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):
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: