Entertainment: Florida comic, a.k.a. 'Captain Autism,' at Boss' Comedy Club Friday
AJ Wilkerson: "When I started doing standup, I didn't set out with the goal of being an Autism advocate. I set out to find a way to relieve some of the strain on my brain
AJ Wilkerson, billed as Florida's own comedic super-hero, Captain Autism, is bringing his unique blend of on-the-nose musings to the new Boss' Comedy Club in Tea Friday, Sept. 9. Recently, I had the pleasure of chatting with Wilkerson about his unique start in comedy, life on the road, and what comes next.
Hailing from rural Florida, Wilkerson had never pondered the word diagnosis in a mental health context. An Army veteran, Wilkerson, was seeking VA services regarding mental health when a nurse asked him a life-changing question: Have you ever been diagnosed as autistic?
"I come from the kind of rural area where there are no diagnoses. You're just special," he recalled saying.
Referencing her autistic nephew, his nurse pointed out similar traits Wilkerson possessed, and pieces of the puzzle, decades-long left unquestioned, began to come together.
From there, he found the University of Florida CARD (Center for Autism and Related Disorders) offices, where he received a therapist referral for an official diagnosis. From this point forward, Wilkerson's life shifted into managing his uniquely gifted brain. He recalls his therapist explaining, "It sounds like you have a huge portion of your brain dedicated to creative activity. There's so much stuff taking up space in your brain due to your creative processes that it's applying pressure to the executive function portions of your brain. You need to drain some of that creative fluid to make you function like a normal human being."
He said his therapist's ability to communicate precisely how standup comedy would benefit his brain chemistry allowed the decision to pursue a decade-long dream to be the easy choice.
Armed with a medical marijuana prescription, Wilkerson said he soon noticed his brain-fog lifting in a way that allowed him to perform standup comedy successfully.
"So many Autistic people struggle with routine. I have my act and my jokes fairly memorized, so if I stumble over a word or something goes wrong, sometimes that panic sets in; having that fog lifted gives me that elasticity to jump back and forth."
Wilkerson is vocal about the legalization of medical marijuana, using his comedy to highlight the challenges of needing a medication criminalized in many parts of the country. When asked if he feels that speaking openly about this hot-button topic has forced him to politicize his comedy, he responded that, much like his diagnosis, it's more about advocacy.
"When I started doing standup, I didn't set out with the goal of being an Autism advocate. I set out [to try] to find a way to relieve some of the strain on my brain and maybe explain to people around me a little bit better how my brain works and what I'm thinking. For me, it was more for catharsis. I get to re-hone my social skills in an environment where I get to control the pace and flow of the conversation and what is talked about; it really gave me a way to reconnect.”
Wilkerson began standup comedy in 2019. The road has not been without hardship, including a global pandemic and driving across the country to tour during the height of the nation's gas inflation.
"The Pandemic almost stopped me entirely," he said.
After being selected for the Up and Coming Artist's Tour, Wilkerson planned to operate out of a home base in Tallahassee.
"Three days after I gave up my place to move to Tallahassee for this tour, the world shut down."
Facing the reality of lost income and no longer having a place to live, Wilkerson turned to living in his van to continue pursuing comedy across the country.
"I was in this situation where if I was going to be homeless, let's at least be goal-setting homeless. I did the van so I could still go and do things I wanted to and give this a shot," he said, adding that his decision not to allow failure to be an option kept him moving forward. "Making it essential to my survival really was the thing that kept it going.”
Wilkerson's drive and self-effacing honesty are impacting others throughout the country. He has had parents send pictures of their children holding up Captain Autism posters, powerfully affected by the representation in his humor. What started as a tool for his own mental health has grown into a career with limitless possibilities. Wilkerson will soon be seen in his first feature film, Clerks 3, and on a newly announced tour with Bert Kreischer.
From podcasts to making the "Wu-Tang of sketch groups," Wilkerson admits the ultimate goal is "being able to pursue whatever creative endeavor pops into my head because that's how my brain works." Lucky for fans of comedy and entertainment, how his brain works is a marvelous thing.
Go to the show:
Where: Boss' Comedy Club, Tea
When: Sept. 9 - doors open at 5:30 p.m., showtime 7 p.m.
Tickets: Singles $16, seven ticket tables $95 at collectiveeffortsunion.com