Don’t bother asking stand-up comedian Stephen Ryan, “Did you hear the one about…?” Ryan hasn’t heard your joke or any others. He’s never heard anything. He’s deaf, and that’s fine by him. For Ryan, deafness is less handicap than shtick.
“I pity the hearing community,” Ryan explains. It’s one of his signature lines. Though it’s intended as a break-the-ice quip during the opening moments of an interview, Ryan’s comment—gestured in his chosen “tongue,” American Sign Language (ASL), and translated by an interpreter—also conveys genuine pity for nondeaf folks like me. Oral languages, Ryan says, simply don’t capture the emotion and humor of sign language. “You’re really missing a lot,” Ryan tells me.
A 36-year-old New Jersey native who has been deaf since birth, Ryan teaches ASL at Gallaudet University and has been joking with deaf-only audiences in that language for years. His first-ever mainstream comedy gig came just five weeks ago in the Comedy Cafe at 1520 K St. NW.
Cafe owner Dan Harris, who had never booked a deaf act in his 17 years with the club, gave Ryan an audition on the advice of a mutual acquaintance, and was quickly charmed by the comic. “He came over with an interpreter, we talked, and he just struck me as a funny, funny man,” recalls Harris.
Besides, Harris says, Ryan has a built-in audience. “I figured this show would be pushed by the people over at Gallaudet,” he says. It was: Ryan packed the Comedy Cafe for his debut.
Ryan’s performance delighted his fans. At deaf events, applause isn’t delivered through hand-clapping or hardy laughter, but by a waving of hands overhead. After each good joke, pairs of arms silently but frantically shot up in the air—a kind of inaudible guffaw. For most of Ryan’s show, the Comedy Cafe looked like an evangelical church peopled with mimes.
The noiseless laughter astonished Harris. “This place is normally so loud,” he says. “And it was clear the crowd loved him, but when Steve Ryan walked offstage, it was absolutely silent here. I’d never experienced anything like that.”
But the Comedy Cafe performance also suggested that Ryan won’t be playing 15,000-seat arenas anytime soon. The comedian, who can lip-read and speak, doesn’t use his voice at all during his routine, choosing to let an interpreter impart his humor to the nondeaf.
Essentially all of Ryan’s comedy is about being deaf. (And why not? In this age of identity politics, gay comedians joke about being gay; black comedians joke about being black.) This narrow subject matter doesn’t cripple all the jokes: Hearers can still get the gag about signing with a Jersey accent, or laugh at the joke about the unfeasibility of inventing a Clapper that can respond to sign language. (“It can’t read the “Turn on!’ sign with the lights out!” Ryan explains.)
But just as all Russian humor, even well-translated, doesn’t send the average Westerner into paroxysms of laughter (“He’s so stupid, he should be a general!” might kill them in Kirov, but it’d surely die on K Street), most of Ryan’s material falls on figuratively deaf ears in a hearing crowd. Sure, he’s got fart jokes and shit jokes and fuck jokes like any other stand-up comic. But Ryan’s punch lines invariably have an inside spin that fails to elicit a knee slap from those with nondeaf points of reference.
But while Ryan says he craves mainstream acceptance, he isn’t apologizing for, or abandoning, his deaf-centricity.
“My audience has had these things that I talk about happen to them in their everyday lives,” he says. “These jokes and stories are for them. I used to tell jokes to make fun of the hearing community, but that didn’t work. People do best making fun of their own, I realized, and so I changed my show. What I do now connects with my audience.”
Ryan’s inability to hear doesn’t protect him from the stand-up comic’s worst enemy: the heckler. Ryan ridicules deaf people who’ve had cochlear implants, and he’s been criticized for fueling the intensifying rivalry between those with and without the inner-ear devices. At his Comedy Cafe gig, in fact, his riff on why deaf people should avoid the metal implants—they could screw up a cremation—didn’t please everybody in attendance. “You’re disgusting!” an audience member signed. Ryan laughed off the abuse, and quickly followed up with another burst of cochlear implant gags.
The celebrity deaf are another favorite target of Ryan’s, particularly those who pander to the hearing community. He mocks Miss America Heather Whitestone, everyone’s deaf role model. “Signing isn’t an easy skill, but I’ve seen Heather walk in high heels while signing. That’s something!” Ryan jokes. Then he becomes serious. “I was fascinated with her initially, proud of her. But now, when she goes in public, she brings an interpreter along to do all the signing for her for the deaf people, while she speaks to the [hearing] crowd. She projects an image to others that says all deaf people can speak. That’s not true. All deaf people cannot speak. The image she’s projecting is wrong.”
He slings mud at actress Marlee Matlin for the same reason. Ryan credits the Children of a Lesser God star with helping bridge the gulf between deaf artists and hearing audiences. And he acknowledges that her Oscar spawned a boomlet in sign language tutoring, which gave his day job a nice push. But he tweaks the actress for her public image. “I saw a recent issue of People magazine that had a photo of Marlee Matlin appearing to be whispering into Heather Whitestone’s ear,” he says, shrugging. “What’s that about? That’s the wrong image!”
Ryan plans to continue taking his all-ASL act into venues previously reserved for hearing comics and hearing audiences. According to Gallaudet, ASL is the fourth-most-spoken language in the U.S. (behind English, Spanish, and French), so Ryan has secured a reliable niche. After all, even if he doesn’t get all the jokes, club owner Harris doesn’t have any trouble interpreting the sound of a ringing cash register.
“I want Steve Ryan back in my club. I know that,” Harris says.