The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

The Onion peels a few autism layers

with 8 comments

John Cariani as Michael Falk. Courtesy The Onion

Perusing through some autism links through various Google searches, I came across a video with an autistic reporter from The Onion’s fake news program, Onion News Network. ONN episodes can be watched on the Independent Film Channel or its website. If you’re not familiar with The Onion, its roots began in print and has expanded to other forms of media. All of its reporting is false and mostly a satirical look at the way we report and absorb real-life news. While that premise sounds similar to the fellow news satire program The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the Comedy Central juggernaut bases its humor on true stories.

Once you peel the top layer, exploring its inside reveals a fake story released in January where Michael Falk (played by actor John Cariani), the autistic reporter for ONN’s FactZone, is assigned to cover a gathering of crying people (better known as a funeral). The link I provided has an advertisement you must watch before seeing the story.

Falk is insensitive to the feelings of others who are mourning the death of a Washington, D.C. woman, asking her mother how she feels about her daughter’s death despite the imagery and emotional display suggesting a tearful atmosphere (a play on lack of empathy, a common characteristic of autistics). Falk then provides statistics that would be irrelevant in an actual story as The Onion continues its attempt at comic relief. They include the color and number of buttons on the mother’s shirt, followed by rattling off Detroit homicide numbers to a city councilman, even though the story is taking place in Washington. Of course, Falk rarely establishes eye contact in his one-on-one interviews, another symptom associated with autism spectrum disorder.

This was Falk’s first of two appearances so far on IFC’s Onion News Network show. Unfortunately, The Onion has not provided a link to his second story, where he fails to grasp the weight of a man run over by a train trying to save a woman’s purse. A YouTube copy of the video exists, which I linked here, but I can’t guarantee that clip will remain on YouTube. Mainstream press reaction was rather muted, but a few members of the blogosphere officially countered the assumption that autistics are emotionless. Landon Bryce of accuses The Onion and IFC of bigotry in both video clips, and questions what exactly The Onion is satirizing when Falk returns for his train accident story. His concern is people who watch those stories will assume autistic people don’t place value on human life as other humans do, while fellow autistics who find this story amusing could be buying into the stereotypes.

Falk’s stories ring a parallel to what I mentioned last year in a news aggregate research of The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, who many believe is autistic and led to the creators publicly refuting the idea in interviews. Because Falk has a stated condition before he presents his stories, The Onion may have removed the comedic value it was trying to provide by lampooning the social ineptitude we generally think of when we hear about an autistic person. Instead, they left the door open for criticism because they’re mocking a mental disability, rather than peculiar behaviors as Sheldon exhibits on CBS’ hit program. However, since The Onion is completely satirical, that may have shielded them from larger media exposure we would have seen had a more traditional news organization been accused of mocking autistic people.

Mental disabilities have always been easy to poke fun of by comedians and comedic organizations because the symptoms stand out significantly compared to other human characteristics. The same reasoning can be applied for the increased likelihood of bullying against the mentally disabled, and that feeling could be behind the negative reaction to the Michael Falk character from some bloggers. I do have to credit The Onion for its accuracy in depicting the condition, but perhaps more thought was needed on why an autistic reporter character was included for their Onion News Network show. Bryce interpreted the videos as showing autistic people are incompetent of any task outside of what was exhibited in Rain Man, and his concern is valid with the low employment of autistic people in this country.

You could simply rebuff all this by saying “It’s only a joke.” While the stories don’t display actual beliefs on what autism is, they do highlight the slippery slope of sensitivity that will arrive with the continuing saturation of autism in our country. The Onion would likely not satirize autism at all if they didn’t sense there was enough familiarity with the condition, and they may unintentionally provide the first lesson on how autism will be approached from a comedic point of view.

8 Responses

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  1. As someone who comes from a long line of Aspies and has an Aspie son I have say “get over your self righteous selves.”
    We Aspies realize we appear quirky and weird but even we have the ability to laugh at ourselves.

    D. Stewart

    May 23, 2011 at 8:44 pm

  2. Ignorant satire is a paradox! The point of satire is to draw discussion and share observations while amusing people with their own idiosyncrasies, it’s not there to hurt or offend. If you think The Onion is out to cause offence, you’re missing the point.

    Furthermore, no one should be too important or sacred to not be able to see their own quirks. Putting people on a pedestal in this way only creates more division by making them, as the patronisingly uncomfortable term suggests, “special”. Where’s the equality in that?

    Selena Beany

    June 28, 2011 at 4:20 pm

  3. I have Asperger’s and I thought it was hilarious. I’ve even used it to help explain what Asperger’s is to someone. I think humor is a great way to deal with a difficult subject.

    Michael L

    July 13, 2011 at 11:47 pm

  4. My family is aspie and I love them. We thought it was really funny.
    If you can’t laugh at your condition or yourself your in big trouble.
    Not all aspies are like this either.


    July 28, 2011 at 8:51 pm

  5. I have Asperger’s and thought the segment was funny, you missed the point: they weren’t (primarily) ridiculing autism, they were ridiculing insensitive news reporters who should know better by comparing them with people who don’t.


    November 20, 2011 at 8:28 am

  6. Get over yourself. My wife and I have an Asperger’s 9 year son and we laughed for minutes at this. I’ve read several posts on this, and the only ones who are complaining are the writers themselves with their overinflated grievance sensors. The replies have been positive without exception. My son needs to learn how to live and work in the real world, not in one sheltered by politically correct “advocates.”


    November 23, 2011 at 8:52 am

  7. Michael Falk, autistic reporter, has become a staple for ONN now. I watch the clips on youtube.

    Remember, the Onion satirizes everyone and everything, often in uncomfortable ways. If they just picked on certain groups, it might be offensive. But they use anything they can get their hands on to satirize social trends of all sorts. Their takedown of CNN-style reporters and production values is hilarious.

    So as the other commenters suggest, I don’t think this really is offensive. Can anyone fail to laugh when they see Michael Falk contemplating killing a cashier so he can get into prison and enjoy that wonderfully structured lifestyle?

    Frank M

    June 20, 2012 at 1:14 pm

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