‘SNL’ Opening Skit Puts Sign Language Interpreter Front & Center

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You could tell from a mile away that Saturday Night Live was going to use Lydia Callis, Mayor Bloomberg’s American Sign Language interpreter, in their opening skit. But was it … funny?

Callis became an overnight celebrity this week for her animated facial expressions as she interpreted ASL for Bloomberg during his many press conferences regarding Hurricane Sandy. But as journalist Lilit Marcus   wrote over at the Atlantic, much of the coverage of Callis was patronizing to ASL speakers.  Marcus is the child of two hearing-impaired parents and was dismayed, if not entirely surprised, that the hearing world seemed to think Callis was there to provide goofy entertainment:

Yes, Lydia Callis’ facial expressions and large, emphatic signs are a bit unusual among interpreters, but they’re not incorrect. Most interpreters have a difference between the way that they sign for large groups and the way that they sign for small ones. Callis’ sign style reminds me more of the way that interpreters translate at Broadway shows or at college graduations, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong or that she’s doing it for attention. 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.

I’m in agreement with all this, especially because Marcus is a close friend and I’ve long heard her make comments such as these. So of course I worried whether SNL would be respectful of ASL-speakers/Callis. I’m happy to say in the opening monologue last night, Cecily Strong, the actress playing Callis actually signed real words in ASL amidst her joke signs, like signing "Obama" by gesticulating big ears. Nasim Pedrad played a Jersey-fied interpreter to Bobby Moynihan’s Chris Christie and just made a lot of Italian-American hand gestures — which I found funny because it was so absurd.

The only thing that I thought SNL got wrong was joking that Lydia Callis was bringing "pizzazz" to the press conferences. It may have been a funny opportunity to make jazz hands for the words "pizzazz," but again, it reinforces the idea that an ASL interpreter is there for entertainment.

Here’s the skit below:

Contact the author of this post at Jessica.Wakeman@Gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter.