In the office, Erik Adams is the TV editor for the AV Club. But on the streets of Chicago, especially in September when the wind whistles through the newly fallen leaves, you’d better recognize him for who he truly is.
Adams is Mr. Autumn Man, the embodiment of the dudely fall aesthetic, memorably brought to life by the Onion in 2012 — and memed to oblivion every autumn since.
Mr. Autumn Man, a.k.a. “Dennis Clemons,” loves blankets, football, cardigans, hot coffee, changing leaves, butternut squash soup, weekend trips upstate (mainly for apple-picking), corduroy and snacks, according to the Onion article.
As the guy in the photo, Adams feels a kinship with the fictional subject of the piece. Those stereotypes “feel really real to me and a part of my personality,” he tells MEL.
“I’ve always loved those things, [but] I was thinking about the symbolic aspects of fall, and the fact that even though everything is dying, all of the leaves are falling and the trees are going to sleep, the animals are hibernating,” he says. “There still feels like this certain sense of rebirth.”
Every fall seems to arrive with boundless opportunities, Adams says. One reason why: Mr. Autumn Man almost died in the fall of 2003.
Like Batman had his Pit, the Autumnal Ambassador has a tragic backstory as well. At 18, Adams had just begun enjoying the independence and sense of unbound possibility that comes with being a freshman in college. He suddenly contracted “some sort of wild encephalitic viral infection” and was rushed to the hospital. His brain was swelling, the left side of his body went numb and he needed a life-saving spinal tap. He was hospitalized for two weeks before he was released. It was in the fall, he says, when he “actually got a second chance.”
So he can’t help but feel affection for this time of year. It’s why, he says, he “would steer so much of my personality into [autumn] that my coworkers would think I would be the perfect visual epitome for the season.”
Back in 2012, when the article was conceived at the Onion, Adams was working for its sister publication the AV Club. A Michigan native, he had recently moved to Chicago from Austin, where there’s not much of a fall season.
“In Austin, November would roll around without a chill in the air. I could feel something was supposed to be changing, but it wasn’t happening, and it drove me nuts,” he says. “For all that time, there was this piece of me missing. When I moved to Chicago in 2011, I was just so excited to return to a place where there were seasons and an actual fall.”
That’s when “that sort of autumnal wardrobe totally took over my life,” he says. “All cardigans and plaids.” In other words, what you see in the “Mr. Autumn Man” article isn’t a costume. “That was literally how I dressed every day circa 2012.”
“Often, people who are in the photos for the [Onion] articles are just people who work in the office,” Adams explains. “So when that headline was pitched, my friend and former AV Club colleague Kyle Ryan was pulling double duty as managing editor of the Onion. They were talking about art, and Kyle just said, ‘That’s how Erik Adams dresses every day. Like, we don’t have to find somebody for this. Just go ask him to be in this photo.’ I was happy to oblige.”
Thus, Mr. Autumn Man became larger than life. Adams became the face of a community: men who unabashedly lean into autumnal traditions.
The Mr. Autumn Man meme cycle has been enjoyable, Adams says. “It seems more popular than it ever was. I start to see people — and by people I mean my Twitter feed — be like, ‘Today in New York!’ and they’ll post the photo from the article.”
Eventually, Adams realized a love for fall is “pretty generic. … There’s nothing special about loving this part of the year. I mean, there’s a reason the cider-mill industrial complex functions the way it does, and it’s because there’s not only Mr. Autumn Man and Ms. Autumn Woman, there are thousands for us,” Adams says. “You can recognize yourself in that photo.”
That’s the joke that makes the article work, he explains: “Dennis Clemons fancies himself this monarch, this nobleman, when in fact he’s indulging in activities beloved by thousands if not millions.”
Take Logan Cummins, a 38-year-old in Chicago, who’s a self-described basic bro:
“I’m so relieved that it’s less humid and finally in the range of temperature that’s acceptable,” he raves. “I can wear layers but don’t yet have to wear a coat like full-blown winter!” Then there are the seasonal flavors: “Everything from tailgate recipes to Mom’s homemade chili to pumpkin-flavored treats to candy corn. I may singlehandedly keep the candy corn industry alive.”
What’s more, fall is “peak season as a husband of Instagram,” Cummins concludes. “Apple-picking, pumpkin patches, corn mazes, football spirit wear. My wife is constantly capturing ’grammable content.”
“I’ve always been an Autumn Man,” Chris Csont, 36, tells MEL. “Calling myself Mr. Autumn Man is kind of a joke, but there’s nothing ironic about it.”
“I love having a season that I can love wholeheartedly, even if that love can seem goofy,” he explains. “It’s a sensory thing, too: the crunch of the leaves, the flavors of cider and donuts, the sun hitting the leaves when they’re at their peak colors. I love being able to take a hot cup of coffee on a cool walk outside.”
I also spoke with Justin, a man in Texas whose love for fall made him an instant meme, just like Adams.
He’s unfazed by it all. “As I’ve gotten older, I appreciate things that are offered at this time — the pumpkin flavored things, new scented candles, etc. — so I’m not offended by the term ‘basic’ at all. I actually find it kind of funny.”
Being a proud basic bro, he says, is “about embracing that side of you that enjoys the little things, even if they are slightly ridiculous.”
Like the army of Basic Fall Bros following in his ranks, Adams too has had to come to terms with the Mr. Autumn Man inside him.
“It’s a funny thing. I kind of resented it for a few years, because for one thing, it’s definitely going to reach more people than anything that has my actual byline on it,” he says. “But then I came around to it. The way people anticipate it, it makes it feel like I’m the star of a beloved holiday TV special.”
So what makes “Dennis Clemons” such a funny character? He’s “coalesced” all of these universally loved fall experiences into a “persona with one defining attribute,” Adams says. Also, Mr. Autumn Man is secretly “kind of a dick,” he points out. At the end of the article, you learn about his much grumpier winter persona, “Mr. Asshole Winter Man.”
But in September, that hardly matters. When fall begins, “it’s like I’m the Great Pumpkin, but I actually show up,” Adams says.
Adams’ friend recently asked him if he’d ever been recognized on the street as Mr. Autumn Man. “I never have,” he admits. “Which I think is because anyone could be Mr. Autumn Man. There’s a real universality to it.”