A Sign Language Interpreter Walks Into a Comedy Club

Improv stageMy friend wanted to know why she wasn’t seeing me on TV.

Seemed like everyone from the president on down had a signer “on hand” (apologies) for televised news conferences, standing six feet away or displayed in a corner bubble like Glinda from on high.

“You know I haven’t done that in years,” I reminded her.

Blame a career change.

Blame the pain in my neck from 15-plus years of repetitive arm and hand motion.

Blame that time at the comedy club …

I had just graduated from my interpreter training program when I got the call to interpret a comedy show? That initial spark of joy lasted only until I took The Improv stage, or at least the left corner of it. Then the jitters set in.

My few prior gigs had been in cozy classrooms or other soothing locales. Not even a memorial service where I shared the dais with the deceased was scarier than standing in front of this expectant crowd. I focused on the table in front of me, the one marked “Reserved for the Hearing Impaired.” The chairs had remained empty until fate and a waiter led two college-age guys my way. The one on the right wearing an oversized football jersey gave me a quick smile and casual salute before settling in. His buddy followed suit. My clients had arrived.

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A quick minute later the MC jogged out to introduce the first comedian: “He’s straight from the Icehouse in Pasadena. Give it up for Terrrry Collins!” I glanced over and felt my mouth go dry. Terrrry Collins was carrying a guitar.

“So how is everyone tonight?” Terry asked, his fingers strumming his guitar as I hurried to catch up. “You know, we’ve all heard those classic love songs. Guy meets girl.”


“Girl meets guy.”


“And the whole sordid affair is memorialized within a two-minute love song.”

I was just stumbling over “sordid affair,” deciding to sign “SECRET RELATIONSHIP,” when Terry broke into song. “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille!”

My client wearing the jersey turned to ask his friend: “WHO L-U-C-I-L-L-E?” His buddy shrugged, the universal sign for “Beats me.”

I caught their attention and quickly explained the comic was now singing, not talking, “SONG NAME ‘L-U-C-I-L-L-E.’”

Terry: “It occurred to me there isn’t a lot of truth in these songs. I mean, what if the songwriter said what really happens in relationships?”

He 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! Four hundred phone calls and a drive-by—‘” He stopped short. “Attempt on my life!” I switched it to active voice like I’d been taught and signed: “L-U-C-I-L-L-E TRY KILL ME.”

The two young men wore serious, shocked expressions on their faces now.

“I’d hoped for a good time, not for a bad time. This time you—put me in the f*ckng hospital.”

I cringed. No doubt my signing the F-bomb would no doubt catch the prurient interest of many if not everyone in the place. Truth is, it ain’t that sexy. No repeated finger-in-the-hole motion, no palms gyrating against each other. Just a quick motion of two V-shaped hands smacking together then apart, cue violins.

I slipped it in fast enough to thwart any armchair voyeurs but not so quick my clients couldn’t see it.

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Terry placed his guitar on its waiting stand then sauntered back to the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce you to a friend of mine.”

He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a small red ball, holding it high. “This is Charlie. Charlie the clown nose.” He squeezed the ball to reveal a mouth-like slit in front — the opening, no doubt, which would fit over one’s nose were one to dress up like a clown. But Terry had a different, less mundane use in mind. He pressed the ball open and closed then threw his voice to make it “talk.”

My hands flew: “SOUNDS-LIKE RED BALL TALK NOW,” I explained, copying Terry’s squeeze play with my left hand while my right pointed at it then signed, “TALK”—which, thank God, you can do one-handed.

My guys were smiling. Encouraged, I shifted my body so slightly to visually show who was talking. When Terry spoke, I angled slightly to the left. When “Charlie” spoke, I angled to the right and decreased the overall size of my signs, hoping to convey that the nose’s borrowed voice was small and child-like.

More eager nods. More hope I’d get through this after all.

Until: “Hey Charlie,” Terry said. “Do people tease you a lot?”

“What do you mean?” the nose replied.

“Well, do you find people pick on you?”

The crowd moaned at the pun and so did I. To “pick on” someone, as in “to tease,” is one sign. To “pick a nose” was quite another — and tragically for the moment, one even more picturesque than any hot tryst on the hands. I suddenly wished I was anywhere beyond this horror show of twisted lyrics and disembodied voices.

But this wasn’t about me. It was about those two bright faces staring up at me, wanting to be in on the joke. Wanting to be included.

“PEOPLE TEASE, PICK-NOSE YOU?” I signed one-handed to the imaginary ball in my left, performing a refined, no-contact—let’s be clear—nostril exploration with my right index finger.

The crowd, as they say, went wild.

And so did my clients, the only ones in the room I really cared about.

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The next time I saw an interpreter on TV I remembered my friend’s question about where was I, and for a fleeting moment considered volunteering to help convey these critical COVID and more messages.

Then I remembered the shocked expressions on the young men’s faces that long-ago night when they’d learned about scary Lucille and her penchant for stalking ex-boyfriends. Thing is, 2020 is no laughing matter. Interpreters of any language must get it right because lives depend on it.

Indeed, the best thing I could do was keep these retired hands sheltered-in-place and washed several times a day for 20 seconds, or the amount of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday.”

Better yet, the chorus to “Lucille.”

by Barbara Neal Varma

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