Ian Lynam: Autism isn’t a joke, but autistic people are pretty damn funny

Fringe Debuts!

Welcome to our Fringe Debuts series, where comedians taking their first show to Edinburgh Fringe will give you a little taster of what to expect, an insight into their world, or really super weird musings on something equally bizarre — to be honest, we just let them run with it. If you’re readying yourself for a giant lol injection in August, now’s your chance to find something NEW to add to your list.

Ian Lynam is performing Autistic License, a show exploring diagnosis, relationships, sexuality, creativity and the history of autism. Ian sets out to prove autistic people have more to offer than being good at maths.

 In 1944, Dr. Hans Asperger remarked of the children who would go on to form the basis of his eponymous syndrome "an essential characteristic of these children is their humourlessness." Had he but lived in another time, he would have made an excellent Chortle columnist, our Hans. With his remark, Asperger set the tone for a stereotype that has lasted for decades: Autistic people don’t 'get’ humour. Granted, this may not seem like the worst thing said about people like me. Our personhood, bodily autonomy and capacity for empathy is still up for discussion to many.

This Edinburgh I’ll be making my UK festival debut with the solo show Autistic License. I know! An autistic person! Doing stand up! Who’d have thunk it! In fairness, it seemed like a novel concept when I started composing the show in early 2017. We’ve since seen a boom of neurodivergent comics, not least of all the number who finally got their diagnosis during the pandemic. I’ve known about my diagnosis since I was nine years old so I had a lot of time to turn the label over in my head. While pursuing stand up comedy to prove you’re emotionally and socially well-adjusted is a questionable strategy, I gave it a go.

I did my first gig at the age of 19 in the basement of Pacino’s Italian Restaurant in Dublin. It was a standard edgy first comedy set, replete with wanking jokes and a very cheap line about the Holocaust. The latter was the first joke to be scrapped: somehow at 19 and having barely interacted with people I showed a level of discernment which presumably makes me unemployable to Netflix. Likewise the show is sadly bereft of phallic witticisms but there’s several quality butt jokes so it evens out.

But I digress. I’d been performing on and off for a number of years but my material was never quite sticking. I’d been silent about my diagnosis for all that time and it definitely interfered with things. I was constantly translating my jokes into what I thought the audience would want. While I think this sort of compromise is common for emerging comics my neurotype added an extra layer to it. I wasn’t just trying to cater to the material they’d want. I was trying to be the kind of human they’d want.

Strangely what I performed on stage was in stark contrast to what I liked watching. Robin Ince and Josie Long’s Utter Shambles was a tonic for my last years of school. As I started going to Edinburgh each summer I picked up many others like Bec Hill, Elf Lyons, John-Luke Roberts, Tom Walker, Demi Lardner and dozens more. Alternative comedy as a label can sometimes create more divisions than its worth but it connoted something really specific for me. At present you could say alternative comedy focuses on the absurd and the bizarre internal workings of the human mind in contrast to the external everyday world of observational comedy.

While this definitely had its appeal for me watching, for me as an autistic performer, doing a routine about drinking a beer in the pub or going on a date WAS an unusual and strange experience because I didn’t really know how to do either until I was in my early 20s. Autistic people use the term ‘masking’ to describe when we suppress our autistic traits and attempt to appear more ‘typical.’ For me it meant forced eye contact and keeping quiet about my ‘special interests.’ The idea of doing the type of comedy I loved terrified me because it often meant laying all the strange and wonderful absurdities of your psyche bare for the audience. Given that I’d been conditioned to keep said absurdities quiet, this approach risked a camouflage strategy which was decades in the making.

I eventually risked it. I weighed up what the audience was likely to know about autism versus my own experiences of it. The first time I did a comedy set about being autistic was nothing short of a train wreck. I was still between ‘masks’ and the jokes failed to land spectacularly. I considered quitting on the night but found myself coming back to the subject bit by bit. I built up a solo show based on my new material, tentatively named Portrait of the Autist as a Young Man which largely focused on misconceptions about the condition.

After trailing this in Smock Alley, I went back to the drawing board for a more ambitious show. I wanted to tell a more coherent story. Often so-called ‘sad shows’ focusing on this kind of subject have the performer vanquishing their tormenting condition. While this worked for shows focusing on a cancer diagnosis or mental illness, it doesn’t quite land for autism. I wanted to honour the neurodiversity movement, embracing autism as a difference rather than an illness or disability. Having said that, I wanted to avoid platitudes where I call my condition a superpower. While I think it’s important for autistic people to emphasize our strengths I think this Good Vibes Only approach can obscure people to the bigger picture.

Autism isn’t a struggle, but many of us will struggle in life. The reality is, even if we fully embrace our diagnosis, autistic people still must face down a world that wasn’t made for us. 85% of our community is either unemployed or under-employed. With this in mind it’s hard not to feel worn down emotionally. Autism isn’t a mental illness, but many of us are mentally ill. Many of us are likely to struggle with anxiety and depression and it’s hard to address this when the support that does exist isn’t necessarily designed with our neurotype in mind.

With all these concerns in mind, I took my show to the Dublin Fringe in 2021. But the pandemic made this prospect more than a little daunting. Between the time my project was accepted in April and my show: gigs were virtually impossible in Ireland and testing material has required a lot of creative thinking. That the show’s composition without audiences relies on anticipating interactions through social imagination is not an irony lost on me. I’ve had a year to refine this show even further and if you’ll allow one platitude: I hope the show demonstrates that Autism isn’t a joke, but autistic people are pretty damn funny.

Ian Lynam: Autistic Licence runs from Aug 3rd-28th, 3pm, at Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose. Tickets here

Ian is on Twitter as @ianlynamcomedy and Instagram as @ian_lynam


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