Jason's View

#AutismREALLYSpeaks: A Critique of Comedy Central's Night of Too Many Stars

16 Mar 2015 by Jason Harris
Night of Too Many Stars host, Jon Stewart

Night of Too Many Stars: America Comes Together for Autism Programs, was just on Comedy Central. This shows airs every three years and is a telethon to raise money for autism resources. Like most well-intended things, it had points of merit and points where it could be improved.

Probably the most positive and important point is that the money being raised is not going to biomedical research. It is going to help people with autism live their lives and learn skills. This is crucial, for two reasons: (1) A lot of money goes to trying to understand the genetic cause of or even to find a cure for autism. This research, while it can be argued that it is important, does little to help anyone who already has autism; and (2) By focusing on services and people it diminishes the stereotype of the scourge of autism that is so debilitating that no one with it, and no family member of a person with it, can have a happy life.

Probably the most positive and important point is that the money being raised is not going to biomedical research. It is going to help people with autism live their lives and learn skills.

It is good that not only does this program fund education, programs, and services, it shows how these programs and services work and how they affect people as well. These programs are for people across the country. This is important, because while this event takes place in New York City and with the help of New York Collaborates for Autism, it is focused on bringing services to many people in places you may not always think of. In one video we see a great change in perspective that someone had about a worker who has autism. He said (and I’m paraphrasing here) about his young employee, “I wanted to go on easy on him, but I saw he didn’t need it…he stepped up to the challenge every time.”

It’s nice that they are able to get stars and have entertainment so people will watch the program. If it was just a program about autism or family stories people wouldn’t be as compelled to watch. Because it has comedy and stars, people enjoy watching. It is nice as well that they do show some people with autism.

While Night of Too Many Stars does many good things, one of the first things I noticed was the compartmentalization of the segments. You see celebrities in acts and then you see people with autism in services separately. I would love to see more interaction between celebrities and people on the spectrum.

It seems that it’s just about coming together every three years and throwing money at something to make people feel like they help people with autism, but without having to personally deal with those people.

They did have two interactions with people with autism and celebrities, and while that is good, both had their own faults. One of those interactions was with Ron Suskind’s son Owen, who is a teenager, and Gilbert Gottfried. One of the main ways Owen’s father found to connect with him was his love of Disney movies. The idea was to have Gilbert Gottfried and Owen say lines from a scene between Iago (voiced by Gottfried) and Jafar from Aladdin. Gottfried started off strong and Owen gave a great response that got the crowd going. Then Gottfried gave up because he couldn’t remember the lines and let Owen play both parts. This was an awkward interaction between Owen and Gilbert not because of Owen, but because it seemed like Gilbert didn’t want to be there. This makes it seem that it’s just about coming together every three years and throwing money at something to make people feel like they help people with autism, but without having to personally deal with those people.

I would love to see the show portray how good a society can be when it’s integrated, i.e., having more scenes with stars and people with autism coming together on a deep and funny level, in which both are shown as equals; providing not just a stage for entertainers, but for people on the spectrum themselves. There is definitely room for it, as we could have done without disgusting things like an audience member feeding Paul Rudd like a baby bird.

In that show we see only kids and teenagers with autism—no young adults, no middle-aged people, no senior citizens; and no people who are extremely high functioning.

The second scene with interaction between a star and a person on the spectrum was the song “Yoda” with Weird Al Yankovic and Jodi DiPiazza. Credit where credit’s due, it was amazing to see her sing and it’s definitely a refreshing change to show not only young boys with autism but young girls as well. The problem is in that show we see only kids and teenagers with autism—no young adults, no middle-aged people, no senior citizens; and no people who are extremely high functioning. While this show allows us to see one part of the spectrum, it does not show the higher-functioning end, which has people who could use some services, but are able to have careers as scientists, or writers, or many other jobs.

Perhaps instead of calling it Night of Too Many Stars, it should have been called Night of Too Few People with Autism

While Night of Too Many Stars has good qualities, there is still a way to go to being what we really need from a benefit. Perhaps instead of calling it Night of Too Many Stars, it should have been called Night of Too Few People with Autism. This does not mean in any way it should stop, but maybe the organizers could look to the community leaders for autism, those who have autism themselves, for suggestions. If your mission is to help people live their lives to the fullest, you must be able to show that you are going to follow through with that in all you do. One of the first things that would help achieve that end is giving people on the spectrum an equal voice.


Jason Harris

Founder of Jason’s Connection – an online resource for those with disabilities, mental health, aging and other needs. Jason was awarded an M.S. in Cultural Foundations of Education and Advanced Certificate in Disability Studies from Syracuse University.  Jason is also a Project Coordinator and Research Associate at the Burton Blatt Institute, an international think tank for Disability Rights and Human Justice at Syracuse University.  He regularly contributes to the blog in his own series called Jason’s View and travels the country consulting and speaking about disability issues and rights. To read more from Jason Harris, read Jason's View