By Katharine Webster
New Michael Ingemi — his father is old Michael — leads a double life.
On campus, he’s dead serious about his studies as a chemical engineering major and math minor. Off campus, he performs with the comedy troupe Asperger’s Are Us, the subject of a new documentary by the same name that just debuted on DVD, in theaters and on streaming services.
“Most of my fellow engineers don’t know I’m in a comedy troupe,” says Ingemi, a junior from Beverly. “Most of the time at university, I’m quite stoic, I’m very serious. It’s very binary with me.”
Yet he fizzes with barely suppressed comic energy when talking about Asperger’s Are Us. He writes and co-writes a lot of the sketches for the four-man troupe, analyzing the structure of good jokes and skits in the same way he analyzes math problems.
“A sketch is like having a structure and a bunch of variables. The variables are how the real world works, and if you manipulate the right variables in the right way, you’ll have a funny sketch,” he says.
Ingemi was 12 when he first met the other three members of Asperger’s Are Us at a summer theater camp for young people on the autism spectrum. Ingemi, Ethan Finlan and Jack Hanke were campers; Noah Britton was a counselor and fellow “Aspie.” The four became best friends over the next few summers because each one totally got the others’ senses of humor.
Ingemi cut his teeth on “South Park” — he started watching it with his mom when he was 6 — and “Mad TV” and “Kids in the Hall,” which he watched with his dad. As far back as he remembers, he tried to make other people laugh.
“I realized early on that I got positive feedback and a positive response from people when I made them laugh through something I did on purpose,” he says.
In 2010, when Ingemi, Finlan and Hanke were high school seniors, they decided to form a comedy troupe with Britton. They write sketches that tickle their own funny bones — and those of anyone who likes punning, absurdist and sometimes dark humor. An example: a sketch about a kid given up for adoption by his parents, who encounter him again when they come to his foster home shopping for a “better” kid.
Asperger’s Are Us rented small theaters and put on occasional shows for three years, including an appearance at the 2012 UMass Lowell “Disable the Label” event, before Ingemi was enrolled here.
But exploiting their own label has sometimes backfired, Ingemi says. While it’s gotten them lots of media coverage, sometimes people come to see them for the wrong reasons. So just to be clear, they don’t want your pity. They don’t want to be uplifting. They want to be funny.
“The worst thing we fear is being pigeonholed,” he says. “We want to be seen as comedians who happen to have Asperger’s, not people with Asperger’s who happen to be comedians.”
Their comedy eventually caught the attention of filmmaker Alex Lehmann. His documentary follows the group as they prepare for their “last show” in 2013 before Hanke goes to Oxford University for a year’s study abroad. The movie premiered at the SXSW Film Festival last March, where Netflix snapped up the distribution rights.
Of course, their so-called “last show” wasn’t. While Hanke was in England, Ingemi took math and science classes at North Shore Community College and applied to UMass Lowell. When Hanke returned in fall 2014, the troupe started working on new material.
On the strength of the SXSW publicity, Asperger’s Are Us toured from coast to coast last summer, including a performance at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
Last month they opened for Emo Philips at the Boston Comedy Festival. Philips invited them to share the stage after meeting them at a SXSW party and holding an impromptu Bible trivia contest, which Ingemi and Hanke won.
All that was before the film was released in mid-November and received a flood of national media attention, including reviews in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Asperger’s Are Us is working with film director Lehmann on a follow-up that showcases their comedy rather than their coming-of-age stories. And they’re booking so many theater dates that Ingemi isn’t sure whether comedy or college will take precedence over the next couple of years.
“Comedy’s my fallback if engineering doesn’t work out for me,” he jokes, deadpan.