Jokes Across the Spectrum with Pete and Me: A Non-Depressing Look at Autism and FamilyComedy Features Graham Kay
Crafted within an impeccable narrative framework, Graham Kay’s show Pete and Me: A Non-Depressing Look at Autism and Family raises complicated questions many families with an autistic child face, like who will care for his brother Pete when their aging parents pass away? His brother is never a burden, Kay explicitly states, but what would happen to his career, one he has spent 15 years building to this level of success, if he were to take on that responsibility? With careful consideration, heartfelt candor, and masterful storytelling, Kay walks the audience through the life of a man who dearly loves his younger brother and the silly, playful, and sometimes difficult life they share together.
Although life could be harder than working as a stand-up comedian in New York and having a brother with autism back in his hometown of Ottawa, Canada, things weren’t always easy. In one segment about his family’s childhood habit of getting kicked out of restaurants, Kay details how he developed an obsessive tic, a compulsive clicking sound he used to make, which somehow related, Kay regales, to his childhood dream of becoming Michael Jordan. By building a verbal mind-map of the obsessive thoughts which enabled his compulsion, Kay provides a witty, complex, and sophisticated explanation of the inner workings of his young psyche that lead him to adopt this coping strategy. Kay recalls his mental health history with a drama, hilarious hyperbole, and an accessible quirkiness to which many an obsessive can relate. It was him and his OCD alone which were solely responsible for his family getting kicked out of restaurants when he was young, he remembers from his childhood perspective, and not the chaotic cocktail of Pete, the child often found spinning in the corner, and his father, the gigantic man screaming from the tableside, but him, the clicking kid. It is this kind of sarcastic sense, in which he takes the mundane and makes it delightfully grandiose and ridiculous, that makes this show so special, and the audience falls in love with Pete as much as his brother does.
When Kay eventually grew up and moved to New York City to pursue his comedy career, Pete couldn’t understand why Kay had to live in an apartment with so many roommates. In Pete’s mind, developmentally about that of a six-year-old, Kay should just live alone in a downtown apartment. Pete himself lives partially alone in assisted living, with their parents not far away. Much like in this country, government assistance for families with an autistic child tapers out around adulthood. In Pete’s case, he has enough support to live on his own, but without the ability to see his parents during the pandemic, it was a very lonely time for him. Kay took it upon himself to keep his brother company: Every morning, Pete would call him on the phone pretending to be Ernie, the enduring Muppet character. Since Kay is taller, he would respond as Bert, and this routine has gone on every morning for the past three years to this day. It is clear, from his sincere recollection of these personal rituals, how seriously Kay takes his role as protector, entertainer, and friend. On the rare occasion Kay didn’t pick up the phone for their scheduled call, due to the nocturnal nature of his chosen profession, his proclivity for sleeping in, and his passion for drinking, Pete would leave him a voicemail inquiring about his whereabouts. Kay played one such voicemail and, yes, Pete’s Ernie impression is indeed spot on.
With each anecdote, Kay paints a fuller and more dynamic picture of his brother and his interests—Power Rangers, Spiderman, and a quickly-canceled Canadian television program from the late 80s, C.O.P.S.—as well as his joyful nature and his love of beer, allowing the audience to experience the fondness he feels for his brother. It’s evident how devoted Kay is to Pete and his happiness.
Nearing the end of the show, we hear one more voicemail from Pete, one he left when Kay couldn’t quite pick up the phone because he was, well, slammed. Kay was locked in a jail cell, after bringing out a bit too much of that classic party spirit from the Great White North, and this voicemail displays, reciprocally, how much Pete loves his brother. After spending four days held in custody, Kay returned to not a single other message or missed call from that period except for a voicemail from Pete. Now, if that’s not family, then what is?
Whether or not kids are in the equation for Kay remains to be seen, but one outstanding production—featuring uproarious laughter and visceral glee from the audience, as well as a palpable shared tenderness—later, Kay faces the ubiquitous fear of mortality, and here he tears up. People have kids because they’re afraid to die alone. Kay embraces, in a moving monologue filled with humor, humility, and humanity, his fate: He won’t be alone because he will always have his brother, Pete.
Pete and Me will be on Under St. Marks Theater NYC on October 5, 7, 12, 13, and 14.
Felicia Reich is an intern at Paste.