Title: Reflections of American Deaf Culture in Deaf Humor

Description: The following text was excerpted from MJ's plenary address presented at The Deaf Way on July 13, 1989.

Author: TBC news/September 1989
by MJ Bienvenu

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Mainstream American culture teaches that "normal" people are born with five senses: hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch. Of course, Deaf people can't hear, and this causes many people to view the Deaf as deficient and deprived. But nothing could be further from the truth?we have always had five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, and a sense of humor.


Humor is one way that people share their perceptions of the world, express different levels of intimacy, and find comfort in knowing that others share their beliefs. I am going to focus specifically on four categories which reflect the values, norms, and belief systems of our American Deaf Culture.

As most of you know, Deaf people perceive most things through their eyes. We acquire language visually. It is worth noting that Sign Languages throughout the world adapt to meet the visual needs and comfort of the people who use them. We also acquire world knowledge visually. It should come as no surprise, then, that Deaf humor also has a strong visual base. To many Deaf people, the world is filled with comical sights. But the humor is not always apparent to the majority of hearing Americans.

An experience I had several years ago may illustrate this point:

One night while I was coordinating an intensive ASL retreat for a group of non-Deaf people, we gathered together to watch the movie King Kong on TV.

The volume was off, and for the first time, they realized what Deaf audiences have known all along: the actors' expressions are hysterically funny. As New Yorkers were running for their lives with the shadow of a monster ape looming over their heads, our group was laughing uncontrollably. I asked them what they found so funny. They replied, 'Their faces!" The same people would have felt frightened if they had heard the actors screaming in terror, with threatening music in the background. Instead, they got a glimpse of the movies from a Deaf perspective.

Deaf people find many visual things humorous which aurally dependent people may not. Often Deaf people are quite creative in their descriptions of people and events. This talent is fostered in residential schools where many children learn the art of story telling, and most importantly, how to vividly re-create events and characters. When I was in school, no one was safe from our stories. Every identifying characteristic of a person would be imitated, right down to the way s/he walked. This intricate detail is a crucial part of the humor, because it reflects how acutely Deaf people perceive the world, and how adept a tool our language is for expressing our perceptions.

Often people who are not members of the culture will respond negatively to this form of humor. This is a common misunderstanding with outsiders. Deaf people are not insulting the individuals whom we describe; we are delighting in the precision of our language to accurately convey these details. Our culture is reinforced through the shared experience of how we, as a group, see the world and translate it into humor.

Can't Hear
As we all know, deafness is much more than the inability to hear. It is a complete culture, where one's decibel loss is far less important than one's allegiance to the Deaf Community. Yet, a significant amount of Deaf folklore contains jokes and stories which deal with the inability to hear.

There are many stories that have been handed down for generations in Deaf folklore which illustrate the convenience of deafness. The following popular tale shows how Deaf people can solve a problem creatively and humorously:

A Deaf couple arrives at a motel for their honeymoon. After unpacking, the nervous husband goes out to get a drink. When he returns to the motel, he realizes that he has for gotten the room number. It is dark outside and all the rooms look identical. He walks to his car, and leans on the horn. He then waits for the lights to come on in the rooms of the waking angry hearing guests. All the rooms are lit up except his, where his Deaf wife is waiting for him!

Interestingly, in Ray Holcomb's book, Hazards of Deafness, the humor does not follow the culturally Deaf tradition, but rather focuses on stories in which Deaf people lament their "condition." This humor is typical of an "outsider's" view of deafness. Here is an example of one of the scenes in the book:

A deaf person is having a difficult time vacuuming the carpet. He goes over the same spot of dirt repeatedly, to no avail. In a fit of frustration, he turns around and notices that the machine is unplugged.

This is a perfect example of humor that is not Deaf centered. Such a situation would never happen because a Deaf person would naturally feel that the motor was not running and immediately respond appropriately. What is most disturbing is the emphasis on hearing and the dependency on sound which the book portrays. Culturally Deaf people are quite articulate in defining the world in terms other than sound, and have adapted to technology as swiftly as non-Deaf people. The fact that the author does not address Deaf people's keenly developed sense of sight and touch is rather significant.

Another component of Deaf humor can be categorized as linguistic. Production and misproduction of signs is a common way to elicit laughs in ASL. One example, described in Bellugi and Klima's book, The Signs of Language is how we can change the root sign, UNDERSTAND, to LITTLE UNDERSTAND by using the pinkie rather than the index finger.

Much of this linguistic humor is lexically based, and the punchlines to many ASL jokes are related to the production of the words. One of my favorites is the "giant" joke. It is funny both culturally and linguistically:

A huge giant is stalking through a small village of wee people, who are scattering through the streets, trying to escape the ugly creature. The giant notices one particularly beautiful blonde woman scampering down the cobble-stoned street. He stretches out his clumsy arm and sweeps her up, then stares in wonder at the slight, shivering figure in his palm. "You are so beautiful," he exclaims. The young woman looks up in fear. "I would never hurt you, he signs, "I love you! We should get MARRIED." Producing the sign MARRY, he crushes her. The giant then laments, "See, oralism is better."

There are several components which make this joke successful in American Sign Language. First, it is visually active, because the expressions of the townspeople, the beautiful girl, and the giant can be dramatized to perfection. Secondly, it is linguistically funny because of the sign production MARRY which causes the girl of his affection to splat in his palm. Thirdly, it is humorous in its irony. Culturally Deaf people detest oralism; therefore, the irony in the giant's conclusion that oralism would have saved his beloved girl is funny.

Response to Oppression
It is no secret that Deaf people are an oppressed minority, and one way that minority cultures deal with oppression is through humor. Often this category of humor, sometimes called "zap" stories, features Deaf people getting even.

Often when Deaf people are naturally conversing in public, hearing people will stare at them in disbelief. When they finally gain the courage to initiate conversation with a Deaf person, they will inevitably ask, "Can you read my lips?' Well, of course, Deaf people are keenly aware of the configuration of this one sentence, and will always answer "No!' which is pretty funny, indeed.

Another way Deaf humor fights back at oppression is to show hearing people being outsmarted by a Deaf person. One famous example, which is a true story, provides the required ending:

A group of Deaf people was at a restaurant, chatting away when a group of non-Deaf people at the next table began to rudely mimic their signs. One of the Deaf women decided she'd had enough. She walked to the public telephone, inserted a coin, and making sure she was being observed by the hearing group, signed a complete conversation into the handset, including pauses for the person on the other end to respond. When the Deaf group left the restaurant, they were amused to see the hearing people run over to inspect the phone.

Deaf people love this one, because we finally have the last laugh. These tales are rich with justice, and always the rude offender is put in her/his place.

In the same way that American Deaf Culture, as well as European Deaf Culture, is oppressed by the majority community, so our language is oppressed. From oralism to Signed English systems and other forms of English/sound coding, Deaf people have suffered under the thumb of hearing educators for many years. From the signs that these 'experts" invent, it is obvious they have little knowledge of Deaf Culture or ASL. Often the in vented signs already have an established meaning. Many of them look sexual, and are really inappropriate for young children to see, which is ironic, since school systems teach them. It's even worse when they are printed in "sign language' books. Deaf children leaf through these sign-code manuals with delight, snickering at all the "dirty' signs pictured in the textbook.

As one response to these oppressive attempts at linguistic isolation, Deaf people have chosen to incorporate into their discourse some of the artificial codes created from the oral/cued speech/Signed English systems. Coded signs for IS, AM, ARE, WERE, BE, -ING, -ED, etc. have all been reclaimed by Deaf speakers, and used with sarcasm directed toward those who created them. Of course, the humor is most pronounced when a contorted face accompanies the deviant signs?an editorial on the ineffectiveness of these codes.In closing, let me say that humor is an essential part of our lives. I'm sure you've all heard the expression, "Laughter is the best medicine.' Well, there is much truth to that, particularly when you analyze minority cultures, and realize that they all incorporate fighting back at oppression into their humor. It is a common response to the frustration of our everyday lives, for in humor, the storyteller determines who will "win." Some one told me this joke the other day, and it seemed like a perfect way to end my presentation:

Three people are on a train? one is Russian, one is Cuban, and one is Deaf The Russian is drinking from a bottle of vodka. She drinks about half the bottle, then throws it out the window. The Deaf person looks at her, surprised. 'Why did you throw out a bottle that was only half-empty?' The Russian replies, 'Oh, in my country we have plenty of vodka!' Meanwhile, the Cuban is smoking a rich, aromatic cigar. He smokes about half the cigar, then throws it out the window. The Deaf person is again surprised, and asks, 'Why did you throw out the cigar?' He replies, "Oh, in Cuba we have plenty of cigars!' The Deaf person nods with interest. A little while later a hearing person walks down the aisle. The Deafie picks him up and tosses him out the window. The Russian and Cuban look up in amazement. The Deaf person shrugs, "Oh, we have plenty of hearing people in the world.