Comedian Noah Britton often wears a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase, “I don’t want your pity.”
So what does he want?
“We want genuine laughs,” Britton says. “We don’t want you to come if you’re thinking, ‘It’s so charitable of me to support these poor people who are trying, and I don’t really like what they’re doing, but let’s give them a big hand.’ We don’t need that. We need people who like us for the right reasons.”
Then again, Britton also wears a shirt that reads, “Ask me about my fear of strangers.”
That phrase offers an even more insightful summation of the complex forces shaping his sketch comedy troupe Asperger’s Are Us. The Boston-based act is composed of four “openly autistic individuals” performing material full of surreal setups and crafty wordplay. They appear Friday at the Lawrence Arts Center.
“We’re not a group making fun of Asperger’s or doing stuff that’s observational about it, but a group that uses the aspie sense of humor to come up with stuff that other people with that sense of humor will enjoy,” Britton says.
Their talents are captured in a new documentary also called “Asperger’s Are Us” that premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival. Directed by Alex Lehmann and executive-produced by Mark Duplass, the feature-length project has been bought by Netflix, which will officially release it later this year.
“Every autistic person should have a documentary made about them,” Britton says. “The process of filming the documentary, and having to think about who we are and how we’re perceived, that was valuable for all of us. It changed the way I look at our material.
“When we started, we were much more in-group focused, where if you’re not in the group, you probably can’t understand some of the material. Now we try to make it comprehensible at least. Self-awareness is a tough thing for aspies; it’s important and helpful to understand who you are in relation to the world.”
That message resonates with others who share a similar experience.
“These guys are really taking off, and we’re lucky to have them here in Lawrence just at the right time,” says Marlo Angell, the Lawrence Arts Center’s director of digital media. “I’ve gotten a lot of inquires these past few weeks from parents of teens on the (autism) spectrum who are really excited for their kids to see this unique group of performers onstage. … A performance like this has the potential to be a real source of empowerment and inspiration while it entertains.”
Tall and gangly with a commanding voice, Britton first met the other members — Ethan Finlan, Jack Hanke and New Michael Ingemi — when he was a 22-year-old camp counselor and the others were 12-year-old campers. Their shared love of absurdist icons such as Monty Python and Steven Wright endured into their collective adulthood, leading to the formation of Asperger’s Are Us.
Britton now works as a psychology professor at a community college in Boston. Currently, all the players are endeavoring to turn their comedic skills into a full-time profession. Touring has inched them closer to that goal.
“I love the Midwest, and I’m really happy to be coming back,” the 33-year-old says.
Although Britton was born in Dayton, Ohio, his father’s family hails from Hays, Kan. His dad would later relocate to Rolla, Mo., where Britton often visited. In fact, one of the first interviews Britton ever gave was to a Missouri publication where he discussed his biggest influence: the Canadian sketch team the Kids in the Hall.
“There’s an interview I did with the Rolla local paper in 1994 where I talked about wanting to grow up and be a sketch comedian like Dave Foley (of Kids in the Hall). It feels pretty good to say, inarguably, I am a sketch comedian — although no one will ever be as good as Dave Foley.”
His quartet continues its cross-country trek through Aug. 16. (“We’ve seen a lot of RV parks and not much of the country,” Britton confesses.)
Audiences can expect to see very little onstage content that actually concerns autism.
“Expect a whole lot of absurd, literal-minded, pun-based humor. If you’re a fan of ‘Airplane!,’ you should come to the show. If you’re more of a ‘Big Bang Theory’ person, you’re probably not going to care about what we’re doing,” he says.
Britton admits the expanded scope of the tour and the subsequent media attention introduces new pressures. And the members already have their own set of pressures to contend with.
“We must remind ourselves, ‘Don’t get stuck with little details. If someone flubs a line or the audience doesn’t laugh at a certain joke, just stay with it and stay present,’ ” he says. “Either way, we never stop pacing.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Asperger’s Are Us performs at 7:30 p.m. at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire. Admission is $10. A Q&A follows. More info at lawrenceartscenter.org.