- NEW YORK
The six-part HBO documentary series On Tour With Asperger’s Are Us makes its world premiere on April 29 at the Tribeca Film Festival. Part of the Tribeca TV lineup, the screening event will also mark director/executive producer Alex Lehmann’s first time at the fest, which he regards as a high honor, quipping that he doesn’t feel “cool enough” to be showcasing work at such “a cool festival in New York City.”
However, the series is plenty hip and cool enough to make the Tribeca grade, chronicling the exploits of Asperger’s Are Us, the first all-autistic comedy troupe as it navigates its first cross-country tour, a six-week jaunt in an old RV trekking from Boston to Los Angeles. And after the screening, the ensemble--consisting of Noah Britton, Ethan Finlan, Jack Hanke and New Michael Ingemi--will perform live for the festival audience.
The series sprung from the 2016 feature-length documentary Asperger’s Are Us, which Lehmann directed while also serving as a producer. Exec producers of the documentary, which debuted at the SXSW Fest, were brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, who also are EPs on the new HBO series.
Prior to the documentary, Lehmann had no personal involvement or stake in autism or specifically Asperger’s. He came across a newspaper article about the comedy troupe which he recalled as being “far more interesting” than what he was writing at the time. He sought out Asperger’s Are Us to make sure they were funny. “I was surprised,” he recollected. “Going in, I didn’t think autism and humor went hand in hand.” Lehmann liked what he saw, describing the act as “absurd and not for everyone. But for me, it worked. It reminded me of The Kids in the Hall (a Canadian sketch comedy ensemble) and Monty Python.”
Shortly after the documentary was screened, Mark Duplass asked Lehmann if he would want to make a series about Asperger’s Are Us. From that evolved the show which is set to premiere April 30 on HBO.
The Asperger’s Are Us performers had built a trust in Lehmann based on their shared feature documentary experience. But there were still challenges to making the series, and Lehmann felt he had to reassure the group of his approach. “When they were younger, they were bullied and made fun of a lot,” related Lehmann, adding that they were “still afraid of being exposed in a bad or humiliating way. They asked, ‘What happens if we have to change a tire (on the RV)? Is this show going to make fun of us?’ I had to let them know that we can sometimes laugh at your misfortune as people--but not as autistic people. If it were something that would be similarly embarrassing or funny if it happened to me or if I had done it, then we would include it. If not, we wouldn’t. They are adults and we treat them with respect as adults.”
While Lehmann shot the bulk of the feature documentary, he had the luxury of being able to bring on DP Steven Paul for the series. “Steven had come on to shoot the epilogue to the original documentary. He’s a friend with a great eye and he exhibited a good sense of humor and a good sensibility for who these (Asperger’s Are Us) guys are. The guys were comfortable with him. Selecting crew for this project was as much about personalities as filmmaking. We needed talented filmmakers whose personalities would mesh well with the troupe.”
During the course of the series, the Asperger’s Are Us foursome experiences highs and lows, playing for at times enthusiastic audiences, and on other occasions before nearly empty houses. The performers cope with tensions within the group and a run-down RV that frequently leaves them stranded. Their journey addresses misconceptions about autism-spectrum disorders and traditional comedy. The performers embrace whatever challenges they encounter while working toward one big-picture goal--to make people laugh.
The bond among the troupe members is strong. They first met in 2005 when Ingemi, Hanke and Finlan attended a summer camp where Britton was their counselor. Since 2010, they’ve written and performed more than 100 original sketch comedy shows in nine countries. They stay away from references to autism, instead focusing on deadpan wordplay and dark absurdism. They’ve performed with Emo Philips, Joe Pera, Jamie Loftus, Kenny “K-Strass” Strasser, and Vermin Supreme, among other established comedians.
It was when he was a cameraman on The League that Lehmann first met and worked with Mark Duplass who was in the FXX network series cast. “We became friends on that show,” related Lehmann who went on to make the Asperger’s Are Us documentary “with a hope, prayer and a credit card. The (Duplass) brothers came on to distribute it. The film went on the festival circuit and the brothers asked me to collaborate with them on series and narrative films.”
The narrative features Lehmann directed for the Duplass brothers were Blue Jay and Paddleton, the latter making its debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. A common thread, observed Lehmann, seems to run through his collaborations with Mark and Jay Duplass, extending from those narrative endeavors to most recently the Asperger’s documentary series. “We tend to keep telling stories about underdogs who are misunderstood but who actually are really cool, interesting people--even though they’re not usually seen as such.”
Lehmann finds this brand of storytelling gratifying--as well as the fact that HBO was drawn to the documentary series. “There have been so many documentaries and series on HBO that I have revered,” said Lehman. “It’s pretty surreal to now be a part of that club.”
Lehmann also feels indebted to Britton, Finlan, Hanke and Ingemi. “I can’t help but think that four young guys who had this little sketch group were willing to let me in and trust me to tell their story,” related Lehmann. “By being trusting and vulnerable, they’ve opened up my career, giving me a chance to be a storyteller on another level.”
Without that trust, Lehmann said he wouldn’t now be going to Tribeca.