If you think Asperger’s syndrome is no laughing matter, you haven’t met Matt Kaiser.
Kaiser, who earned a B.S. degree in theatre from Towson in 2010, has been honing his craft as a stand-up comic since 2007. When he’s not working the crowds at local clubs, he directs a comedy workshop at the university’s Hussman Center for Adults with Autism.
Kaiser has Asperger’s syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum and characterized by social and communication differences. His stand-up routine includes the gag “I tell people I have Asperger’s syndrome, and they always say the same thing: ‘You should’ve used a condom.’ I tell them it’s a social disorder, not a social disease.”
Cue the rimshot.
Kaiser says the widespread perception of people with Asperger’s as stolid and humorless is unfair. “Of course they enjoy humor,” he insists. “But sometimes they laugh at different things.”
“I may have been different in some ways because I was exposed to a lot of comedy when I was a boy,” he adds. “My dad took my brother and me to live performances, and I figured out early on what was funny—or not.”
In his weekly workshops, Kaiser shows his students—all college-age adults on the autism spectrum—that being funny is work. He engages the group in a variety of games that spark creativity while emphasizing the comic timing and rapid-fire associative skills needed to evoke a belly laugh.
The participants clearly enjoy Kaiser’s tutelage. More important, they enjoy being together and expressing themselves, whether that involves a group exercise or individual improvisation.
There may not be a budding Chris Rock or Amy Schumer in the room, but it’s clear after a few sessions that Kaiser’s efforts have inspired some genuine comic talent.
Playing with props
Kaiser mentions a young woman, who he says tended at first to be more preoccupied with her tablet than her classmates.
“But when she performs, her shyness evaporates,” he says. Her showcase performance featured saucer-sized plastic rings and a long, green-and-pink scarf, props in what turned out to be an imaginative—and guffaw-generating—routine.
“She created a ‘two-ring circus’ and ‘Mickey Mouse ears’ with the rings,” Kaiser recalls. The scarf became an elephant’s trunk, a snake, a lasso, and, finally, Rapunzel’s multi-hued hair. She even stretched the scarf vertically to simulate a string on an upright bass, then strummed away.
Another participant reprised his routine with the ease of a seasoned entertainer. “He’s very sharp,” Kaiser says. When the instructor muffs a line, the guy calls out, “Matt, your Asperger’s is showing.”
Rhonda Greenhaw, who directs the Hussman Center, often sits in on the workshop sessions, along with some students from her honors class on autism. “Laughter brings people together—it fulfills a universal need,” she says.
“This workshop enables adults on the autism scale to get in touch with their authentic selves,” she explains. “That, in turn, leads to self-acceptance, self-awareness and self-esteem that spill over into other areas of their lives.”
For Matt Kaiser, this current workshop at the Hussman Center is a return engagement. “They get it,” he says of the staff, students and aspiring comics. “They really do.”