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Richard Whelan chats to Michael McCreary: an 18-year-old Canadian stand-up comedian with Asperger’s Syndrome.
What is the most important thing you want to communicate about Asperger’s?
I want to give the general public a firmer understanding of what Asperger’s is all about and eliminate all the stereotypes. And to remind people that even though we may have the same diagnosis, we’re are all individuals. Like Stephen Shore says, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” I’m all about autism awareness, but I want to take it further and make it about autism appreciation and accommodation. I hope to educate people through the medium of comedy about all the wonderful qualities people on the spectrum have to offer. Many people diagnosed have been worn down by a society that dismisses anything that isn’t mainstream. I want to let those people know they aren’t alone and that their uniqueness is something to be nurtured and celebrated.
Where did your interest in comedy come from?
I grew up in a household that really relies on humour as a coping mechanism. My parents were always showing me Monty Python, Carol Burnett, shows like that online. I got into theatre, at around 10 years old and loved being on stage. Comedy was a later development when I hit a rough patch in my grade eight year of public school. I wasn’t bullied in the traditional sense, I was more ostracised My folks had heard about a group called Stand Up for Mental Health and thought it could help me. It was comprised of about 7 people all with different diagnosis. We did a six week workshop and ended up with a 5 minute routine. I’ve been in love with it ever since.
What do you think comedy can do for Asperger’s that other art-forms can’t?
Comedy is one of the only art forms that forces you to constantly interact with your audience. You have to engage your crowd as if you were having a conversation with a friend, mind you, a very one sided conversation. Also, comedy is easier to retain. If you have to relay a story, odds are, you will be a lot more likely to remember the message if there is a punch line. People also want to listen to you if you are funny.
Can you talk a little about some of your favourite comedians, and why you like them so much?
I grew up watching so many great comedians. Billy Connolly is amazing, as well as Tommy Tiernan, Robin Williams, Wanda Sykes, Tim Minchin, Andrea Martin, it’s too hard to choose. I really like Steven Wright and Mitch Hedberg for their sort of dry one-liners. I have always loved Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton who were pioneers of the form.
Are there any comedians from the past you suspect of being on the spectrum?
I think having some sort of diagnosis is almost a requirement for being a comedian. But I do find the neurotic nature of a lot of classic comics very relatable. I don’t know of any that have an “official” diagnosis other than Dan Ackroyd but I think some “suspects” would be Mitch Hedberg and Andy Kaufman.
How do you go about writing a joke?
Typically, I find the best material stems from funny/weird interactions that you’ve had with friends, family and sometimes strangers. It all starts with jotting down the gist of the interaction and then workshopping what I have with my family. Once the joke’s whittled down to something usable, I try to bounce it off a series of friends before I use it on stage. I have a file folder with jokes scribbled all over receipts, bus passes, gum wrappers…
Do you think the autistic mindset is useful in comedy? Why or why not?
It absolutely is. When someone on the spectrum is fascinated by something, be it trains or dinosaurs, whatever their interest, they go at it with 100% conviction. People on the spectrum to tend to think outside the box and that is where some of the best observational comedy happens.
Are there any other autistic artists you admire?
I recently did a cross Canada comedy tour and met people across the country who overcame adversity and shone in their field. Tom Jackman is an autism advocate who tirelessly promotes awareness. A young baker and his mother started Iian’s Incredible Edibles. It’s a home based business that capitalises on Iians gift of baking. Olivia and her mother Krista Goudreault co-wrote the book “May I Be Excused, My Brain is Full”, illustrating her coping strategies to manage her differences. There were so many people along the way and they just inspired me.
What’s your favourite kind of joke to write, and why?
I always like making stray observations about seemingly familiar things such as going to the DMV, high school, etc., but then showing it through the warped lens of an Aspie point of view.
I liked your joke about not all people with Asperger’s being geniuses – some just know a lot about condiments. Are there myths about Asperger’s you’d like to dispel?
I would like to dispel that myth that Aspies are geniuses, I am living proof they are not. Einstein, probably the world’s greatest undiagnosed Aspergian said ” “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” The thing with genius is that there is an expectation that you know everything about everything. There are a lot of misconceptions about the syndrome, like Aspies have no empathy or no sense of humour. With regards to empathy, basically, I think we are just misread. Our responses are not communicated in a neurotypical way and therefore people assume we lack empathy when in fact we are incredibly empathetic, just not great at showing it. As far as a lack of sense of humor, I find people on the spectrum are some of the funniest people I know, they typically just have a different kind of humor. It is more dry and the delivery is often so subtle that others may not notice it was a joke, and unfortunately often leave people with the impression that we are just “weird”.