News Column

Bonded by humor

August 23, 2013


Aug. 23--While working on comedy shows in Los Angeles, cinematographer Alex Lehmann started to notice that he was hearing a lot of humor based on autism and Asperger's syndrome.

"People like to make jokes about things they don't quite understand," Lehmann said.

Eager to understand more himself, Lehmann began researching comedy and autism on the Internet. That's when he came across Asperger's Are Us, the North Shore-based comedy troupe featuring four men with Asperger's syndrome.

Lehmann reached out to the group and has been filming them for the past two months for a documentary with the working title "Don't Overthink It."

"It relates to some of the absurdist comedy the guys do," Lehmann said. "They've been teaching me a lot about Asperger's and autism, a little bit through their comedy and just who they are."

"The guys" are Jack Hanke of Newburyport, Noah Britton of Salem, New Michael Ingemi of Beverly and Ethan Finlan of Rockport.

A big part of the documentary is focused on the writing and production of the troupe's two shows this week, tonight at the Cambridge YMCA and tomorrow at the Firehouse Center for the Arts in Newburyport. The performances are sort of a farewell for the group, which will be taking a nine-month hiatus while Hanke spends next semester abroad studying at Oxford University in England.

The four members of Asperger's Are Us met eight years ago when Hanke, Ingemi and Finlan were 12-year-olds attending a local camp for children with Asperger's, an autism spectrum disorder characterized by difficulties with social interaction and communication. Britton, who is now 30, was their counselor.

"After that, we decided to get together and form a comedy troupe because we were really funny, we thought," said Hanke, a Newburyport High graduate who attends Gordon College in Wenham.

They have been performing together for about three years, during which their popularity has grown significantly. Asperger's Are Us has presented shows in Massachusetts, New York and Vermont and last year was featured in the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival in Texas.

Ideas for the troupe's comedy sketches come from a variety of places, Hanke said, from jokes made during their weekly get-togethers to things that happen in daily life. For example, Hanke said he was walking down the street one day when he noticed that his phone was almost out of power. That led to a sketch about a phone literally dying.

"We have very similar mind-sets," Hanke said. "All of our interactions are sprinkled with word play. We're just so naturally verbose. That gives rise to the material."

This weekend's shows will be the biggest they've ever done, with "dozens and dozens of characters," a number of costume changes, and special effects, Hanke said. Most of the material will be brand-new to fans of the troupe.

The first half of the performance will consist of a normal sketch show, while the second half will feature "Super Hero Palace," a parody of superhero shows that includes characters like Literate Man, Condescending Man and Bare Man. It's actually a stage adaptation of a television show that the four spent last summer writing and rehearsing.

Lehmann will be there to shoot both shows, and he will also be there on Monday, when Hanke departs for England. That is likely where the documentary will end, with a glimpse at what's next for the four men.

Once he finishes the editing, Lehmann will take the film to festivals and look for a distributor to put in theaters and/or online.

"To me, it's not just about Asperger's, it's about getting to know these guys as individuals," he said. "It's also about adolescence, and a lot happens in your life in a short amount of time at that age."

"I just hope that as people watch the documentary, they start to realize that being on the autism spectrum is not by any means a disability," Hanke said. "I hope it will widen people's perspective."

If you go

What: Asperger's Are Us comedy show

When: Tomorrow from 1-3 p.m.

Where: Firehouse Center for the Arts, Market Square, Newburyport

How: $10, available at the door, by calling 978-462-7336 or online at Show may be inappropriate for young children.


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