Comedy’s Toughest Gig: The World of Stand-up Sign-Language Interpreters

ASL interpreter Denise Herrera works a Leslie Jones performance. Photo: Courtesy of Rochester Institute of Technology

Once he noticed an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter parked close to him, Robin Williams, like many other comedians, had a habit of getting crude with them. In one performance posted to YouTube, Williams addresses the interpreter as though he is an exotic carnival act. After the interpreter dutifully signs something Williams spoke, the comedian feigns marvel and says to the audience, “How cool is that?”

Facing the interpreter in anticipation of his inevitable next sign, Williams burps, “Blow me.” The interpreter does his job, and the audience laughs — at the interpreter, constrained under lingual subjugation. Then, Williams gratuitously adds, “What a great fucking night,” imitating the interpreter’s hand gestures. He says the interaction is fast becoming “like Deliverance with Helen Keller.” Such a bit, caked with condescension, might play well with many showgoers, particularly the hearing ones. But ASL interpreters themselves may not be so charmed by a comedian breaking the deaf audience’s fourth wall.

“I’ve had to educate so many comics on that,” says Emilia Lorenti-Wann, an ASL interpreter who’s worked comedy shows for the past 25 years. “It’s the worst thing because it’s like you are just throwing my job out the window, and your job out the window, to get this cheap laugh.”

Prior to showtime, Lorenti-Wann pleads with stand-ups she’s working with not to interact with her during their set. “They’ll just [say], ‘How do you say fuck? How do you say shit? How do you say motherfucking shit?’” she says. “Everybody thinks it’s funny except the interpreter.” She remembers one comedian who went so far as to lick the bald head of an interpreter she knows. These gags often upset the interpreter, disrupt the service they provide for the hearing-imparied attendees, and call attention to the presence of those special-needs individuals who, for a change of pace, may just be looking for a relaxing night out in anonymity.

Like most interpreters, Lorenti-Wann believes the comic should take care of the hearing showgoers, while the interpreter produces as close to an identical performance for the deaf audience members as possible. That requires hours of dedicated preparation beyond baseline sign-language fluency. “You’ve got to give them an experience; you can’t just give them ‘access,’” she explains.

Denise Herrera, associate interpreter at the Rochester Institute of Technology, a New York school that often books comedy shows and has 1,200 deaf individuals among its roughly 16,000-person student body, thoroughly researches the stand-ups she signs for. (Her ASL comedy interpreting résumé includes John Mulaney, Leslie Jones, and Sebastian Maniscalco.) Even if the performer’s routine is new to her, she says, “I’ll have an idea of what they’re talking about because I read their whole Wikipedia page, or I read a book that they wrote, or I’ll have notes on what they’ve been working on or what they worked on in the past.” She’ll also run a set in front of campus tutors ahead of time, signing along to a video performance of a comic she’s set to work with. Her colleagues may flag certain bits that need work, which allows her “more time to dissect how we can bring this joke or this concept into another language, in ASL, that will make it funny.”

Fast-talking comedians like Kevin Hart mean the ASL interpreter has to be conditioned to keep pace while signing, Lorenti-Wann says, adding that interpreters coupled with stand-ups who favor timely material should catch up on the news. And if a comic relies heavily on callbacks, the ASL interpreter must be hyper-vigilant with their signs — if an item’s first reference doesn’t ring true enough for the deaf audience, the second certainly won’t hit as hard.

Joke timing, so vital to the comedian, is executed in ASL in various ways. An interpreter may emphasize a word by signing it more sharply, with greater authority, or let a concept hang in the air by holding a word’s sign up for a longer interval than they did the previous ones. When they bring it down, and put up a new sign, they’ve manufactured a beat.

Because deaf audience members can’t decipher when a comic changes their voice for an impression, the interpreter has to alter their facial expressions or posture to convey a character shift. For example, when Jim Gaffigan dips into his now iconic audience-member internal monologue voice — stupefied, airy in wonderment, and higher pitched — Lorenti-Wann says that, if she were working with him, to adopt the persona she might draw her shoulders inward and slouch over.

Cindy Gilchrist interprets comedian Brad Garrett’s performance at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2006. Photo: Courtesy of Rochester Institute of Technology

Signing comedians may also require speaking interpreters for hearing audience members, and preparation is vital in those cases too. ASL comic Justin “Wormy” Callaway provides a video of his act and printed text copy to a speaking interpreter in advance of his gigs. He also meets with interpreters to answer any prospective questions, address concerns, and go over some of the finer details of his act, such as wordplay and points of emphasis. “The interpreter doesn’t want to look bad; I don’t want to look bad,” Callaway says. “I want to make sure that [the routine] has the most impact on the hearing audience.”

Lack of preparation leads to underwhelming performances and even misinterpretations, says Keith Wann, a longtime ASL comedian and husband to Emilia Lorenti-Wann, who met him on the ASL comedy circuit. Wann recounts one performance where his speaking interpreter was relatively new to their training and emoted monotonal, short sentences that ate away at the performance’s energy and altered its timing — though the interpreter’s delivery did cause a happy accident.

Wann ran a bit in which he was a child playing hide-and-seek with his disinterested father. “I go in my bedroom, I’m hiding, [and] a couple hours go by, and I come out of the closet to find him,” Wann explains. As he acted out the turning of the doorknob and the opening of the door, his interpreter said, “So that’s when I came out of the closet.” The hearing audience at the show roared at the unintentional pun, made more profound by its lethargic delivery. Not anticipating a laugh at that point, Wann stopped the performance to ask the interpreter what he’d said. Humored by the error, in later sets with other interpreters, Wann worked the same exchange into the bit.

Moshe Kasher, a comic who grew up with two deaf parents, worked as an ASL interpreter for years, beginning at age 17 and stretching into his early days as a comedian. He says he never wanted to interpret a stand-up performance, because “it seems by far the hardest kind of art form” to translate. “I knew better than anybody [that] stand-up is all based on these little turns of phrase, the way you say a thing, and the way you do a double entendre [or] little rhythmic language trick,” he explains. “It just seemed like I would be failing completely. I would have way rather done anything else than a stand-up show.”

Kasher chooses not to engage with ASL interpreters very often, but that doesn’t mean he’s completely against it. “I’ve been doing that kind of thing since I was a little kid,” he says. “Anytime there’s weird tension in the room … I think it creates this spicy environment.” Kasher says he’ll sometimes ask an interpreter, mid-performance, that if he were to begin signing, if they’d have to switch to speaking. Invariably they say yes, and he’ll hand the interpreter his microphone and begin signing his fairly blue act. “Everybody loves it. The interpreters’ minds are blown, the audiences’ minds are blown. It’s always a lot of fun,” he says.

To Kasher, “the deaf audience member that is having their interpreter fucked with is getting a much more genuine experience of stand-up comedy than just watching this automaton translate the show.” Comedians are “always reacting to the circumstances that they’re faced with, and so when you have someone onstage with them that is interpreting, [they’re] always going to react to that.” He compares the deaf audience members’ place at a performance to that of a hearing audience member in the front row — they may not have asked to be the center of attention during crowd work, but “that’s not how comedy works.”

Speaking comedian Bert Kreischer performed by the same code, but a 2004 Northeastern University show early in his career changed his perspective. Taking the stage, he was caught off-guard by the presence of the female ASL interpreter and asked her if she was going to be there with him throughout the performance. She didn’t respond and simply signed what he said to the crowd. Once he understood that she wouldn’t address him, he wished her a good show. But then he turned his back to the audience so the deaf attendees wouldn’t see him speaking into the microphone. Thinking it would look to the deaf audience members like the interpreter was saying his words directly to them, Kreischer uttered, “Between me and you, I really want to suck this guy’s dick.” “She stopped and looked at me, and then the place went crazy,” he says.

A few days later, Kreischer’s booking agent called him and said it appeared the Northeastern show hadn’t gone so well. He was confused. He felt he’d “murdered,” but the interpreter felt dehumanized and, in a letter that Kreischer’s agent got a hold of, took exception to being forced into something she didn’t want to do while working. Kreischer says his wife also admonished him for the trick, and he wrote an apology to the interpreter. Months later, he found out that Northeastern had sent word to other colleges suggesting they not book him. “It fucked me up. I felt like such a bad person,” Kreischer says. “Then I learned from my fuck-up.”

At another show ten years later, Kreischer engaged with his interpreter, this time out of sincere curiosity why she was onstage with him at a privately owned club. Through the interpreter, a deaf couple in the audience explained to him that they enjoyed his show on the Travel Channel, bought tickets to see him, and hired the interpreter. “I was so fucking moved,” he says. “It’s super cool that anyone wants to come see me, but it’s even cooler that someone’s going to go the extra mile to hire someone to bring to the show to tell them what I’m saying.”

Kreischer wound up telling the audience the Northeastern story — at the deaf couple’s request — and says it went over well. Then, during another show in 2016, he welcomed a woman onstage to interpret his popular bit “The Machine Story,” because she wanted deaf people to enjoy it online.

In October 2019, Kreischer says he performed at a theater in Omaha alongside two ASL interpreters who were switching off during his set. He invited both of them onstage with him so they could translate his closer — again, “The Machine Story” — and experience the standing ovation sure to come afterward. But before he began the bit, he recalled that he’d earlier told a tale about how, during most of his life, he’d confused Anne Frank with Helen Keller and was shocked the Nazis were never able to discover Keller hiding in a closet, considering her only means of verbal expression were a forced moan — which he imitated with enhanced aggression.

Kreischer asked the ASL interpreters if they’d translated the Helen Keller joke, and they fell down laughing and told him, “It was very, very difficult for us to translate that.”

Kreischer told the crowd the Northeastern story, and again, it got laughs. “It’s so beautiful that these women can laugh and that everyone can laugh and realize it’s just a joke,” he remarked to the audience, “and I’ll always work harder to be a better person.” Going forward, Kreischer says he’ll consult with ASL interpreters about his material ahead of time and hire interpreters for deaf fans who alert him that they’re in need of one for an upcoming show.

After Kreischer delivered his “The Machine Story” bit that night in Omaha, he got a standing ovation, and says he saw great emotion in the interpreters’ eyes. The pair threw up their hands and wiggled them, giving the sign for “applause” to the deaf people in the crowd.

Comedy’s Toughest Gig: Stand-up ASL Interpreters