11/08/2011 12:45 pm ET Updated Jan 08, 2012

Finding Humor In Autism

An autistic guy walks into a bar.

If you haven't yet heard a joke that begins with that line, it may only be a matter of time. Over the last couple of months, autism has suddenly become a popular subject for comedy. In an earlier post, I suggested that autism was having its cultural moment as a subject of fascination for filmmakers, writers and other artists. But the examples I cited then all treated autism with the seriousness most people feel it deserves. Can autism and comedy actually mix?

The short answer is, of course they can. Ever since Mark Twain sent Huckleberry Finn south on the Mississippi River with the slave Jim, humorists have been pushing boundaries and getting away with saying shocking things by saying them in funny ways. If race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and obesity are all acceptable topics for humor, there's no reason that autism and disabilities in general should be exempt.

The key, as with any edgy topic, is to actually be funny. The recent attempts to find humor in autism have had decidedly mixed results in this regard.

Take, for instance, Fox Television's Glee. In its season premiere, the popular show about the talented misfits who populate a high school glee club introduced Sugar, a student who says that because she has "self-diagnosed Asperger's," she can get away with saying whatever she wants. Obnoxious and an awful singer, Sugar takes full advantage of her "diagnosis" in every interaction she has on the show.

What's the joke here? It's true that some people with Asperger's can appear rude or obnoxious, but that's often because they don't understand the rules of social interaction. If, like Sugar, they actually understand that they're being rude, then they're socially astute enough that they may not have Asperger's.

But then, Sugar, is "self-diagnosed." So maybe the show is making fun of teenagers who try to talk their way out of bad behavior with flimsy excuses. Or perhaps Glee is suggesting that Asperger's is over-diagnosed. If so, these seem like rather deep epidemiological waters for a show that's usually more comfortable with Lady Gaga and "Friday." The point is that the humor here isn't precise. Because we don't understand exactly what the subject of the joke is supposed to be, it ends up falling flat.

Over at the Onion News Network, there's no problem understanding the joke, but there are plenty of other problems. The fake news network has introduced an "autistic reporter" who has reported on a funeral and a train crash. In the first instance, the reporter fails to understand why everyone at the funeral is upset and instead remarks that it's a good day because he saw three red cars. In the second, the reporter is relieved to report that the train suffered no damage in the crash, but he's completely insensitive to the death of a woman hit by the train.

The best word for this type of humor is lazy. It relies entirely on stereotypes about autistic people. And while these stereotypes have some basis in fact, they are also rather tired. Yes, many autistic people are obsessed with trains. Yes, some autistic people have trouble understanding the emotional nuances of a funeral. But these facts are well known. Simply employing them to mock autistic people is not very hard or very clever. It would be far better to put a twist on how we think about autism, to make us laugh by making us see autism in a new way.

Think it can't be done? Then check out this segment on indoctrinating America's children from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. In it, Lewis Black calls Sesame Street's Count von Count an "autistic vampire." At least in my living room, this was a laugh-out-loud funny line. So what makes this joke better than the ones on Glee or the Onion?

First, it's unexpected but it makes complete sense. Many, many autistic children are as obsessed with numbers as the Count. Of course, he's autistic. Why hasn't anyone ever noticed before?

Second, unlike the Onion, which plays on stereotypes to mock autistic people, The Daily Show uses the stereotype to make us see autism in a new, more positive light. After all, we like the Count, and we like him even if he's autistic. That may not sound like a revolutionary message, but given the relentlessly negative, fear-driven coverage of autism, it's not a bad one.

I don't mean to suggest that every successful joke about autism will necessarily portray it positively. But I do think that good jokes at least have to portray autism originally. Easy stereotypes don't get laughs, no matter what the topic. And autism is stereotypically thought of as negative, so most of the best jokes about it would do well to put a twist on that thinking.

But if a very original, very funny joke portrays autism negatively, I may laugh at that, too. Part of the idea of the autism acceptance movement is to suggest that autistic people are entitled to the same rights and experiences as any other person. Humor is one of our most human qualities, and autistic people should be the subjects of it (and they should get to tell some of the jokes, too).

So I'm all for autism and comedy. Just be funny, and we'll laugh. It's easier said than done.