by Ellen Gillingham
There are many cultures throughout the world and each one has developed its own unique brand of humor. Even just within America, many minority groups have their own sense of humor. As Walker argues, “members of racial and ethnic groups have developed their own forms of humor as a way of coping with discrimination” (Walker). I would take this point further, not just to include racial and ethnic groups, but cultural groups as well. I would like to focus specifically on how the humor in the American Deaf community reflects their culture.
Humor in any culture may be expected to give pleasure and laughter. It allows community members to share experiences and create a bond between the jokester and audience (Erting). American Deaf culture has grown throughout the years with the American Sign Language (ASL) and increases in video, text, and online communication. Along with a rich folklore of cultural norms and values, humor can be used as a creative expression of these systems. For the Deaf community, this sharing of experiences is important, “especially because many Deaf people only become members of their community late, having grown up without the company of other Deaf people” (Sutton-Spence and Napoli). Humor can help new members of the community find their identities. Humor not only gives pleasure and laughter, but a sense of connection through shared experiences. In some jokes, humor functions as a way to describe the culture. This gives and expresses the community’s defining characteristics.
The humor of Deaf communities primarily encompasses the dominant visual experience of Deaf people, but humor traditions in the hearing society also play an influencing role. Within standup comedy, there are several notable comedians. In order to relate American humor theories beyond English and the hearing community, I will show how visual aspects of humor are emphasized, although other humor theories are still at play. This will be accompanied by analyses of standup that performed in ASL. Comedy demonstrates the Deaf cultural way of interacting with the world.
The common American humor theories of incongruity, machine, relief, and superiority summarize different ways humor works. Many of these theories come into play with Deaf humor and in examples, I will present from comedic performers who use sign language. However, different aspects of Deaf culture make certain theories more prominent compared to audible jokes.
Additionally, humor functions within Deaf culture to deal with how they are often oppressed. For many years, Deaf people have experiences oppression from the majority culture, so naturally humor incorporates the collective dynamic spirit of the culture. Characteristic of ethnic humor, Deaf humor may be used to support the in-group. Deaf humor “supports the Deaf in-group by teaching new members of the community the rules of their society and reinforcing these rules for existing members” (Sutton-Spence and Napoli).
Support of the in-group often involves attacking the out-group (Dorinson). In Deaf culture, the major identifiable out-group is hearing society. Jokes about hearing people making idiots of themselves is very widespread in sign languages. It may be a response to linguistic and other forms of oppression (Lane, Hoffmeister and Bahan).
One notable Deaf-comedic performer is Andrew Fisher. He is a standup comedian who is “trying to end the deaf-comedic world’s long silence by telling jokes in American Sign Language” (Fisher, Deaf Comedy Jam). Fisher performs with an interpreter, who says his jokes aloud. However, Deaf people are not the only ones who use ASL.
Keith Wann is an American child of two deaf adults (CODA). He is a stage actor and comedian. He is also known for the viral YouTube ASL video parody of Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” in 2006. Wann is an original breakthrough performing ASL artist, starting over twenty years ago. Similar to Fisher, Wann’s is working to represent the Deaf and CODA culture in mainstream media.
Kambri Crews is an American comedic storyteller based in New York City. Crews was highlighted as a top comedy choice in the May 19, 2008 edition of Time Out New York, which called her an “emerging monologist” (Bender). Like Wann, Crews is also a CODA. Her comedic storytelling deals with finding the humor in her unique childhood memories. She mixes conventional monologues with ASL.
Many jokes can be successfully translated from English to ASL. They are still funny because of the shared appreciation of basic American humor. These jokes succeed in both Deaf and hearing culture. They may be especially entertaining when the visual form of ASL because of an expressive delivery. However, these jokes originated in English, so they are not the main focus of Deaf comedy.
Because visual communication is so critical in Deaf languages, it follows that Deaf humor is additionally based in the visual. This means that it relies heavily upon visual-manual expression. The content of Deaf jokes and comedic anecdotes is driven by the visual opposed to wordplay. In this way, Deaf humor is an embodiment of Deaf culture. In her book on Deaf perspectives, Carol Erting says, “we depend on our eyes for most things, and humor is no exception” (Erting). Deaf culture focuses heavily on the visual experience of the world. Humor is integrally related to culture. It is based on an individual’s understanding of the world. It is one way people share their perceptions of the world and know that others share their beliefs and sense of humor (Cody). Deaf humor is expressed through the visual linguistic medium of sign languages.
I will focus on American Deaf communities and ASL in order to link the performances to American humor. However, the Rachel Sutton-Spence and Donna Jo Napoli relate that, “commentaries on humor in other national Deaf communities suggest that [American Deaf communities are] not unique” (Sutton-Spence and Napoli). With the rising popularity of YouTube on the Internet, Deaf jokes spread rapidly. Humorous signing becomes international across Deaf communities. They also spread simply through personal contact.
Andrew Fisher’s Living in New York is a standup piece where Fisher explains the attitudes of people in his town. He signs the story of how he was sitting on the subway, when a pregnant woman asked for his seat before he would offer it to her. The story is not very funny as the interrupter speaks it. Its humor lies in Fisher’s visual expressions. When he signs what the pregnant woman says to him, he embodies her. His facial expression shows that her look was directed at him intentionally. The way he communicates her statement is with sharp demanding gestures. This generates laughs from the audience, especially when Fisher puts his hand on his imaginary impregnated belly to further imitate the woman. ASL jokes that are visually funny often do not have the same wit when spoken.
This is known as ‘roleshift’, in which signers embody the characters they are referring to. When a signer embodies the characters through a transfer of person to themselves, his or her body movements are understood to be the body movements of the characters (Sutton-Spence and Napoli). As seen here, many Deaf people are quite creative in their descriptions of the world around them. They learn how to imitate different people. Every identifying characteristic of the person would be imitated, right down to the way he or she walked (Erting). This mocking can be misinterpreted as ridicule. However, the goal is entertainment and appreciation of the unique language that can convey characteristics accurately.
Fisher continues his joke relating that he understood she needs the seat, but is disappointed that she did not give him the chance to do a good deed. Here, he depicts the woman as a poor tired pregnant women. If he had been given the chance to offer her his seat, he fantasizes that he would have been able to walk down the train like Saint Francis, with birds on his arms (Fisher, Living in New York). Here, he expands his arms gloriously to show the angelic feeling that he wished for. The tone of the interpreter is bland and monotone, which makes the story seem boring. However, the visual interpretations and exaggerations make the performance funny.
Some types of visual humor do not need sign language or any language for enjoyment. An Keith Wann and Peter Cook demonstrate in their physical comedy routine, the visual elements of slapstick are very popular in the Deaf community. Like in many films and television shows, slapstick, or physical comedy is enjoyable for the wider hearing society, but a main focus in Deaf entertainment. “From Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy to Mr Bean and home-video disasters on television” even the visual humor of older cartoons is as popular with Deaf children as it is with hearing ones (Sutton-Spence and Napoli).
“Snafu ASL in the Park” is a comedic performance by Peter Cook and Keith Wann. Both are nationally known ASL performers. The piece starts with both performers in chairs. Cook eats from a serving size bag of potato chips. Wann scoots towards his fellow performer with his chair and peers into his bag. Then Wann pulls out his own family size bag of Cheetos. He eats them with a tone of showing off his superior snack by goofing around with the Cheetos by putting them around his ear and in his nose. He even acts as if he is going to offer Cook one of his Cheetos, but jerks the bag back at the last second spilling them on the ground. The audience laughs at all of these stunts, but laughs especially hard at Wann’s look of disappointment and regret when Cook pulls out a sandwich. However, this look is overcome by a look of vengeance, as Wann pulls out a big baguette, hitting Cook in the head with it. The exaggerated back-and-forth continues with different stunts done with different foods. For example, Wann drinks pickle juice from the jar and filtering coffee with a sock.
The act is funny based on the visual performance. Facial expression is an essential part of Deaf communication, so it is no surprise that it is an essential part of Deaf humor. Facial expression is frequently exaggerated. As well as being entertaining for the audience, exaggeration allows signer’s to demonstrate their language skills (Sutton-Spence and Napoli). In addition, comic relief is provided at the most suspenseful moments, to relieve the physical and mental pressure of the action. This is known as relief theory and applies to how Wann would pull out different foods and examine them before allowing the audience to know what he was going to do with them. The moment of relief comes when Wann puts the food together in creative ways to make the audience laugh. This relieves some of the pressure of not knowing what he will do with the strange assortment of objects.
The basic requirement for physical comedy is action in which “wildly improbable situations” are performed (Stern). Wann demonstrates this by doing unusual things with his food, like using a sock as a coffee filter. The audience would not expect the sock to be used in this way or to be used at all, while he is eating. Therefore, it is incongruous and improbably that he does this and similar actions. In addition, if this scene was written or described in a sound-based language such as English, this scene would lose much of its humor. The visual irony of a simple task, such as having lunch with a friend, turning into a huge mess is an image rich with humor.
Visual perception is a strong component of Deaf humor, which can include “characteristics of different people, world events, and basically everything we perceive through our eyes” (Erting). Wann and Cook’s scene, although ridiculous, is an example of how culture is passed on and reinforced in the shared experience of performance. It demonstrates how Wann, Cook, and their audience as a culture see the world and translate it into humor.
In her book, The Deaf Way, Carol Erting explains comical sights outside of standup for the Deaf community. Her experiences are not always shared with the larger American audience. She explains how Deaf people do not experience movies in the same way. The culture in the movies is different from the culture of their daily lives. A hearing audience may be laughing uncontrollably from a visually dull conversation scene. When humor is based on wordplay, it may not be a part of Deaf culture.
On the other hand, a Deaf audience may laugh uncontrollably based on visual cues. While the conversation scenes appear dull, action scenes tend to be over exaggerated. Deaf people find reactions and overly dramatic expressions funny. Erting gives the example of watching King Kong on an ASL retreat for a group of people who are not deaf. They were not allowed to use voice or depend on hearing. Watching the movie with the sound off, the hearing audience was able to realize that Deaf audiences have known throughout their lives: “The actors’ expressions are hysterically funny. On the screen, the New Yorkers are running for their lives, with the shadow of the monster ape looming over their heads, yet the people experiencing this spectacle visually for the first time were laughing” (Erting). This experience gave the hearing people a glimpse of how funny simple visual humor can be.
People who are not deaf are always forcing Deaf people to conform to a normative hearing standard in society. People may make Deaf people try to make sense out of odd mouth movements with over-exaggerated facial expressions and gestures. To fight back at this oppression the Deaf community member may show a hearing person in a state of confusion and stupidity. Many jokes form around the idea of a Deaf person outsmarting a hearing person.
Carol Erting gives the example of the famous “Hitchhiker” story:
A Deaf man is driving along and stops to pick up a hitchhiker, who cannot understand his signs but welcomes the ride. The Deaf man, anxious to reach his destination, is speeding and eventually is pulled over by a cop. Of course, the policeman begins talking with pursed lips to the driver. When it is clear that the driver is deaf, the officer, who cannot sign decides to gesture a simple warning to slow down. The hitchhiker observes this with interest. Later on that night, the weary Deaf man pulls over and trades places with his passenger. The hitchhiker, also in a hurry, does exactly what the Deaf man did – he speeds. He too sees the flashing police lights behind him and pulls over. Again, an officer starts speaking to the driver. The hitchhiker, expecting to take advantage of his new-found trick, shakes his head and points to his ears. However, this time, the police officer begins to sign, “My parents were deaf. I know sign language You were speeding….” (Erting)
These tales are abundant with revenge and justice because the rude offender is always put in his or her place. This joke specifically triggers the common anxiety that hearing people, if given the occasion, would find ways to take advantage of the language and culture of the Deaf community. It serves as a warning to those who may consider trying to benefit from Deaf culture.
In several standup pieces, Andrew Fisher discusses hearing people. He often uses the roleshift to embody the hearing people. For example, in “Obligatory Interpreter Jokes,” he pokes fun at how drunk hearing people think he has a strong intimating voice. However, the strong voice is his interpreter. He gives an example of showing a hearing person in a moment of stupidity. This calls into play the superiority theory because the audience and comedian show superiority to the fool, who cannot “make his mind up about who to argue with” the signer or the interpreter (Fisher, Obligatory Interpreter Jokes). Fisher’s roleshift of the drunken hearing person is funny. In addition, “men laugh at the infirmities of others” as stated by Thomas Hobbes, outlining the superiority theory, so Fisher’s joke causes the audience to laugh because the fool could not understand the role of the interpreter for the Deaf comedian (Lyttle).
Humor is an essential part of all lives. Analyzing minority cultures shows that every one of them incorporates humor. In the case of the American Deaf community, humor stems from dealing with oppression because humor is just another way of understanding social history, cultural institutions. It also teaches the development of a sense of national identity and threats to identity (Walker). Specifically, the visual world is a crucial element of Deaf humor as evident in the use of the visual medium of sign languages. The humor outlined here demonstrates that there are several common aspects between the humor of Deaf and hearing people in the United States of America. However, Deaf humor entails a strong visual drive for its full appreciation.
American Humor. By Cornelia Cody. Perf. Cornelia Cody. University of Maryland, College Park. 23 October 2012. Lecture.
Bender, Hy. Best New York Comedy. 18 May 2008. Web. 9 December 2012.
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Erting, Carol. The Deaf Way: Perspectives from the International Conference on Deaf Culture. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 1994. Web.
Fisher, Andrew. Deaf Comedy Jam Allison Van Siclen. 1 July 2012. Web.
Lane, Harlan, Robert Hoffmeister and Ben Bahan. A journey into the DEAF-WORLD. San Diego: Dawn Sign Press, 1996. Web.
Living in New York. By Andrew Fisher. Perf. Andrew Fisher. 5 January 2012. Web.
Lyttle, Jim. Myweb. 2003. Web. 20 November 2012.
Obligatory Interpreter Jokes. By Andrew Fisher. Perf. Andrew Fisher. 5 January 2012. Web.
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