Interpreting Comedy by Barbara Neal Varma

Sunday, August 19th, 2007

By Barbara Neal Varma

A blast of music called patrons down to their seats and me to my set place on stage. Spotlights flooded the area, dancing dizzily against the backdrop before finally resting on me and the Barbara_Neal_Varma_Hands_it_up.JPGempty microphone standing ominously to my right. I stood perfectly still, my hands tense and ready at my side like a nervous cowboy at high noon.

I had been interpreting for a year now but this was my first time in front of such a large audience. Previous assignments had been cozy classroom gigs, signing lectures to one or two students who were deaf among an otherwise hearing class, but I love comedy and when my supervisor said I would be interpreting a campus comedy show I’d quickly agreed, not counting on the throng of five hundred or so before me. Through the bright haze I saw two of the deaf students saunter over to the front row seats, kept empty and “reserved for the hearing impaired.” They looked up at me, relaxed and eager to see what the evening’s entertainment would bring.

As if I knew.

The MC emerged from the curtain wings, grabbing the microphone by the neck. “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen. Tonight’s performer is someone who’s headlined at numerous comedy clubs across the country. He just finished a weekend stint at the Ice House in Pasadena and before that a turn at the Hollywood Improv. You may have seen him earlier this year on the Tonight Show—please welcome Ruuu-dy Thomas!”

My hands followed his words, quickly fingerspelling Rudy’s name. I had barely finished the “S” when Rudy bounded on stage. I glanced his way to see if I’d seen him before; comedy club, TV—anywhere. I needed a clue to his routine; the better to interpret by. I didn’t recognize him but my heart skipped a much-needed beat: Rudy Thomas had a guitar.

A guitar meant music; music meant trouble. Depending on when a person became deaf, music can either be a warm remembrance or an unfathomable ritual enjoyed by The Hearing. One of my Sign instructors told tale of a deaf woman who stormed the stage at a “song sign” performance a few years back, heatedly signing to the stunned hearing performers that bringing music into a deaf-sponsored event was an “INSULT” and they needed to “STOP NOW!”

I quickly glanced down at my two clients to gauge their reaction but they seemed unruffled by the instrument, their smiles signaling nothing more than happy anticipation.

“So how is everyone tonight?” Rudy asked, his fingers strumming a few background chords. Sharp whistles and bawdy cheers filled the auditorium. He went on.

“You know…we’ve all heard those classic love songs. Guy meets girl.” Strum. “Girl meets guy.” Strum. “And the whole sordid affair is memorialized within one two-minute love song.” He said ‘love song’ close to the mike, dropping the timbre of his voice for sultry emphasis. I was just stumbling over how to sign “sordid affair”—”SECRET RELATIONSHIP”—when Rudy broke into song.

“You picked a fine time to leave me, Lu-cille!”

I quickly signed the famous line, realizing too late I’d not given any clue to my clients that the comedian was now singing instead of speaking. Certainly they must have known the song—would recognize it along with others in the crowd who were now singing along, but I saw nothing but confusion register on the two young faces.

One turned to the other, “WHO LUCILLE?” His compadré just shrugged, the universal sign for “Beats me.”

Rudy continued. “I’ve had some bad times…lived through some sad times…”

When the students looked up I quickly signed, “HE SING NOW. FAMOUS SONG. TITLE L-U-C-I-L-L-E.”

The two nodded with comprehension, but not before glancing at Rudy to see his fingers active over the guitar, his mouth moving with the unnatural slowness only a hearing person in song can do.

Rudy abruptly stopped his ballad. “It occurred to me one day …”

“HAPPENED ME THINK-APPEAR,” I signed, my right index finger first tapping my temple above my brow, then pushing up between the fingers in my left hand to animate the “appearing” thought.

“… that there isn’t a lot of truth in these songs. I mean what would we hear if the songwriter wrote about what really happens in relationships?”

The crowd began to giggle in anticipation. Rudy readied his guitar.

“A different kind of love song would be heard. Something that goes a little like this: You picked a fine time to stalk me Lucille!”

The crowd roared. I signed the play on words with a prayer. If I was lucky one of my young clients had been harassed by a crazed girlfriend and the meaning would survive the translation. I dared to glance in their direction. They were laughing! They got it!

“Four hundred phone calls and a drive-by…” Rudy stopped short to yell: “—attempt on my life!”
The crowd again cheered their approval but I knew I had another problem: the grammatical challenge of the passive voice, which doesn’t translate well into visually active Sign. I mentally rearranged the sentence into noun-verb-object order, a technique we’d learned in interpreting class to keep the meaning clear, and signed: “L-U-C-I-L-L-E TRY KILL ME.”
The lads wore serious, shocked expressions on their faces now.

“I’d paid for a good time—more for a bad time. This time you …” Rudy again braked his song to shout: “—put me in the fuckin’ hospital!”

The curse word bit deep in my ear. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know how to sign it. As young impressionable interpreter interns, we were privy to the more salacious corners of Sign Language, practicing every imaginable hand maneuver to portray a graphic array of sexual signs in anticipation of a client’s visit to a doctor’s office, counseling session or baby-making class. The interesting thing was that Sign Language had the same sliding scale of naughtiness as English when it came to illustrating the sex act between consenting adults. At the tame end of the spectrum was MAKE LOVE; the full-impact “F-sign” was at the other.

But there was precious little time to conjure an equivalent meaning for the term when used as a gritty adjective. Rudy’s racy lyrics had started up again and my memory banks were on borrowed time. I had no choice but to go with the words as heard and signed the sentence with verbatim abandon, closing my eyes the moment my hands collided so I wouldn’t see my own hands swearing.

I looked out again to see my clients laughing and pointing up at me with delight. I knew their glee was tied to the bawdy lyrics more than any comedy comprehension. Good girl signing dirty. A big night out for them.

Finally, Rudy removed his guitar and placed it on its waiting stand. He sauntered back to the microphone.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’d now like to introduce you to my friend Bob.”

Great, I thought, two comedians on stage to add to the humor that was my interpreting performance. But then Rudy reached into his left shirt pocket and pulled out a small red ball. He posed it between his index finger and thumb, holding it high for all to see.
“This is Bob,” he said. “Bob the Clown Nose.” Rudy squeezed the ball to reveal a mouth-like slit in front—the opening, no doubt, which under normal circumstances would fit over one’s nose were one to dress up like a clown. But Rudy had a different, less mundane use in mind. As he squeezed the ball open and closed it began to talk. Oh God, my mind whimpered, Rudy was a ventriloquist, too.

Panicked, I quickly signed: RED BALL TALK NOW. COMEDIAN VOICE. SOUND-LIKE FROM BALL. I mimicked Rudy’s squeeze play with my left hand, while my right hand signed TALK near my mouth. The two nodded encouragingly, but my explanation had used up precious joke-telling time. Rudy and Bob were well along in their verbal sparring, delivering cutting one-liners between man and nose. My hands tried to keep up.

“Hey Bob,” Rudy said. “What’s it like being a clown’s nose?”

“What do you mean?” Bob asked, his voice a cartoon version of Rudy’s.

“Well, do you find people pick on you a lot?” The crowd half laughed, half moaned, but the joke was again on me. To ‘pick on’ someone, as in ‘to tease’ is one sign. To ‘pick a nose’ was quite another and not one I was eager to perform in front of three hundred onlookers, but again Rudy’s fast-paced banter left no time for modesty.

“PEOPLE PICK-NOSE YOU?” I signed to the imaginary ball held in my left hand, miming a refined, no-contact nostril exploration with my right index finger. My clients laughed along with the crowd but again for slightly different reasons. I was fast becoming the girl interpreter of their dreams.

After that, I lost all hope of maintaining any professional aplomb and simply signed the jokes as they came. One moment of inspiration provided a small return of dignity: I’d added a variation to the “body shift” technique used when interpreting a conversation between two or more participants. When Rudy spoke, I angled slightly to the left; when Bob “spoke,” I twisted slightly to the right—and decreased the overall size of my signs to give my clients a visual cue that the ball’s voice was “small” and child-like.

I was just short of congratulating myself when I heard the impossible happen: Rudy began projecting both Bob’s high-pitched voice and his own—at the same time. I quickly looked over at him, but the visual check didn’t help. I don’t know how he managed it, but somehow Rudy and Bob were now deep into a singing duet of “Reunited.”

My clients, feeling the noise of the crowd’s raucous applause vibrate their seats, looked at me pleadingly, their signing hands gesturing “WHAT, WHAT?!” I wished with all my heart I was somewhere else, somewhere other than this torture chamber of disembodied noses and voice-throwing sorcerers. Through the spotlights’ glare I saw the audience clapping, their hands coming together again and again. Their hands…together… suddenly, I had an idea.

In Sign Language the sign for VOICE is done with a V hand shape, like the peace symbol wave of the sixties, only the hand faces in toward the signer. The two “stems” of the ‘V,’ formed by the index and ring fingers, glide up the throat and out from underneath the chin to illustrate speech’s anatomical path.

I quickly angled right to portray “Rudy” and signed VOICE with my right hand, then turned left as “Bob” and repeated the sign with my left hand. Now came the trick: I stood straight forward and with both hands signed VOICE again, only this time combining it with the sign for TOGETHER, pressing my two fists tight against each other. This was, of course, breaking every grammatical rule in the Sign book but Rudy wasn’t playing fair so neither was I.

Another quick glance at my clients. This time they were sitting upright in amazement, their own hands clapping slowly and out of sync with the staccato rhythm of the hearing crowd. Lingering giggles and gasps could be heard from others near the front, but my two wards remained fixed on their subject, staring at the comedian like a pair of five-year-olds meeting Santa for the very first time. But why? I didn’t think my little sign trick was that incomprehensible, but then it dawned on me. For these two, Rudy would forever be known as “the hearing guy with two voices.” Literally.

Then, like a gentle rain kissing the hot summer sand, I felt cooling relief as Rudy waved a final goodbye and jogged off the stage. The MC came out one more time to thank the comedians and the now-departing audience. He even thanked me with a quick nod my way which I cordially returned before I, too, left stage life behind.

Comedy? I thought. That was it, indeed.

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