COMIC, WRITER, ADVOCATE
Describing himself as an Aspie comic, Michael is a stand-up comedian on the autism spectrum who performs across North America. He lives in Orangeville.
“I feel that being a Canadian has lent me a sense of humility. One of the most important things I learned about comedy is that you always punch up. You critique those in power, but never those worse off than yourself. That’s not just a comedy principle. It’s a Canadian one.”
I was looking at your schedule. You’re a busy guy.
Lately, yes! I was taking classes at Second City for about a year and a half and was really enjoying that, so I got involved with their beginner improv program, their sketch writing program and a couple of their niche musical programs which was really fun. I was able to sort of join up with a sketch troupe and an improv troupe that I loved working with. You’ve got to be learning new stuff all the time, so I started preoccupying myself with classes like that.
I was with a group called Shock Fire for quite a while, they’re absolutely worth checking out, but I’m not with them at the moment.
In terms of autism being very much in the news and in the air now, your timing couldn’t have been better.
Well, there was nothing opportunistic about how I got into comedy. I think, over time, things were typically seen as taboo or stigmatized, but now there’s not as much stigma attached to it, and people are sort of becoming a little more open to the idea. It’s also because people are getting diagnosed more regularly; that’s not because there’s more frequent occurrences of autism, it’s because doctors and neurologists are now able to assess better when someone is on the spectrum, and have an early intervention to help them out.
You mentioned that it’s all kind of a weird coincidence that you’re doing this in the first place.
I got into stand-up because around the time of grade 7 or 8, I was ostracized at school, so I was really just looking for an outlet. I got into journaling and a lot of my ideas quickly turned into a form of jokes. My mom noticed, and wanted to find an environment that fostered that.
She told me that there was a group called Stand-up For Mental Health working out of Guelph. it’s where they basically give you a long stand-up course. It teaches you about basic comic theory, how to produce more content, write material, have a commanding stage presence, how to do crowd work. They taught me all that basic stuff right about when I was 13 turning 14.
It kind of makes sense that I gravitate towards the autism community, not just because a lot of my humour is centered on that, but because my folks themselves have been major advocates in the community for years.
Yes. My dad’s a financial adviser, my mom has had several jobs over the years, but at one time she had a small company that was all about finding and distributing sensory toys that kids on the spectrum could use in a classroom environment, for things like calming themselves down: we call them stims.
So right around the time when my little brother got diagnosed, they got right into that community, started having volleyball tournaments and the like to raise funds. So my mom found out about this program just from looking around. We also found this book called The Happy Neurotic, by David Granirer, and we discovered that even though he was based out of BC, he was running Skype courses to teach you how to do stand-up based around mental health or neurological differences… a live stream from Vancouver through to Guelph Ontario. I got in contact with him, and we got along like a house on fire.
Do you have any comedic inspirations or influences?
When I was a kid, I always gravitated towards people like Steven Wright and Mitch Hedberg, not because what they were doing was so weird and cerebral, but because I just thought it was so clean, the way they condensed their information. Right now I’m super into a guy called Anthony Jeselnik. It’s like watching a magic trick: he can get away with telling these really dark jokes because they’re so concise… there’s a laser targeted precision to what he’s trying to say. I love guys that are just efficient with getting their information out, those are who I look up to.
I gravitated towards comedy because it’s so concise. All you’re trying to do is condense information. Seinfeld says he’ll spend five hours a day to get a nine word set down to a seven, and whether you like him or not, I think that’s an incredible work ethic. I’m trying to wrap my mind around that. You always go that could be cleaner, that could be shorter. It’s not just that you want a bigger laugh, you want it to flow as nicely as humanly possible. You don’t want to spend too much time on one thing. At least that’s how it works for me. Some people can really sit in those pauses and I commend them for that, and I’ve been getting at that.
How does Asperger’s come into this?
As an aspie, when you have something like Asperger’s, one of the key characteristics of it is a really intense fixation on something. I have a friend who’s a historian, I have a friend who’s a theoretical physicist, I write jokes. You just attack whatever it is with with everything you’ve got, you attack it with the intensity that anyone else in that field would tackle it. You just fix all your energy there instead of spreading it all out to other fields. That’s why I’m sitting here on the couch, trying to work on this premise and I’m going, ok, it’s 4 in the afternoon, I haven’t eaten breakfast yet…you just get a little preoccupied. You get immersed.
There’s not a lot of autistic characters out there, say on TV, or TV being written by autistic writers.
I think a lot of people, when they’re creating a character with ASD, they’re terrified to highlight the disability part of the diagnosis, so they give them a super power, because they think that people will find it too difficult to relate to someone if there isn’t something that can compensate. Like a lot of police procedurals will make someone more or less socially inept and to some extent co-dependant, but they make them exceptional. What we’re just looking for is honesty.
But the Asperger’s material, that’s not all you do…
Right now, many of my jokes might be synonymous with Asperger’s, and I think it’s kind of fun having what is considered by many to be sort of like an alien view point to a lot of mainstream, neurologically typical audiences… so why not offer that insight? I think that this is a great stepping stone, to go deeper. To have people go, I never thought about that like that, I never looked at it from this point of view. And that’s what art and comedy does and stuff like that.
I have a set that’s specific to an ASD audiences, that would be like families with people on the spectrum, educators that want to learn more. And then I have a set for your typical crowd. I recognize that it’s like not everything’s going to fly everywhere because there’s jokes that are just too specific to the community, and I don’t want to ruin a good joke by having to dump in some necessary information for people to get it, but have it kill the flow of the joke. So I just have two different sets I can go back and forth between.
Comedy seems to have really worked for you, then.
What I struggled with throughout my life was being able to read people and having people give you an honest response. I start to infer and then I get paranoid because I’m like, ok, do you like me or do you not like me… and as a comedian you know if people hate you or not within the first like 20 seconds! I love that because then, I’m kind of going, all right, great, I got a read on this whole thing. I know how you feel about me and we can proceed.