Let’s get this out of the way at the top: I do love apple-picking, haunted hayrides, and “The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow.” I believe the air takes on a distinct aroma as the calendar turns from September to October, and that the pops of red, orange, and yellow accompanying this change are some of the most beautiful sights in all of nature—one might compare it to a giant mural. And yes, I have been known to pair cardigans and tartans. That’s how I wound up in the picture.
If you’ve been online in the past nine years, you might know the one. A bearded white guy, Starbucks cup in hand, strolls through a landscape of fall foliage. Maybe you’ve come across a re-creation, its subject cradling their coffee just so, face beaming with seasonal contentment. You know him by many names: Mr. Fall; The Autumnal Ambassador; the walking, talking essence of the Northern Hemisphere’s annual tilt away from the sun. You may even be aware of his less-than-secret identity, that of a veteran staffer at a pop-culture website.
For the record, I am not Mr. Autumn Man. Mr. Autumn Man is Dennis Clemons, 32, a Boston resident whose weekend agenda includes “snuggling up on the couch sipping hot apple cider and watching Meet Me In St. Louis on DVD” and “meeting up with his friends, the Autumn Gang, to watch fall sports and eat fall snacks.”
But I am Mr. Autumn Man, in a way that cannot be claimed by anyone who’s made “the veritable High Priest of the Harvest Season” their personal avatar since he first strolled into the pages of The Onion on October 10, 2012. This favor I paid to my colleagues at America’s Finest News Source took on a life of its own, inspiring Halloween costumes, multiple cocktail recipes, and a heartfelt obituary. I’ve been sent screenshots of texts from cousins whose friends don’t believe they’re related to Mr. Autumn Man; come October, I’m guaranteed to see myself in the tweets of people who don’t realize the guy in the photo is one of their Twitter followers.
At times, the article’s prominence has been a source of pride; at others, it’s been a stinging reminder that an hour I spent strolling through Chicago’s Washington Square Park will have a wider reach and a greater impact than anything that ever ran under my byline at The A.V. Club. As I wrap up my run at the site, I’ve gained a renewed appreciation of how large “Mr. Autumn Man Walking Down Street With Cup Of Coffee, Wearing Sweater Over Plaid Collared Shirt” looms over my 13 years here—even during the brief period when Mr. Autumn Man vanished entirely.
The behind-the-scenes story is one of right place, right time. Like all Onion articles, “Mr. Autumn Man” was pitched as a headline, and after that headline received the green light, the staff turned to casting about for the appropriate model. This lit a lightbulb over the head of The A.V. Club’s Kyle Ryan, who was then moonlighting as managing editor of The Onion: The perfect match was already in the building. “Sweater over plaid collared shirt” described most of my wardrobe in the waning days of 2012, when the fashion cues I swiped from the most bookish indie rockers of the ’00s collided with a fanatical embrace of climate-appropriate layers following a four-year stint in Austin, Texas—a place where autumn simply wasn’t autumn.
The Onion had long populated its pages with the faces of the Onion, Inc. offices. The paper’s archives are a parallel history of the A.V. Club staff, from the publications’ salad days in Madison, Wisconsin (there’s Keith Phipps as “Area Turtle Owner” Dennis Frye in 1998) to our more recent run in Chicago (catch Alex McLevy, Josh Modell, Baraka Kaseko, and Danette Chavez as “Determined Circle Of Friends Diligently Traces Back How They Got Onto This Conversation Topic”). Clickhole opened up whole new avenues for Gwen “Watch The Joy In This Woman’s Face When A Kind Stranger Gives A Different Woman A Cactus” Ihnat (co-starring A.V. Club contributor Ashley Ray-Harris) and Caitlin “Sun-Kissed Goddess! This Woman Is Rolling Up Her Sleeves And Turning Her Face To The Sun To Try To Get A Tan During Her 4-Minute Walk To The Grocery Store” PenzeyMoog.
So the request to come to work one day with a couple of shirt-and-sweater options in order to embody an enthusiast for what is, well and truly, my favorite season? This wasn’t out of the ordinary. What was out of the ordinary was the response once the article was published. I should’ve known something was up when “Mr. Autumn Man Walking Down The Street With Cup Of Coffee, Wearing Sweater Over Plaid Collared Shirt” showed up on the menswear blog Put This On within a few hours of going live. It wasn’t long before I was seeing the article all over social media.
In its focus and its structure, “Mr. Autumn Man” is quintessential Onion: The banal made grand, the grand made banal, the central joke hit hard, early, and often—all within the familiar framework of New York Times-style “view from nowhere” news reporting. But this particular joke had a deep resonance. Those who are Mr. Autumn Men were all too happy to be roasted, and those who know Mr. Autumn Men were keen to pass the roasting on. Re-promotions of the article are still shared widely every year—by the simple measure of likes and RTs, Mr. Autumn Man’s legions continue to grow.
At first, I was tickled by the article’s popularity. Like Dennis Clemons himself, it hadn’t dawned on me that so many people felt not just an affinity for autumn, but that they were hinging entire personalities on butternut squash soap and trips to the cider mill. But bemusement soon gave way to something close to resentment. I’d been at the company for four years at that point, and nothing I’d actually written had come close to garnering this much attention. A young writer looking to make his name in TV criticism, I was being shown up and prematurely aged by Mr. Autumn Man. (At 27 years old, I was absurdly salty about Dennis Clemons being 32.)
On the one hand, I should’ve been better prepared: Pieces of original comedy tend to have a wider audience than 1,500-word recaps of New Girl. On the other, I was feeling the pangs of an inferiority complex that The A.V. Club has grown better at combating. Though the site began as the non-satirical entertainment section of The Onion, and was branded for many years as The Onion A.V. Club, at the dawn of the 2010s, we were keen on establishing ourselves as independent from our sister publication. An Onion-indebted sense of humor and irreverence were in The A.V. Club’s DNA, but we demanded to be taken seriously as critics and journalists. Enough “This interview isn’t going to make fun of my client, is it?” emails will do that to you.
I’d had to tell people since October 2008 that although I worked at the Onion, I didn’t work for The Onion. And now my picture being at the top of “Mr. Autumn Man” had my friends asking if I’d written “Mr. Autumn Man” for myself—which would’ve been a mockable offense all on its own. And so I gritted my teeth through the rest of that fall and the next few that followed, looking forward to the first crisp temperatures that called for Seven Swans and shawl collars, but dreading the appearance of that smug-looking bastard who hadn’t yet learned to properly groom his beard.
It took some time, but I eventually accepted the mantle that was thrust upon me. It didn’t hurt that I had started out from a place of identification with the character—again, I didn’t have a hard time finding that outfit. It helped that people genuinely love Mr. Autumn Man, and look forward to his annual re-emergence. I’ve said it before, but it’s a bit like being a part of a beloved holiday special on TV, in a perennial niche carved out alongside the McSweeney’s classic “It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers.” To be able to participate in something of such lasting appeal shouldn’t be taken for granted.
With age (in 2022, I curse Dennis Clemons for his youth) and experience, I’ve grown more comfortable with playing a role in the creative process without stamping my name all over the final product. I have some regrets about not writing more during my tenure as A.V. Club managing editor, but I don’t know if I would trade a handful of bylines for all the time I spent working one-one-with other writers during those years—helping them hone their visions, shape their arguments, and find their voices. Those pieces were all a team effort. So was “Mr. Autumn Man.” I’m grateful to have been a part of those teams.
I made my peace with His Excellency, the Duke of Fall. And then one day, he was gone.
The fall of 2021 was one of major milestones. My wife and I had a baby. I learned my job was moving to Los Angeles, with or without me. And somewhere in between, while visiting the childhood home I hadn’t seen in two years due to a pandemic that anyone in power has given up on fighting, I learned that Mr. Autumn Man had disappeared.
I won’t go into the circumstances that led to “Mr. Autumn Man Walking Down The Street With Cup Of Coffee, Wearing Sweater Over Plaid Collared Shirt” losing its artwork. I’ll let the statements of the mourners stand on their own. What I’ll say is this: I was hurt.
The internet is built on a shoreline, and its tides roll in and out, sweeping away our sandcastles and tossing the garbage of previous generations back at us. “The internet never forgets” they used to say—but they didn’t anticipate the many upsetting ways that the architecture of the web would erode. The proliferation of “Mr. Autumn Man” ensured that the image was still in circulation (please follow the Mr. Autumn Man playlist on Spotify), but it was unceremoniously booted from the URL that it’d called home for nearly a decade, and links to the article on Twitter were generating sad gray rectangles in the place of thumbnails. Thank goodness for those lovable rascals at Clickhole, who’d swiped the the text of the article and posted it under a screenshot of the real McCoy, then cheekily taunted their erstwhile co-workers about it.
I know this is a ridiculous way to feel about an online goof-around that I once felt some degree of antipathy toward. But at the most tumultuous times of my tenure at the many companies who’ve done business as Onion, Inc., I took comfort in the thought that if everything I’d ever done at The A.V. Club were deleted, at least Mr. Autumn Man would still be there. If the mark I left behind couldn’t be my Americans recaps, or this love letter to my wife in the form of a deep dive into The Cars’ self-titled debut, or my interviews with Mel Brooks and Paul Reubens and Jenny Lewis, or any of the pieces that crossed my desk as TV editor and managing editor, or all the stuff I wrote about Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the Muppets, then I’d want it to be Dennis Clemons.
The story has a happy ending. The Duke returns to his pumpkin spice duchy, because he was never fully banished—he was just hiding from public view. Reuniting Mr. Autumn Man with his loyal subjects was one of the last things I wanted to do before leaving The A.V. Club. Turns out it was all as simple as shooting a polite request to my counterpart at The Onion, who restored the picture to the page within minutes. It all felt pretty apt: The favor I did all those years ago was being repaid on my way out the door.
Mr. Autumn Man is back. But Mr. Autumn must also be going. There are corduroys to choose, root vegetables to roast, and driveways to rake. Fall may feel like it’s a million years away right now, but it’ll be here sooner than you think. I have a hunch we’ll be seeing each other again around that time. Watch for me—I’ll be the one walking down the street with a cup of coffee, wearing a sweater over a plaid collared shirt.