Lydia Callis, Ace Interpreter for Bloomberg and American Sign Language Spoofs
Author, Production Company Owner
Some deaf people are up in arms (pun intended) about the recent spoofs of Mayor Bloomberg’s American Sign Language (“ASL”) interpreter Lydia Callis that have been popping up all over the Internet and television. Like Callis, I am a child of deaf adults or a “CODA”.
I even wrote a memoir about my childhood experience. (Burn Down the Ground available wherever books are sold.) Because of this, everyone and their mother (okay, a few people and my mother) wanted me to chime in on the issue. Fine, I’ll cave to the peer pressure and step into what will surely be a steaming pile of negativity in the comments section. But I only do so, because I believe there is a lot of positive to come of this!
Callis is awesome. If she weren’t, we wouldn’t be talking about her. Her heightened skill, good looks and unique “accent” (that crooked, Billy Idol lip curl is punk and adorable) captured the attention of a lot of cynical people during a stressful time when there wasn’t much by which to be charmed.
Here’s something the hearing world may not realize but ASL is not universal and, like all other languages, has regional dialect and slang. My deaf aunt Carly in Oklahoma loved Callis but, more importantly, Okie Aunt Carly understood everything New York City Mayor was communicating via Callis. Guess what? That’s the point! Callis has fan pages for a reason and a fan in me. She’s a skilled interpreter who loves her job and it shows. The nation, perhaps even the world, is now more fully aware of the role interpreters plays in communicating vital information to a segment of the population. Amazing!
That Mayor Bloomberg sees fit to have her there in the first place and the TV stations do not cut her out of the on-screen shot, therefore eliminating the whole reason she’s there, is a giant step forward for deaf people everywhere. I guarantee leaders of the Free World have taken note and you will see more and more ASL interpreters on your screen during public addresses, especially in times of crisis. If this swell of attention toward one interpreter hadn’t happened, I’m not sure I could guarantee the same outcome. This is wonderful progress. Rejoice!
The only harmful editorial I’ve seen in sharing clips of Callis in action aren’t criticizing her or her skills or uncovering a widespread hatred of deaf people or their language. Nope, they love her and are fascinated by ASL. Instead, their “negative” comments are borne from unfamiliarity with ASL as a language assuming Callis is being “over-animated” or hopped up on Red Bull.
For example, these folks on Huffington Post, excited to share her awesomeness said she’s “mugging for the camera and gesturing wildly”. If you read the full post, you’ll quickly surmise they are big fans of Callis. But in their description of her interpreting, they show their ignorance on how ASL works.
We speakers of ASL know that her exaggerated expressions are key to conveying tone, meaning and emotion. DUH! Sure, it’s a bit lazy on the writer’s part to not research something before making comment. They meant no harm. It was a fun piece. What’s to research? I get it. But many, probably most, people who aren’t familiar with ASL don’t realize Callis’ emphatic signing is an essential attribute of the language. That’s not their fault. They just don’t know. And clearly they haven’t read my memoir because I explain this in the book and free excerpt I’ve provided at the end of this article.
Show me the person who knows everything about every culture and I’ll be looking at an invisible (wo)man, because they don’t exist. You don’t know everything, just like I don’t know lots of things. For example, I don’t know why:
* Chasidic men grow tendrils but the women shave their heads and wear wigs.
* Indian women put dots on their foreheads.
* Men wake up with boners.
I truly do not have the answers to these questions. Does that make me racist or sexist or biased? I don’t think so. I’m just ignorant to those facets of another’s way of life. I’d have to spend my whole life Googling to try to understand every religion, language, culture and sex to make sure I never offend anyone by asking a “dumb” question. Or, worse, decide not to ask questions at all because I’m apathetic or have decided it’s not worth the hassle to investigate and learn and grow lest I get yelled at or attacked online by sensitive, impatient or angry (anonymous, of course) commenters.
Most times people mean well and, even better, are trying to educate themselves. Sure, it requires patience and sometimes biting one’s tongue to explain to each and every person who asks a “dumb” question, but that’s life. We all have something annoying that we get asked regularly. My husband is a comedian and he’s often asked to “Be funny!” or “Tell me a joke!” And I’ve been asked if I know Braille.
No. No, I do not know Braille.
I digress. The reason this third point is positive is because people are interested. They’re enthralled and curious and the media is taking note. What a perfect opportunity to educate a captivated hearing world.
An example on this: I’ve been asked and have seen the question asked time and again, “Why does Bloomberg have an ASL interpreter but not one for Spanish?”
Great question! And a wonderful opportunity to educate.
Mayor Bloomberg can read Spanish — albeit in a terrible accent — but he can’t even begin to pretend to sign. So why does he have a signer at all? For many deaf people, written English is their second language. While closed captioning is great for hard of hearing or deaf for whom English is their first language and/or don’t know ASL (Yes, it’s true, some deaf do not know ASL.), it’s not ideal for native ASL speakers for whom written English is secondary, especially in an emergency situation where clear communication is of utmost importance. Also, closed captioning is pretty weak during live feeds. It simply can’t keep up and errors abound. In an emergency, there is no room for error.
This is really part of the third but the third was kind of long so I wanted to break it up. Are you still reading? Cool. So, the misguided comments about Callis’ “mugging for the camera” resulted in this wonderful article breaking down exactly why she’s not hamming it up but just really great at her job. That article was tweeted and Facebooked and emailed by a lot of people, many who are well-known and/or respected.
When have you ever seen mainstream media and hearing folks with no connection to ASL or Deaf Culture circulating such a nuanced, thoughtful dissection of ASL? Never? Well now they are. COOL!
About the Spoofs
Having to explain why something is funny or not is the least fun thing ever. Blech. Let me preface it by saying comedy is subjective. I’m no fan of comedians with puppets or hilarious hypnotists, but good god do they have a following. People who love those types aren’t wrong, but we’re probably voting for different men to be our president today. Different strokes. I’m addressing these spoofs as a CODA but also as someone who works in the comedy business. Okay, here goes:
Any time any one thing becomes a meme, it’s a topical comedian or show’s duty to exploit it. Topical comedy is what Chelsea Lately, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and Saturday Night Live do. It’s their thing. It’d be a grossly missed opportunity to not spoof someone or something that has captured a nation. I won’t bother commenting on random sketches by relatively unknowns, since anyone with a video camera (so basically, anyone) can slap one together and throw it on YouTube. I’ll limit my commentary to these aforementioned three.
Chelsea Lately was first on the air and sparked the controversy. (Click here for video.) I felt the bit was lame mainly because it was lazy and went for the easy, cheap laugh. That makes it “hack” and that type of comedy is often offensive* to many. Chelsea’s style happens to be snarky and mean-spirited so throw that on top of the laziness of the joke’s concept and you have something ripe for criticism. It went for herky-jerky, sexualized, ridiculous miming. To me, it’s the equivalent of pretending to be Chinese and saying, “Ching! Chong! Chang!” As someone familiar with the laugh factory, I assume they were in a hurry to churn out a new episode, had no clue it could be construed as offensive and the elementary school playground antics were probably pretty funny to everyone working on the show. Judge for yourself.
(*Offensive is also subjective. What offends one person will make another one snort a margarita through their nose. That’s highly offensive to me… what a waste of a margarita!)
On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart was in high praise of Callis, calling her “awesome” and even signing, “I love you” to her screen shot. (Click here for the video.) The potentially offensive part was when Samantha Bee “interpreted” Jon’s final remarks (5:44 mark). As he speaks, she’s mocking him by “jerking off” with an “Oh, woe is me” face. Maybe you’re offended at the sight of a woman “jerking off”. I’m not, but I totally see why others might be. But I don’t see it as mocking ASL. I see it as using a visual joke to mock Jon as a whiny jerk-off. The ASL “interpreter” served as the setup for the punchline. They’re making fun of a whiny host without the host knowing what’s happening to him. Get it? Sigh.
As for the Saturday Night Live sketch, I loved it. (Click here for the video.) Not only was Mayor Bloomberg’s interpreter using real ASL, they included a few funny signs for Obama (big ears) and pizazz (jazz hands). They were spoofing the contrast between the New York and New Jersey mayors — Bloomberg and his stiff, bland delivery and butchering of Español (should Hispanics be outraged?) and Christie of New Jersey and his boisterous, goomba style. (Plenty of New Jerseyans could be annoyed by that tired stereotype!)
ASL or the interpreters were not the joke, they were merely the devices that drove the point home: Our mayors are starkly different and goofy in their own unique ways.
But even if ASL were the joke, so what? Nothing is off-limits in comedy. English is the butt of plenty of jokes and criticism (What’s the deal with us driving on a parkway and parking in a driveway?) as are every race, religion, and stereotype in the world. Sometimes jokes are offensive and lame and other times they are smart and hilarious. It’s not a crapshoot. You can follow the comedians and shows that make you laugh, write great material and consistently skew toward the latter.
I’m focusing on the positives. That ASL has captured the public interest enough to merit teasing is a great thing in the end. As Oscar Wilde said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
Now, I’m gonna get back to watching YouTube videos of a drag queen busting “Mother Teresa” selling smack to young children. Meanwhile, enjoy this free, short excerpt from my memoir “Burn Down the Ground”.
I carried a heavy workload in my junior year of high school. In addition to my honors classes, I chose theater as my requisite fine arts course and quickly became a fixture in the drama room, loading equipment, watching rehearsals and running errands.
Mom said I came out of the womb with a microphone in my hand. “You weren’t even two years old, but you were already talking and using sign language and told everyone you were going to be a movie star when you grew up.” But aside from the puppet shows I wrote, directed and “performed” for the King boys, only one acting opportunity had presented itself during our time in the backwoods of Boars Head. I was only eight years old and Mom informed me I was headed to an audition. I had no idea what play I was reading for or what getting the part might entail. I was ready for the exciting challenge, though, as Mom drove us in the Chevy to a community theater in Conroe. I had already had the lead in my 2nd grade school pageant in Houston and performed in and directed a group of fellow 3rdgrade girls in a brilliant rendition of “Silent Night” in ASL at my school’s Christmas pageant. Mom had never been cast in anything her whole life, but I still listened to her advice: “Remember to speak loud and clear!”
That would be a cinch. I had to do that around deaf people all the time! And as a CODA I could express myself in ways other kids couldn’t. A hearing person expresses feelings by changing the tone and intensity of his voice. Just as slight variations in the pitch and volume of one’s voice convey information in a spoken language, fluent speakers of ASL can pick up small differences in a sign’s duration, range of motion, and body language. It was normal for me to use body language and facial expressions to convey meaning and feelings in my signing with my two deaf parents and other deaf friends and family. The problem was that I hadn’t learned how to drop those communications traits when socializing and going to school with people who could hear. My animated speaking had become my unique accent.
Once inside the theater, I took my place at the center of a wide circle of auditioning actors. When it was my turn to the read the script, I read, or I should say shouted, the lines with exaggerated facial expressions and wild arm gestures.
“I HAVE MADE UP MY MIND NOW TO LEAD A DIFFERENT LIFE FROM OTHER GIRLS AND, LATER ON, DIFFERENT FROM ORDINARY HOUSEWIVES. MY START HAS BEEN SO VERY FULL OF INTEREST, AND THAT IS THE SOLE REASON WHY I HAVE TO LAUGH AT THE HUMOROUS SIDE OF THE MOSTDANGEROUS MOMENTS.”
With frantic motions, the director waved for me to stop. “Okay, thank you!” she yelled. “Well… Kambri…” She cleared her throat and bit her upper lip to suppress bubbling laughter. “You enunciate very well, and you certainly can project!”
Glancing around the room, I noticed that the other actors were exchanging astonished glances, covering their mouths and snickering. I wasn’t sure what was so funny. I spoke loudly and clearly, just like Mom had instructed, and the director had agreed. I had nailed it…right?
If I had been reading for Annie, I may have booked the gig. Unfortunately, I had been auditioning for the role of “Anne Frank.”
What on earth had my mother been thinking? I could have acted better than Jodie Foster, but it wouldn’t have mattered. My Aryan looks, golden hair and Texas twang were more like the Hitler Youth instead of a Jewish girl trying to survive the Holocaust.
My mother was undaunted by the rejection and gave me a pep talk during the ride home. “It’s just one audition, Kambri. Some actors have to go on hundreds before they ever get a part. Let this be a lesson, you can’t hit if you don’t swing!”