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Comedian Creates Stand-Up Comedy for the Deaf

May 10, 1990

NEW YORK (AP) _ John Golub was selling used cars by day and playing comedy clubs by night when he mixed the two: While selling a car to a deaf woman, he slipped a joke into the written notes they were exchanging.

She laughed.

″It just struck me right there that wouldn’t it be great to make comedy accessible to deaf people,″ he said.

Since that moment 10 years ago, Golub has sworn off the car trade. But he hasn’t given up on comedy, and he hasn’t given up on trying to reach people who can’t hear the punchline.

Golub has developed an act using a sign language interpreter and an infrared amplification device, and has brought hundreds of hearing-impaired people into comedy clubs for the first time.

His shows are ″bringing people into the mainstream of recreation,″ said Ruth Green, head of the New York League for the Hard of Hearing. ″Comedy club owners never really realized there was an audience they were missing.″

Green’s organization has supported Golub’s efforts since he moved from Los Angeles six years ago. With the league’s cooperation, he organized comedy benefit shows every year since in 1985. This year, there are four.

Golub is 32, squarely built and energetic. He has a personal stake in the welfare of the deaf; he has two sisters who cannot hear.

He tries to avoid making changes in his act to accommodate the deaf. His intention, he says, is not to develop two different audiences, but rather to integrate the deaf into the hearing audience.

″When I do these shows, I want it to be a show that anyone can enjoy, deaf or hearing.″

Still, some jokes don’t translate well to the deaf, and interpreter Mara Zuckerman - who has worked with Golub at every benefit - says she sometimes has to explain this to the comedians.

Jokes about popular culture from television or radio often do not work. One performer parodied the theme song from the television show ″Rawhide.″ But the act would bomb with a deaf audience because few deaf people have ever watched the show or heard the theme music.

Puns and rhymes don’t work with the deaf. Nor do impressions. ″They’re not going to know something sounds like Cary Grant,″ Zuckerman says.

But visual humor - mime and physical impersonations, such as a funny walk or a parody of a famous rock musician - often works. Dirty jokes also get laughs, she says: ″Most sexually related signs are very graphic, so both the deaf audience and the hearing audience get a kick out of that.″

At a recent benefit in Stamford, Conn., one comic asked an embarrassed couple in the audience whether they had ″done it yet.″

″Oh, I’m sorry,″ he quickly apologized. ″It’s none of my business, but I was just interested in seeing how Mara signed that one.″

That Zuckerman - despite her protests - often serves as the comedians’ foil is an indication of the importance of the interpreter.

Standing off to the side of the small stage during a recent benefit show, the black-clad Zuckerman interpreted for the night’s three comics and gave quite a performance herself. Even though she moved her feet little, she used a wide range of facial expressions and body movements to convey humor.

Always just a fraction of a second behind the comic, she gestured quickly with her hands and arms as she translated the jokes.

Still, Zuckerman stays as close as possible to the traditional role of interpreter, despite comedy’s non-traditional demands.

″If a comic is going to get up there and be bawdy, I’m not there to change his act to make it more palatable to the audience or funnier or less funny,″ she said. ″If he’s going to bomb, then I’m going to let him bomb.″

But sometimes, she joins in the fun. At the start of one show, Golub jumped on stage and quickly announced, ″I’m going to talk really fast″; Zuckerman reacted by glaring at Golub, and the two stared at each other for seconds.

The interpreters serve some of the hard of hearing; others listen to what is being said with the aid of the infrared system.

Often found in theaters, auditoriums and churches, the system converts the electrical signal from the microphone into infrared light. This light is then transmitted throughout the club; hard-of-hearing members of the audience wear wireless headsets that pick up the signal and amplify it.

Golub’s shows have not all been sellouts, but the League for the Hard of Hearing deems them a success.

Golub envisions a national comedy tour to benefit the hard of hearing. He has a dream of making comedy accessible to all deaf people in the United States.

″Who am I?″ he said. ″I’m nobody. ... But I think I can have an effect as a nobody.″

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