Fringe’s first fully-fledged deaf comedian is a giant leap forward for BSL signers: Correspondents 2022: Chortle: The UK Comedy Guide
He will not have noticed it but 20 minutes after the start of Gavin Lilley’s set, a hearty belch tumbles down the stands. In an otherwise calm moment, it was an unequivocal statement. Don’t worry about being offended by this rude noise. You are in a deaf space now.
As the Edinburgh Fringe 2022 draws to a close, this burp marked a distinct breakthrough. Edinburgh’s first Deaf Festival was a Fringe first. Over the years, a handful of shows have included deaf performers, rarely at the forefront of central topics for the signing community.
All the attention paid by the programmers has mainly consisted in allowing “access” via subtitles or performers to programs produced by and for the general (hearing) public. But stand-up is most performers’ nightmare: slippery, fast, splenic. Even tightly scripted gags often rely on puns and tone of voice – as untranslatable as possible.
So it was truly groundbreaking to see the Fringe’s first full-fledged deaf comedian this year. (The capital “D” here signifies membership in the sign community; lowercase deaf comedians, such as Steve Day, may have similar levels of hearing but perform in English) The Breathless Hour of Lilley, entirely in British Sign Language (BSL), represented a giant leap for signing.
We may be becoming more and more familiar with Deaf artists these days, but it’s always a poignant experience to watch a member of this massively marginalized community come to the attention of a mainstream audience. Marlee Matlin’s Oscar for Children Of A Lesser God initially brought a performer to public attention in 1987, but it took another 35 years before Troy Kotsur followed suit. In the UK, deaf actors have appeared more often and more prominently on stage and on screen, culminating in EastEnders’ Rose Ayling-Ellis winning Strictly Come Dancing last year.
So Lilley, pictured above, is already a pioneer simply by being deaf in this flagship cultural context. While the spoken English interpretation reassures listeners, much of its material reflects the principle of universal design. Both hearing and deaf viewers can watch and empathize.
But the nature of Lilley’s stories from inside Deaf life is important. He riffs on the benefits of being deaf and legitimately ignoring the weaknesses of the hearing world. It celebrates the ease with which deaf people travel the world, knowing they can make themselves understood after a lifetime of gestural invention and masked impatience to hear misfortune. It satirizes the ridiculous obliviousness of hearing “good intentions”, such as airport staff irrationally calling for wheelchairs when a deaf customer shows up.
Innuendo comedy could be routine in 2022 as Fringe artists tap into their lived experiences of minorities. But unless you sign on, you won’t have encountered many deep deaf stories. This emerging national treasure, John Bishop, may be aiming to perform his set in BSL for a future TV show, but his perspective will be limited to being the father of a partially deaf son. You have to be there, inside deaf skin, to know exactly what it feels like.
What marks this moment as an alpha point is the eloquence with which Lilley’s jokes are delivered. Producing original, first-hand comedy content in the BSL repositions the signature in the public eye. Lilley demonstrates that BSL isn’t just for delivering Swishy Strictly swooning or Mr Tumble Early Learning Pat-a-cakery.
It’s also great for fart gags, keen observation, and hard-hitting satire. With BSL gaining legal recognition this year, seeing the language used for comedy is a game-changer in what the signing can mean to society. BSL is not a totem for showing well-meaning but empty respect, nor a crutch preserving the illusion of inclusion. It is a language of laughter through which the human can meet the human.
It’s a common misconception that BSL is just English on its hands. The signs do not represent English words. Their shape can sometimes be arbitrary but more often invokes a certain visual logic. No sign language on earth would point to the ground to mean “up.” The signature is anchored in the three-dimensional space around the signer with facial expression and body movement for linguistic purposes.
An effective signature requires bodily finesse which, embodied by a master like Gavin Lilley, above, leads to biomechanical control of an extraordinarily high order. Used for comedic purposes, the result is, for example, impressions of other people’s mannerisms that are machined with precision to the nth degree.
Lilley teases hearing people’s inability to follow the direction of a pointing finger (something every deaf person learns to do infallibly from the crib). Deaf bodies are designed for flawless laser-like eye and hand coordination. Think you can read body language? Not having to waste time listening, deaf people watch like hawks. Combine such observational prowess with the fidelity of tone-deaf physicality, and the result hits some fun bones you didn’t know you had.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the founding of the BSL, parliaments in London and Edinburgh promise to ‘promote’ the language. There is no better way than to learn to sign fluently for hearing people to fully recognize and begin to understand Deaf life. In a spirit of welcome, the signed comedy opens deaf spaces to all those who want to enter. Come in.
• Graham Turner is Professor and Director of the Center for Translation and Interpretation Studies at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and is about to start work as a Policy and Research Officer at the British Deaf Association.
Published: August 29, 2022