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The deaf comedy divide in our sitting room

by Charlie Swinbourne

6th January 2011

Just before Christmas, Leslie Nielsen, the Canadian star of madcap comedy films Airplane! and Naked Gun, passed away at the age of 84.
Leslie Nielsen
On news of his death, tributes flowed in from the showbiz world and from thousands of fans posting on Facebook and Twitter - including many from the deaf community.

I was amazed at how many people shared my affection for his films, and felt more sad than I remember feeling about a celebrity death. Nielsen happened to bear a passing resemblance to my Grandad, with a full head of silver hair - but there's more to it than that. To me, he was more than just another movie star.

Reading a tribute on a blog called I Heart Subtitles by a deaf woman called Dawn Jones, she explained how much she loved the visual comedy in Nielsen's films, as well as the subtitling of a famous scene in Airplane!.

It reminded me that the blend of silly wordplay and physical humour he specialised in, meant that his films were among the few that my family would all sit down and enjoy together.

We each have quite different preferences when it comes to entertainment because we are all deaf to varying degrees. My Mum and youngest brother are classified as profoundly deaf, and my Dad, middle brother and I are knocking around the moderate to severely deaf range.

With a mixture of communication methods between us, from lipreading to sign language and 'listening hard', comedy that suited everyone's sense of humour was difficult to find. Just imagining Nielsen's facial expressions makes me smile. He could say something totally ridiculous while projecting a look of absolute, deadpan seriousness.
Leslie Nielsen
Lines like: "Just think; next time I shoot someone, I could be arrested", in Naked Gun. Or, on being asked, "Surely you can't be serious?" and replying: "I am serious, and don't call me Shirley" in Airplane!.

These were complemented by fantastic visual sequences: Nielsen sliding down a banquet table on top of the Queen who his character, Frank Drebin, was supposed to be protecting; wearing a full body condom because he believed in 'safe sex'; and the amazing end credits of the Police Squad series where everyone pretended to 'freeze' as if the action had stopped, only to see someone walk by nonchalantly in the background. These, and many, many more...

During my teenage years I loved watching dialogue-driven American comedy series' like Seinfeld, Frazier and Friends, but the humour of those shows - well written though they were - was often dependent on the way the actors delivered a withering putdown or punchline which isn't quite so deaf friendly. My Mum, who can't hear such subtleties, would look on, completely unimpressed. She agreed I could have my own TV in my room around this time.
Mr Bean
Meanwhile, Rowan Atkinson's Mr Bean was the TV series that would have us all battling for space on the sofa. Whether he was falling asleep in church, or trying to get changed on the beach while maintaining his modesty, we were glued to the set. We loved the way you could read Bean's thought process through his physical movements and the expressions on his face. You didn't need to hear it to understand.

I also have fond memories of visually-driven children's programmes. My youngest brother loved Pingu, a series about a penguin who lives in an igloo and plays with a seal. Every episode is told in stop motion clay animation, with no dialogue at all. Another film we loved as children - and one I introduced my daughter to over Christmas - is The Snowman, told through Raymond Brigg's beautiful drawings alone.

Jackie Chan was another favourite. In his film Project A, there is a massive fight between the Navy and the Police in a bar. Halfway through a fight, Chan and his adversary both stop fighting and step behind a wall out of each other's sight, so they can both say "ow!" and nurse their wounds without losing face ... before starting to fight again. Classic stuff.
Charlie Chaplin
I later found out that Chan was influenced by perhaps the most famous visual comedian of all - and another Swinbourne family favourite - Charlie Chaplin.

Looking back to the early days of cinema and Chaplin classics like Modern Times and The Circus, throws up a reminder that there was a time when deaf people didn't need subtitles. All films were silent and, consequently, there's a massive place in deaf people's affections for those pre-Talkies starring Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and those other black and white film stars.

I remember being 5 or 6 years old and assuming characters in silent movies were themselves deaf - this seemed the only explanation for the way they expressed everything so physically. Consequently, I've never been able to fully lose the idea that Charlie Chaplin was a deaf person, even though he wasn't. In a way, my family and I saw something 'deaf' in all of our favourite physical comedians and actors.

It was only when I read the many obituaries that were published after Nielsen's death that I realised he wore hearing aids - and amazingly, was deaf himself. Or as many articles put it "legally deaf" - a term that brought a smile to my face. I can just imagine Nielsen as Frank Drebin saying: "Sure I'm deaf! And I've got a licence."


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