My parents are deaf. (Yes- I speak sign language, and no- I won’t teach you. Peasant.) I have grown up knowing and loving deaf culture as it has played a key role in how I have become the person I am. Such a key role, in fact, that I will be starting my ASL-interpreting degree program at a deaf liberal arts college in DC next year. But enough about me!
Apart from being a CODA (child of deaf adults) and bona fide interpreter-hopeful, I am also a person who has performed and written comedy and can appreciate the creative process of penning a good joke. I die for Tina Fey, Liz Meriwether, Robert Carlock, and ingeniously funny writers all across the board. (Last Monday, I spent 26 minutes crying over the fact that I will never be Judd Apatow because he is 1. brilliant and 2. a man.) Knowing this to be my background, a number of friends have asked me about my thoughts on Chelsea Handler’s mockery of Lydia Callis, Mayor Bloomberg’s sign language interpreter******- a “comedy” bit that has been met with much anger and backlash on behalf of the deaf community and those associated with it. The question I have been asked (and have asked myself on numerous occasions) directly relates to afforementioned backlash. is it warranted? Did Handler’s writing staff take it too far? Or should we sweep the funnies faux pas under the rug & grant it amnesty from reprehension simply because they *maybe* had *kinda* good intentions?
Comedy isn’t exactly a platform for flattery and kindhearted praise. I am of the conviction that even mean things- if executed properly- can be funny and that some of the greatest laughs come at the expense of other people. Whether the joke targets a particular race, political affiliation, physical appearance, or even a statement (like that one astoundingly stupid thing Todd Akin said about rape LOL), ridicule is very much commonplace in writing. One could even say that most comedians (myself included) like to poke fun at things that they don’t necessarily understand, by bringing to light our own indisputable ignorance to certain subjects. Would a comedian do extensive research on the rate of STD prominence in New Jersey before taking the stage? No. He/She would spit a one-liner about Snooki’s “list” being longer than the Louisiana Purchase and move on. That’s why it’s a joke and not a long scholarly article with half of a punch line at the end of every paragraph. We do not understand because we laugh, and we laugh because we do not understand.
This situation with Lydia Callis is no different. If the Chelsea Lately writing staff had done their homework, they would have known that facial expressions are NECESSARY in a literally “unvoiced” language such as ASL. While things like intonation and volume and are used to express meaning in spoken English, it is logistically impossible for a deaf person to employ these conversational building blocks of expression. (Show me how to change your tone of voice in a speechless language and I will buy you a cookie. Or if you live in LA, I’ll bring you a organic Kale chip smoothie/gluten-free napkin/whatever you people eat.) In lieu of these verbal cues the base of ASL relies heavily not on the signs one’s hands make, but rather on the facial expressions that accompany them. For example, they are used to differentiate between questions and statements or to articulate emotion. The removal of facial expressions in ASL is like speaking to Siri for the rest of your life. Robotic monotony and confusion 4 DAZE.
So as to follow this line of logic… If Lydia Callis had interpreted Mayor Bloomberg’s speech any differently, she would not have been doing her job. So basically, Chelsea Handler’s derision of Lydia Callis was essentially the equivalent of Chelsea Handler mocking a big CEO executive by sitting at an ordinary cherry oak desk, checking her ordinary email and meeting with ordinary employees. (Which isn’t funny. Do you see my point?)
So, what’s the verdict? Well, to be honest, I laughed. I laughed because she is so misinformed. I laughed because it was so unfunny. But remember, comedians don’t do that. They don’t do their homework, because they are just making jokes. And being funny…
… Which brings me to my next point. When you tune into a late-night comedy show, you probably aren’t looking for something intellectually stimulating or educational. You’re most likely browsing the 11:00 talk shows to catch up on all of your pressing celeb news (Is Donald Trump dead yet? Which gal wore a shirt as a dress and showed her fa-fa to the paps? Are the Kardashians still sisters?) and probably also looking for a laugh.
So, when you flip to E!News Network and see the “Chelsea Lately” title sequence what do you do? Well, if you are offended by Chelsea’s infamously crude brutality, then you know to change the channel. (Why buy an Almond Joy if you hate coconuts?) The second you decide to put down the remote and commit to her show, you are becoming a willing participant of her domain. Chelsea Handler is not a politician’s wife. She is a comedian. As many comedians do, Handler foregoes the boundaries of common decency for the sake of what she considers to be “humor.” While some may laugh at her shockingly direct and sometimes controversial style, others may say that it is characteristic of a tasteless and heartless human being. But whichever side you’re on, you must remember- you’re the one who is choosing to watch her show. You don’t walk into someone else’s house and start changing the rules. That’s simply not how it works. Not in comedy, and certainly not in life.
As a CODA and a(n illegitimate) comedy writer, I didn’t find the joke itself to be amusing in any way. Not because it hurt my feelings, but because I understand how American Sign Language works, and Chelsea Handler’s writing staff does not. So to me, our girl sat up there and looked 50 shades of stupid. (I laughed. Not with them but at them.) But alas, to each his own, of course. But am I upset by the display on last week’s show? No, I’m not. I’m not offended because it was only a joke. It was only a joke, and I am going to treat it as such.
****** editors note: The YouTube clip posted by the official Chelsea Lately account has been removed, but you can find the video here instead.