Boston area comedy troupe stars at Texas SXSW festival

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When the members of Asperger’s Are Us met at a summer camp on the North Shore, they never imagined that more than a decade later they would be stars of a documentary at one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world.

The name Asperger’s Are Us is a nod to the fact that all its members have Asperger’s. It’s also the title of their soon-to-be-released documentary, which follows them as they prepare for a big show that might very well be their last. The documentary premieres at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas, on Saturday.

So how did Jack Hanke, Noah Britton, Ethan Finlan, and New-Michael Ingemi become Asperger’s Are Us, the comedy troupe?

“I’m not sure who started it,” Jack Hanke said in an interview Feb. 16. “New-Michael – just pretend that’s his name, like Mitt Romney,” Hanke quips in an aside, explaining how troupe member New-Michael Ingemi differentiates himself from his father, who goes by Old-Michael. The North Shore natives  stuck together after summer camp. “We started going when we were 12 and we all went together for like five years. And then the next summer, we were like, ‘Oh, we’re not going, let’s hang out instead.’”

“We were talking about how it would be fun to hang out and had the idea of starting a comedy troupe,” Hanke said.

“And it worked. We worked very well together; we have a good dynamic. We started performing at Salem restaurants, our second performance we had sold out, like 90 or 100 people. Then we had the next show at Somerville Theater, that was 150 people, then we got picked up by national news, had a bunch of shows.”

Asperger’s Syndrome is generally considered a mild form of autism, though people with Asperger’s typically have fewer language development problems and are considered to be higher functioning.

“There’s obviously a lot of different kinds of autism,” Hanke said.

The group has performed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in New York City, Philadelphia, at Landmark College in Vermont and even in Austin.

The film was directed by Alex Lehmann, who has worked previously as a cameraman. This is his first full-length film, though he has credits as a director, producer, cinematographer, and editor.

“He ran into us on the Internet,” Hanke said. “He was real interested and he messaged us asking if we’d be interested in doing a documentary with him. We talked back and forth with him for a bit, and he’s super nice…he came over, we talked with him for a bit, we signed contracts…it was all pretty good.”

The film was mostly shot over the summer of 2013, after Hanke’s sophomore year in college.

“We weren’t sure if we were ever gonna have another show,” Hanke said, “because I was going to Oxford and people might move for jobs…which hasn’t happened yet,” he added, referring to Oxford University in the U.K.

Living life and preparing for a big comedy show with a film crew around was, in Hanke’s words, “logistically annoying,” because the group already struggled to find times they could all rehearse.

“We have a really hard time coordinating, it just takes hours and hours – we’re on the spectrum, we have different hang-ups, we get stressed out easily, we need a lot of wind up and cool down time.”

Produced by the Duplass brothers, of cable television’s HBO show “Togetherness” (among others), Hanke reckons the documentary may get put on, opening the film to a wider variety of viewers.

For Asperger’s Are Us (the comedy troupe), the goal is the same as every other comedy group: to make people laugh.

“Our main goal is to be funny, our goal is not to promote advocacy,” Hanke said. “At least in our experience, groups who perform to raise awareness are not funny. The point is to be funny – it’s a comedy group.”

As Hanke said of advocacy: “It’s a bad goal, but a very good byproduct.” The group even has a satire sketch poking fun at advocacy-oriented comedians.

But Asperger’s helps Hanke and his troupe find humor in unique ways.

Hanke and Matt Lerner, the former head of the camp where the boys met, were interviewed at a conference in January, on the connections between humor and autism, at the University of Kent in the U.K.

“I mean my brain is fundamentally wired differently than other people’s,” Hanke said, “I make connections between subjects in different ways than other people might.”

“Most Aspies are very literal, so basically we are much more literal than most people,”Hanke explained, referring to people with Asperger’s. “Like I get metaphors and similes – I’m an English major, I’m very up on literary devices – but the first thing that comes to my head is often a pun because it reminds me of similarities that wouldn’t occur to most people.”

Hanke elaborated:

“For example, there’s one sketch we did, we were just walking along to a train station… and one of us said, ‘Oh, my phone’s dying,’ and we all interpreted it literally and we made a sketch of it on the spot… people were holding a funeral, someone called 911, then the phone came back to life, like, ‘Ahh, it’s a zombie, kill it!’”

The comedy troupe is flying down to Austin for the film premiere.

“We’d like to do new shows afterwards,” Hanke said, adding, “I’m graduating, Ethan’s graduating and we’re gonna look for work. I might move away, so I don’t know if there’ll be a chance to.”

Let’s hope they do.