursue a philosophy degree at Salem State University, as he is considering. The young man then fell into in a vortex of anxieties about his future.
Britton apologized for throwing him off track.
“We love each other a lot, of course,” Britton noted a minute later. “We piss each other off, and then an hour later it’s fine. I know this, and I know to keep it in perspective.”
That perspective is clearly hard-won, after years of learning each other’s strengths and shortcomings.
Britton is the most articulate and experienced; good at keeping the others focused — though his take-charge attitude sometimes annoys the three younger men. His humor is also the darkest of the four. He favors their sketch about the boy whose parents give him up for adoption and then show up at his foster care home looking for another kid they’ll like better.
Hanke, of Newburyport, is best at working an audience, and coming up with absurdist humor. He lies easily, but only about irrelevant things. He often tells people he’s named Todd.
Finlan has strong on-the-spot sketch ideas and improv skills. He comes alive before the audience and saves the group when their jokes are falling flat.
Ingemi, of Beverly, who calls himself New Michael to distinguish himself from his father, is incisive and the funniest of all, according to Britton. He’s a natural at convincingly slipping into characters, and won’t put up with seriousness for long.
They’ll all probably spend a few days obsessing over these descriptions and then crack jokes about them forever.
The comedy of Asperger’s Are Us is both mainstream and distinctive. Onstage, they make constant fun of themselves but won’t mock others.
“Autistic people have been victimized so much they don’t have that instinct” to make fun of others, said Britton, a member of an advisory group called the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee.
“That’s what makes me so much of a post-modernist, my approach to issues and art and stuff,” Ingemi responded.
“What?!” Britton demanded, whirling toward him. “Were you just making fun of me for being pretentious, or did you have a different point?”
The four are convinced that some of the greatest comedians of all time — including the late Andy Kaufman, Steven Wright, and maybe certain members of Monty Python — are fellow Aspies.
Perhaps their condition gives them a slightly different perspective on the world — which is what makes them so funny — or perhaps it’s their willingness to revel in the absurd.
“This is one of the hallmarks of our comedy: We think that things that don’t make sense are very funny,” Britton said. “Most neurotypicals think that things that don’t make sense are confusing.”
Filmmaker Alex Lehmann spent the latter part of the summer documenting the four as they prepared for their two upcoming shows. It was his socks that needed replacing after he accidentally discovered the dog’s present in a corner of the living room.
He had noticed caricatures of people with Asperger’s traits popping up in more of the movies and TV shows he had shot — and that most of those characters were there for comedic value. He got to wondering what people with Asperger’s were really like. Googling “comedy” and “Asperger’s” led him to the troupe. A quick conversation convinced him they would be the subject of his next film, and a few days later he flew in from Los Angeles to watch the men rehearse.
Lehmann — who has operated a camera in the films “Piranha 3DD” and “Project X” and the TV shows “The League” and “Whodunnit,” among others — definitely appreciates the group’s comedy. “Some is the kind of humor my wife gives me a hard time for,” he said, though he often finds it deeply insightful as well as funny. Their absurdism loses him sometimes. Still, he’s willing to cut them some slack because other jokes do amuse him, and because he finds them so easy to relate to, regardless of their Asperger’s.
“I remember what it was like to be a 20-year-old guy,” Lehmann said. “I think that’s enough to make you act in ways that can be considered abnormal.”