The autistic boy who became a stand-up comedian

Michael McCreary performing his stand-up comedy routine on stage. Photo credit: Picture courtesy of Aspiecomic.com

Michael McCreary can point to the exact moment he realized what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. It was April 2010, and he was on stage at McMaster University performing stand-up comedy for the first time. His act seemed to be going over well with the 200 people in the audience until he fumbled a joke.

Instead of saying that he’d read Barbara Streisand requested flower petals in her “toilet water”, McCreary accidentally said “urinal.” The audience realized he’d ruined the setup of the joke, but thinking of his feet, McCreary instantly delivered a new punchline. “Sorry,” he apologized, “I meant to say Margaret Thatcher!”

He received a standing ovation at the end of his act.

Michael McCreary had just turned 14 a few days earlier.

Born and raised in Orangeville, Ontario, McCreary was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at the age of five. By the time he was 13, he was struggling with school. “Not for a lack of trying, just that my grades were terrible,” he clarifies.

His parents, Susan and Doug McCreary, were looking for something that would raise their son’s spirit. “Because it’s disheartening as a kid when you feel ostracized by your peers,” the autistic comedian explains.

Thankfully, his mother found the perfect program for him. “Stand Up for Mental Health” run by David Granirer, a mental health counsellor and stand-up comic, allowed McCreary to explore the world of stand-up comedy as well as mental health and neurodiversity.

He quickly became familiar with comedians such as Adam Schwartz and Hannah Gatsby, who were raising awareness among the public about neurodiverse conditions such as ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

“Stand-up is, as weird as this sounds, almost like empathy porn,” says the 24-year-old comic. “I think that people are actually very open to you when you present something that might make you feel ‘other’ to a group of people. If anything they find it kind of humanizing because they go, ‘Oh, I didn’t peg you as that [autistic] from looking at you. Okay, tell me your story.’”

That’s exactly what McCreary has been doing for about a decade now. After his successful debut at McMaster University, he has performed all over Canada and the United States. Whether it is a fundraiser, an autism awareness event, a corporate gig or just a comedy show, McCreary arrives with an earnest smile, ready to make people laugh.

“Michael is a phenomenal comic,” says Thamina Jaferi, a diversity consultant for Toronto Film School by day and amateur comic by night. She got to know McCreary through a comedy class of his she’d attended. “So I can personally vouch for what an inspirational comedian he is!”

McCreary’s father, Doug, is also his manager, an arrangement that is rewarding for both, except perhaps when mother Susan suggested a cross Canada tour after McCreary finished high school.

“I just had to book the 13 gigs, at least one for each province, and drive the freakin’ RV 8,500 kilometres,” Doug says. “But you don’t hear me complaining,” he adds with a smile.

Stand-up comedy isn’t the only way McCreary is raising awareness about autism while entertaining people.

In 2019, Annick Press published his memoir, Funny, You Don’t Look Autistic: A Comedian’s Guide to Life on the Spectrum. The book has won several awards and ensures a steady stream of letters to McCreary’s inbox, from readers thankful for the opportunity to read about a life experience similar to their own.

For the past five years, McCreary has been performing about 45 shows on average, often relying on trains, planes and even a water taxi once to travel.

However, after the lockdown began in March 2020, Doug McCreary says more than 20 gigs were cancelled. The young comic left Toronto and moved back in with his parents in Orangeville.

For the past nine months, McCreary has been rooted to one spot.

“Although he has done 20 virtual gigs since March,” McCreary’s manager adds.

This shouldn’t really be surprising for anyone who’s followed McCreary’s career since that fateful day at McMaster University. After all, thinking on his feet and adapting when something gets fumbled is kind of Michael McCreary’s style.

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