Taking American Sign Language Comedy to the Mainstream Masses

Standing in line on the sidewalk in front of the Nuyorican Poets Café is usually a time of sensory overload. The performance space, located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, is best known for raucous poetry slams, and while you wait to get in on an ordinary Friday night, you knock elbows with scores of anxious others chatting away, perhaps to ease some tension. Because seating is on a first-come, first-serve-basis, they all can only hope to secure a spot in the audience once the show begins. However, on this particular sunny Friday evening in the middle of June, this stretch of pavement is crowded, but it’s also rather quiet. A group of people aged between their early twenties and retirement years – and of various ethnic backgrounds – have gathered in front of the cafe, and they are conversing, exclusively using American Sign Language (ASL) to do so. At 6:00pm the doorman will check IDs and welcome inside about 65 people, most of whom are deaf, to take in the location’s regularly booked show called ASL Slam.

For about an hour prior to the start of the performances – which can range from storytelling and poetry to sketch, improv, and standup comedy – there’s time for the audience to mingle, indicating that ASL Slam is more than just a show; it’s a social event. There’s no DJ spinning tunes or dancing, but there is a bartender pouring drinks, sliding them across the bar to friendly patrons catching up with each other, or meeting for the first time. The glide of the glass can be heard clear across the room.  

When the show starts, the tall, charismatic host Douglas Ridloff – who doubles as ASL Slam’s producer – claps his hands, raises them high and wiggles them, coaxing the audience to sign “applause” with him. An on-mic interpreter, placed in the audience for the benefit of the hearing crowd members, excitedly says, “All right! Welcome to ASL Slam!”

Sections of the show are devoted to conversations with the audience about signing preferences, and sometimes audience members are brought onstage to perform as well. When asked if, on top of just facilitating a fun night out, ASL Slam is designed to empower members of the deaf community, Ridloff, 41, says, “I definitely aspire for that.”

Arguably the highlight of ASL Slam shows, though, are the comedians. They can be as funny as any household-name standup comic, but because of the nature of the language they must utilize, they’re far more physical, commanding the audience members’ eyes with enviable astuteness. This combination of talents, merged with increased cultural awareness and performance opportunities, have provided evidence that ASL comedians are, at the very least, chipping away at mainstream success, and might just be about ready to break through completely.

“My overall goal is to reach other communities,” Ridloff says of his work on ASL Slam, “to show them that sign language is sophisticated. It’s not something that should be closed off. It should be showcased.” He’s already franchised-out ASL Slam to other cities, like Washington, DC, and the presence of miked interpreters performing in tandem with the ASL-wielding talent make the show accessible and enjoyable for hearing audiences.

Decades ago, deaf comedians most frequently performed for deaf audiences in clubs that became hangouts for members of the deaf community. In an email, Peter Cook – who’s been an ASL performer for over 30 years, and is widely regarded as a sign-language-comedy innovator for his ability to embody various characters in his act – writes, “deaf clubs are about to cease to exist.”

For years, college campuses, especially those that housed sign language programs, were primary targets for ASL comedians – virtually all of whom work part-time as interpreters and teachers – because their high-octane acts created a fun atmosphere for learning.

“Once students understand the humor in the language, they really begin to grasp it,” says Keith Wann, 48, a hearing performer who began his stage career using ASL in the early 2000s.

Wann, who calls Cook a mentor, observes a growth in raunchiness among the performers of late, which may be lending itself to broader audiences. “In the beginning it was very Pollyanna,” Wann says of ASL comedy. “People were shocked when I first came out and did risqué, PG-13 material.” One of his early popular bits focused on characters who confused a sign where thumbs and pointer fingers were put together to form a triangle to mean “vagina,” when it was intended to signify “pizza.” “I think now there are people who’ve passed me and do rated-R stuff.”

But what really separates ASL performers from traditional standup comics is the physicality within their acts. “Being a standup you can sit there with your hands in your pockets,” Wann says. “Jim Gaffigan does act-outs with just his voice [but] with signing comedians, we have to act it all out physically.” Wann sees that some speaking comics like Kevin Hart will briefly imitate with facial expressions, or execute a quick body gesture. “In ASL we have to keep that posture throughout the whole bit,” Wann asserts.

The physical toll put on Wann’s body after years of performing recently caught up with him. He’s retired from the stage because this past April he ruptured a patella tendon, jumping during a joke he’d been doing for 15 years. “People were loving it,” he recalls. “They said, ‘It looked like you meant to do that.’” Wann had to repeatedly sign “time out” to indicate he was sincerely hurt. “It was kind of awkward,” Wann admits, though he has no regrets, saying he wants to spend more time with his two children and his wife, while making room for new deaf talent to emerge.

One of the younger, prominent comedy ASL performers on the junket these days is the Washington, DC resident who goes by the stage name Wink. Like Wann, Wink is a CODA, short for “child of a deaf adult,” and though he audibly speaks, he had an easier time as a child communicating with ASL than with verbalized English because of the frequency with which he used ASL at home. “What I see is there are [ASL] performers who are deaf, hearing and CODAs,” Wink says, and it’s important to differentiate for various reasons. He says he doesn’t want to be viewed as “a mouthpiece” for the deaf community simply because he communicates using ASL, and not all ASL performers should depict the deaf life experience onstage.

Longtime ASL comedian Crom Saunders, a deaf performer, says, “You might occasionally find a deaf person who’s a little resistant to hearing people communicating through sign.” Ultimately, though, Saunders says, “it’s not a competition,” adding, “Now, the community is more comfortable with deaf people getting out there and talking about our own experience.”

Regardless of whether or not an ASL standup comedian is hearing, hard of hearing, or deaf, most performers agree that for the art form to truly make a mainstream splash, they’re going to have to work closely with hand-picked interpreters, show after show. “I think the biggest challenge when performing for hearing audiences is to maintain the timing of delivering the materials,” Peter Cook wrote in the same email. “Deaf performers need a great team of interpreters to convey the message, especially the punchlines.”

Some acts, including Wink, work a stipulation into their contracts that they are able to choose their own interpreters for performances. Wink, who tells other ASL performers they should even develop personal relationships with their interpreters, says, “The discomfort that an awkward interpreter gives the audience just completely overpowers whatever you’re doing on stage, [and] the audience is not going to blame the interpreter; they’re going to blame the performer.”

Booking not only performers but also interpreters is a hurdle Jodi Skeris has had to leap over as the producer of #DeafTalent & ASL Comedy, a regular show at UCB Sunset in Los Angeles. Due in part to limited resources in the past, Skeris and a team of volunteer interpreters often took on interpreter duties themselves, but more recently, UCB Sunset has been able to generate a budget for certified interpreters who work the shows – though they still ask performers to send scripts, and sometimes videos, to interpreters ahead of time if at all possible.

From the inception of the #DeafTalent & ASL Comedy show, Skeris says the goal was to have ASL comedy performance become more mainstream, which is partly why she tapped CJ Jones as host. Jones, who has been a stage performer for over 40 years, says the secret to ASL comedy crossing over into the mainstream in his mind lies in the comic’s ability to make the material relatable to both deaf and hearing audiences. “Hearing people are not familiar with deaf culture, sign language, and so forth,” Jones says. “I try to match my stories with humor, while explaining my background … so hearing people can understand my upbringing and my culture. Then, they can relax and I can just perform for both the hearing and the deaf at the same time. I use that material so that we can appreciate both worlds.”

Jones may be the embodiment of the rise of deaf culture in the mainstream. He has a role in the just-released action-drama film Baby Driver, which also features the likes of Jon Hamm and Kevin Spacey. At the premiere of the movie, Jones says he was repeatedly told by interviewers that they’d never seen a deaf performer in a movie and was asked how it feels to be on the big screen as a deaf actor. “It was a beautiful breakthrough,” he says. “It was about time for the mainstream to open up and accept diversity. The fact that I’m black or Hispanic or deaf especially, coming into the mainstream, it’s good for sure.”

Though they’ll have to overcome additional adversity – in collaborating, in wrangling accepting houses and crowds, and in continuing to push the limits of the art form itself – ASL comedy performers might soon find more general audiences seeing what they’re saying.  

Photo by Kerri Clark Designs.

Taking American Sign Language Comedy to the Mainstream […]