Sign Language and Comedy

by Craig Evans

When you think about physical comedy, it may conjure up images of the pratfalls of silent comedians or the absurd bird-like leg movements of John Cleese (pre-hip replacements). But the role of physicality in comedy is not confined to the slapstick genre or one-note jokes. Far from it! Even the most word-oriented humour relies on a subtle gesture or facial expression.

Take, for example, gags which are based entirely on wordplay. Jimmy Carr, a major proponent of this type of comedy, may be a self-confessed ventriloquist’s doll appearance-wise, but a raised eyebrow here and confused side-to-side movement of the head there, and suddenly the joke is far funnier than the wordplay alone.

Carr’s gestures express his attitude towards the jokes he tells, which in turn can guide the audience’s own way of looking at them. For example, if he were to say something risqué that the audience may be reluctant to laugh at, a gesture of affected obliviousness can help defuse any tension holding the laughter back.

But Jimmy Carr is a gagster. There are many observational comedians for whom movement and physical expressions are very much key to what makes them funny, and I am not just talking about the likes of Lee Evans. The Irish stand-up Jimeoin is someone whose facial expressions alone could probably sustain their own comedy tour.

Indeed, gesture is a vital part of comedy performing. This got me thinking about another community for whom gesture is especially important – the deaf community.

The physically expressive nature of a lot of comedy, particularly when the humour is as much derived from body language as it is from what is being said, seems like it must be very accessible to deaf people. However, there must also be many constraints on what the deaf community can access and enjoy in terms of comedy.

To find out more, I decided to search the newspaper archive on Nexis for information about how the comedy needs of deaf people have been addressed.

Back in 1990, the Associated Press reported on how, in New York, ex -used car salesman John Galub created a stand-up comedy act using interpreter Mara Zuckerman. Here’s how the AP reported Zuckerman’s view on the subject:

Puns and rhymes don’t work with the deaf. Nor do impressions. “They’re not going to know something sounds like Cary Grant,” Zuckerman says. But visual humor – mime and physical impersonations, such as a funny walk or a parody of a famous rock musician – often works. Dirty jokes also get laughs, she says: “Most sexually related signs are very graphic, so both the deaf audience and the hearing audience get a kick out of that.”

The Associated Press went on to describe how the interpreter’s job was just that – to interpret:

Zuckerman stays as close as possible to the traditional role of interpreter, despite comedy’s non-traditional demands. “If a comic is going to get up there and be bawdy, I’m not there to change his act to make it more palatable to the audience or funnier or less funny,” she said. “If he’s going to bomb, then I’m going to let him bomb.”

A similar story in The Independent in 2010, about an event in Leicester, reveals how little has changed after twenty years – comedy gig interpreters are still a novelty, as this headline shows:

Did you see the one about ..? A comedy club has hired a sign language interpreter to make sense of the jokes for deaf customers.

The interpreter in question was Jessica Heller who, at the time, said she was a little worried some of the jokes would not come across, “particularly those which rely on wordplay”. One of the comedians she was scheduled to interpret was not so worried, as The Independent reported:

He said his style was “quite dry”, with a lot of wordplay. “But it should come across well.” He added: “I am not very active onstage like, say, Lee Evans, and I do a lot of one-liners. My jokes are all self-contained: you don’t need to get the punchline and a specific action at the same time to get it, so the delay should not cause me a problem.”

Given this level of confidence, it is easy to appreciate why the interpreter was worried. Wordplay often includes a play on sound, such as puns, which can easily be lost in translation. The comedian also seemed to be underestimating the role that his body language can play even with comedy that is primarily verbal.

A far more conscientious approach to interpreting comedy using sign language is provided by Kelly Hodgins. This is represented by an article in The Sunday Star-Times, reporting on the 2013 New Zealand International Comedy festival:

Hodgins has been interpreting for 12 years and does work at universities, in boardrooms and for theatre. But she finds comedy, with its subtleties and complex layers, the most difficult to convey. “Humour is very different to everyday speak, it is a very different skill set. You are using a lot more of your facial features, to get across the humour. If we just did the signs, it wouldn’t portray the comedy.”

 

One of the interpreters’ biggest challenges is to have the deaf audience getting the punchline at the same time as the rest of the audience. “We don’t go word for word, we go concept for concept. It is not just what they are saying, but it is ‘How do I put that across so that the deaf audience are laughing at the same time?’ ” Hodgins said.

 

Some may argue that all this focus on sign language interpreters is getting away from the real issue which is that the deaf community needs its own champions of comedy. This may be true to some extent, and the likes of Nottingham’s John Smith show how only a deaf comedian can effectively satirise experiences relevant to the deaf community.

However, deaf people also share the same social and cultural experiences as everyone else, and so too should they share the comedy. Perhaps more comedians should think about employing sign language interpreters or even learning to use sign language as part of their act; after all, is anybody ever going to appreciate the physicality of their comedy more than those for whom physical gesture is encoded in their language?

 

Day, S (2013) This just might be the toughest gig in comedy. The Sunday Star-Times (Aukland, New Zealand). April 28. P9

Rawlinson, K (2010) Did you see the one about ..?; A comedy club has hired a sign language interpreter to make sense of the jokes for deaf customers. The Independent. September 23. P6

Kirk Semple, W (1990) Comedian creates stand-up comedy for the deaf. The Associated Press. May 10

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