Deaf Comedy Fan Finds Laughter At Local Events

Tom Willard, comedy fan and recent stand up comedian, recently attended the Lucille Ball Comedy Festival and the grand opening of the National Comedy Center. Willard lost his hearing later in life and learned sign language. Submitted photo

Tom Willard visited the National Comedy Center like hundreds of other people did during the Lucille Ball Comedy Festival last month. The only difference between the other comedy fans and himself is that he’s deaf.

The Westfield native and current resident of Rochester attended the Lucille Ball Comedy Festival last year, but admitted this year was the first time he could fully enjoy the performances.

Additionally, Willard began performing stand up comedy two years ago. This year, he performed inside the National Comedy Center in the karaoke lounge.

A video of Willard performing stand up comedy at a another venue can be found online.

“It was great, because it was the first time I could go to a comedy show and really know what’s going on,” he said of his experience attending this year’s performances.

Willard reached out to the National Comedy Center for accommodations for the most recent festival and asked that they provide closed captioning. The year prior, Willard was provided with an American Sign Language interpreter, but for him, words are lost through sign language during performances.

“A lot is lost in translation — funny voices, topical and musical references and more,” Willard wrote in an email to The Post-Journal.

Willard attempted to attend the festival two years ago, but was given a refund after the comedy center could not find an ASL interpreter.

“Last year, they were ready for me,” he said of the 2017 festival.

A video relay service ASL interpreter was brought in to accommodate Willard. But even with the accommodation, enjoying the show was difficult for the comedy fan.

Willard wasn’t born deaf or raised learning sign language for that matter. He went deaf when he was much older and was forced to learn ASL in college. He admitted that for the past 15 years, he hasn’t used sign language very much either.

After many requests from Willard, the National Comedy Center provided closed captioning services by the Pittsburgh-based company Vitac for their events this year, which allowed people like Willard to be able to read along with the show as it proceeded. Willard was provided with a handheld device that presented what the comedians were saying. Willard was initially put into contact with Brandon Caruso, guest experience researcher developer for the National Comedy Center, who handled the necessary accommodations.

“Everyone loves to laugh. At the National Comedy Center, we want to share the story of comedy with all of our guests,” Caruso said. “We strive to create an inclusive experience where all abilities and ideas can come to together and enjoy the art of comedy.”

While Willard appreciates the ASL interpreters that are used, he admitted that the crowd quickly notices them and potentially becomes a distraction for patrons — even for Willard as he observes people staring at the interpreters. With the closed captioning, the accommodation is more subtle, and for Willard, even more efficient.

“I understood the whole show without anyone making fun of my accommodations,” he said. “It was great.”

His only critique was for the comedy center to offer closed captioning for all patrons on large screens in the front of the venue so that people like Willard don’t stand out when they are holding their exclusive handheld devices.

“Many people with hearing loss don’t want to call attention to themselves,” he said.

He cited this as a key reason for some deaf individuals refusing to attend events that require accommodations.