I was at a show, in Soho, in London, once, sometime in 2005 or 2006 when this happened. It’s a true story.
I have two friends called Chris, both of whom worked for an arts council called Shape Arts, that promoted the art, craft and music of differently-abled performers – I seem to remember these were predominantly the deaf and hard-of-hearing. It was Chris Davis who organised this outing, to see a deaf comedian.
“See a deaf comedian” is already something you feel uncomfortable with saying, highlighting sight, knowing that hearing is something the artist had had to make do without, in his life. Me? I tend to laugh these things off, I like to think because I know that there’s a human with human sensibilities where others may only see the title ‘deaf’. Sometimes, though, I am not sure if I am not laughing out of embarrassment at myself, for being so rough in delicate situations. But who makes them delicate?
The person with the perceived disability, or those in their presence who are embarrassed to be thankful they do not ‘suffer’ the same deficiencies?
Anyway, this comedian still had, according to him, about thirty percent of his hearing. He was not born deaf, but gradually lost more and more hearing until the age of eighteen, where the rate of his hearing loss seemed to stop, leaving him just enough ability to hear loud things, and to be able to still speak without the instantly recognisable rolling of the tongue a fully-deaf person who tries to speak with, speaks with.
In the hierarchy of the deaf, that meant he was deaf, and not Deaf. Deaf with a capital ‘D’ denotes the condition of being born deaf, and that is one-hundred percent deaf – couldn’t hear a bomb if it blew up behind them. Who knew that such class and caste existed within the context of these communities? Well, that one opened my eyes to the fact I’d long been thinking that all deaf people were just one of two kinds – either staring pleadingly and uncomprehendingly at you, and generally getting in the way, or otherwise muttering incomprehensibly and too loudly and generally being unpleasant. I gave an embarrassed laugh at the realisation I was wrong.
Now, being a deaf comedian, he had a following of similarly-hard-of-hearing groupies, who went to watch…er…no…let’s word that differently (a differently-worded description?) …these people attended many of his shows, in support of ‘one of their own’ who bravely thrust himself in the public eye. (Dammit! Another link to the senses! Insensitivity is large, in this retelling!)
This deaf audience meant that our deaf comedian had to have a sign-language translator, and a pretty young thing she was. I cannot imagine how tough it must be to translate a series of off-the-cuff remarks, jokes and puns in British Sign-Language to a large audience, but there you have it, another gift, as it were. Our comedian was also not one to shy away from risque jokes and sexual innuendo (so I at least, if no one else, really enjoyed the show) and there were times that the translator would falter, blush, and deliver a punchline in all its agonising sign-languaged filth.
At one point the funnyman broke from the story he was telling to remark on her competence before diving off on a tangent about how he always insisted on a female translator and always pushed to see how far he could go with the dirty jokes, before they either refused to translate or pretended to be too pure or inexperienced to know the words, expletives or sexual situations he was breaking out into, in his act. He generally found that “muff dive” was the limit – and here he stopped, turned, and stared at his companion expectantly. Silence fell on the audience, all eyes on her. She smiled, painfully, blushed crimson and stared back.
“Well…come on!” urged the jokester. We all laughed, and quick as you like, she arched her index fingers and thumbs together as she joined both hands in a parody of the vaginal subject matter, brought it up to her face and gave the opening created between the two fingers and two thumbs an almost puritanical lick, closed her eyes and dropped her hands to her sides, silently shouting to the main act that this, too, was her limit.
The room erupted into cheers and a loud applause – what a consummate showman! He had elicited the most rousing applause for her, not himself – this was more kudos than she would have received through any effusive thanking at the end of the show: for she was no longer assistant, no longer merely a tool, she was part of the act, part of the show, and exquisite agony she felt as she allowed the joke to carry her to a point beyond her comfort zone connected everyone in that room: we were ALL beyond our comfort zone: the deaf comedian, standing up and telling us how his life changed when he lost his hearing; the audience – long shepherded into a mute, embarrassed world of political correctness now relieved at being able to kick back and enjoy a shared experience with a man not really so different from themselves, and this young girl who was normally too much of a lady to say such things as muff dive. We all connected, hearing-abled and hearing-impaired, through our laughter and shared embarrassment with that lass, we showed our humanity, our frailty and our unity.
Of course the show must go on, and our man stood before us and went on to say, as the laughter died down, that he had been taught his lesson some months back, when the translator turned out to be a lesbian, and it took her thirty minutes to sign “muff dive”!
More laughter, more tears, more aching sides – what a night.
I sit here, six years later, and still I laugh – and out loud, too, though there is no one here to hear me, when I think of that night, and that story.
© Dave Luis 2012. All Rights Reserved.