Is It Okay To Laugh At Saturday Night Live‘s Most Viral Video This Week?

SNL sign language interpreter sketch Lydia Callis Michael Bloomberg funny laugh offensive Hurricane Sandy

The internet loves its memes and especially loves to latch on to specific people as representative of a time period, but it still came as a surprise when the most recognizable face to come out of Hurricane Sandy was Lydia Callis, the American Sign Language interpreter for New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. Those familiar with Deaf culture were impressed with her poise and quick translation of Bloomberg’s disaster updates, but it was this same reason that turned her into an internet darling: Her expansive facial expressions and mastery of signs made her instantly GIFfable. She had her own Tumblr within hours of the storm, and she was the character we were most expecting/dreading to see lampooned on this weekend’s Saturday Night Live.

SNL got down to it right off the bat, with the cold open dedicated to Mayor Bloomberg (Fred Armisen) and Callis (newbie Cecily Strong). As Armisen thanks NYC’s hardworking first responders, Strong does exactly what charmed people about Callis: She scrunches and stretches her face into all manner of expressions while firing off seemingly ridiculous signs. What’s interesting is that Strong used a combination of real signs and gestures.

As you can hear from the laugh track, the skit seemed to go over well. Several sites also called it hilarious, but not everyone was amused. Furious with the skit, Deaf actress Marlee Matlin shot back at SNL on Twitter (read bottom to top):

Marlee Matlin tweet furious SNL sign language interpreter skit Lydia Callis ASL

The consensus at Crushable is that we feel badly for laughing, but we did find the skit funny. The best way I can articulate my conflicting thoughts on this is to break it down for each side.

What Was Funny

• If you watch the whole skit, you see that Bloomberg and Callis were one of three groups gently mocked. After they leave the podium, we see New Jersey governor Chris Christie (Bobby Moynihan) take the stage with his own interpreter (Nasim Pedrad playing the stereotypical Jersey girl). Then the third part of the joke is poking fun at Bloomberg’s awkward, stilted Spanish (which created Hurricane Irene’s main meme, the @ElBloombito Twitter). Each joke got the same amount of screen time.

• I can understand why they had Strong do a mix of real and fake signs. Mostly, she strung together correct phrases — “70% of New Yorkers,” “six days,” etc. — and then filled in the gaps with what more resembles hearing people gesturing when they don’t have the words. If Strong had done every sign correctly, it wouldn’t have been funny, it would have been matter-of-fact. So, seeing her literal signs for “firefighter” and “EMT,” plus the look on her face when she switches on the power, were amusing and got the joke across.

What Wasn’t Funny

• By the same token, you can’t forget that the whole reason they decided to do this skit was because people find ASL funny. We’re literally saying, “Look at this thing which is ‘other’ compared to hearing people. It’s so bizarre that our only reaction should be to laugh!” As Lilit Marcus points out in her article for The Atlantic, “She’s signing for a room full of reporters, but the closeness of the TV camera blows her signs up and makes them more pronounced. If someone went on TV speaking English with an unusually high-pitched voice, I doubt they’d get their own Tumblr chronicling all of their vocal patterns. ”

• This is a small quibble, but it got on my nerves that they couldn’t be bothered to teach Strong the correct sign for hurricane. She does a combination of “hit” + “rain” whereas the sign for “hurricane” (at least according to this online dictionary) is just as intuitive and actually correct. Their choice felt lazy.

• I have to agree with BlackBook that it was a misstep to say that Callis adds some “pizzazz” to an otherwise boring press conference. Not only was Strong’s sign for “pizzazz” way too over-the-top, but it also presents her as an entertainer and not a source of information. In many ways it undermines Callis’ job. And that shouldn’t be something to laugh at.

If you look at the sketch as mocking multiple facets of New York/New Jersey public figures during Hurricane Sandy, then yes, it’s funny. But the fact that they mocked another language doesn’t sit well with me. But watch the cold open for yourself and let us know how you reacted:

Photo: NBC

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    • Anonie

      I remember an SNL sketch last season which was completely in fake Swedish. So if it helps, this isn’t the first language they’ve made fun of in this way.

    • RealSolidKhiel

      Does the deaf community want to be treated special? Aren’t we trying to treat everyone (color, gender, nationality, etc.) equally? Everyone gets made fun of in comedy. EVERYONE.

    • Telly

      I don’t care how fair she claims she’s trying to be. A person who enjoys poking fun at people, then cries about fun being poked at an issue close to her heart is a hypocrite.
      Sid Caesar routinely imitates languages, but I don’t see her denouncing him. Point of fact, I doubt she’s ever heard of him doing so. Her ‘righteous causes’ are all mainstream.

      • nataliecrush

        I really hope you didn’t mean “heard of him” literally…

    • Vanessa

      “Imagine if a show started making fun of Spanish (using fake Spanish) or Japanese?” Funny she should say that because MANY people have made fun of those languages. Not disagreeing with her that it’s offensive, but she’s making it seem like ASL is the only language ever mocked and that’s where I don’t agree. I hear comedians talking real fast in a Spanish accent making up words, and piecing together ‘chings’ and ‘chongs’ to imitate Mandarin and Japanese in their bits all the time. So regardless of whether or not this is offensive, it’s not like making fun of languages is a new thing.

    • John Delage

      Here is the thing, yes everyone gets made fun of but when it offends a group as badly as this offended the Deaf community, we need to stop. Imagine for a second if SNL did a parody on black people and used the “N” word several times. Would that be funny? Should black people just say “Oh, you got us good!”? NO. WHY? Because it is highly offensive to them. Let’s respect Deaf Culture and ASL and not go out of our way to offend them. Thank you.

      • spotdog19

        John, you’re not comparing apples to apples. If they had come out and used the phrased…”For and Deaf and Dumb” listeners then yeah, it would be wrong. Just as they never used the “N” word to describe African Americans. But they have made fun of Black culture – numerous times. There was even a show dedicated to making fun of black culture which had a mostly black cast…remember In Living Colour? So I suppose in your world that is ok but if a cast of mostly non-black actors does the same thing it’s not. Isn’t that the very definition of racism??

      • John Delage

        Did you really read what I was saying, or just read into it and form your own opinion? What you didn’t understand about my statement is simply this: If a culture is seriously insulted by something, perhaps you shouldn’t poke fun at it in the future. It isn’t just Marlee who’s upset, most of the deaf culture, even the NAD is upset about it. This portrays ASL as a joke language. For decades ASL was not given respect as an actual language, only recently has it been recognized as being legitimate, and even better than spoken languages in some respects. I think this is why they are so offended. I would suggest you learn just a little more about deaf history before making judgements. What is past, is past, but is it really too much to ask that we respect their feelings about this matter in the future?

      • John

        Was it a culture? Or just one tweeter.

        Your overreactive response to spotdog makes me wholly unsurprised that you agree with them though! Oh brother.

    • spotdog19

      Actually Marlee, fun is poked at the Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and English languages ALL the time. Never seen a comedy skit where a person doesn’t know the Spanish word so they just say the English word and end it with an “O”? Same thing is done with Chinese and Japanese all the time…it was a funny skit. Funny because they used outlandish means to portray their meaning and in a way that anyone watching would KNOW they weren’t actually trying to use sign language as a legit form of communication.

      The only “FAIL” here, Marlee, is your lack of understanding. And why do you think anyone was making fun of YOU or would want to? That would be wrong – you have it all backwards.

    • Anna A. Larson Kernes

      Have you ever had your mouth taped shut because someone didn’t want you to speak. Or slap you in the mouth. Deaf culture knows this too well. People frequently had their hands tied behind their backs and/or hands slapped for signing “communicating” with each other. The fight to have a “voice” is a long and complicated story. Hearing people may be upset if they are told not to speak in their native language, but at least it’s a language that is highly possible to pick up because they can hear it. Expecting Deaf to speak or lip read is not the same. I was excited to see ASL so front and center during Sandy. Our culture has come a long way when it comes to understanding the need for ASL but it has a long way to go to understand the history behind it and the Deaf culture in general. Some may think sign is just with hands but is a whole body language so nothing the interpreter was doing that day was amazing or funny. Only nessasary. Although I’m all about a good laugh and love to see ASL exposure on TV, it must be done with some thought. Making fun of a Swedish accent, as someone earlier had said, is not the same. Comparing the bastardization of ASL to the the use of the N word is a great descriptive and more true. I am neither Deaf nor African American and would never proport to understand a world I don’t come from. But, I can listen to what a group feels and try to understand that point of view. Marlee is one of the only Deaf voices in the media and we should show her a bit more respect for what she is feeling when she is speaking for her community. Just because other cultures and languages may be made fun of doesn’t make it right. Lets not slip back to the days of black face and say its ok because it’s just all in fun.