Laying on his dad’s lap in a recreational vehicle in the middle of blizzard in the Mid-West, 7-month-old Douglas Wann made the American Sign Language motion for the word ‘milk.’
“He just started signing,” said the father, Keith Wann, in a phone interview from the road with the Collegian this week.
The younger Wann will grow up tri-lingual with a pair of grandparents on his mother’s side who speak Spanish and a father who grew up with deaf parents and tours the entire U.S. every year providing visual comedy to deaf communities at colleges, community centers and even tropical cruises.
Keith Wann climbs on a different stage every two days in front of crowds across the country to bring an act fine-tuned from a conglomeration of slapstick comedy influences, like Steve Martin, The Three Stooges, Eddie Murphy, Bob Newhart and Rowan Atkinson.
He travels back and forth across the country with his wife Emilia, his baby son and a small band of voice interpreters, who tell the hearing portion of his audiences what he says.
Friday at 6 p.m., he’ll do it for a CSU crowd in the Lory Student Center Theater.
Growing up with ASL
Wann’s style of comedy was shaped by sitting on a couch watching movies and situation comedies with his mother and father, Vicki Long and Douglas Hale, who, as members of the deaf community, relied on visual stimulation for entertainment instead of auditory communication.
They spent much time watching The Three Stooges and Lon Chaney, who was known the man of 1,000 faces, also a child of deaf adults, or a CODA.
“Not that many women like the Three Stooges,” Wann said. “My mom was a huge fan.”
It was the same type of slapstick that continues to captivate American youth, but for Wann, it became the force that guided his unique career. It was what he knew, and was no different to him than being raised by speaking parents.
“I didn’t know what it was like growing up with hearing parents,” he said “. It was normal.”
Wann said there’s a perceived advantage in having deaf parents –/kids can say whatever they want and blast music at stereo capacity –/but that he found out early these perceptions are not accurate.
“You can’t say that you can play music loud,” he said. “No, deaf people can feel vibrations. You can’t say that you can cuss because some deaf people can read lips.”
He said his environment growingup lent itself so much to comfort with ASL that he doesn’t consider himself part of the spoken language community. He even refers to English as a second language.
“I feel like a deaf person who has a handicap for hearing,” he said.
The “bad boy of ASL” comedy
His highly animated comedy sketch, which he started marketing as a grassroots campaign to dispel misconceptions about the deaf community, has landed him the status of what he called the “bad boy of ASL comedy.”
But he doesn’t consider the jokes crude. To Wann, they are just realities of being part of a community that uses an alternative form of communication.
In one of his skits, he parodies ambiguities in ASL that can lead to Freudian slips. Possible scenario: A police officer pulls over a car and signs for a driver’s license by touching his thumbs and forefingers together, which actually means ‘vagina.’
“Police officers will sign that, and they’re actually saying vagina,” he said.
According to Wann, it’s just an example of commonplace mistakes people make when trying to communicate with people who don’t speak the same language.
Campaign to give “back to the deaf community”
Katy Fish, a hearing impaired junior in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies major, said Wann brings a type of entertainment to CSU that was previously inaccessible to a prominent deaf community at CSU.
“(Deaf people) have a really rich history . a determination to become a subculture,” she said.
Fish, who started losing her hearing at 13, works for the alternative testing department for Resources for Disabled Students and has several deaf friends who, she says, are excited about Wann because they want to see an interpreter talking instead of signing.
“It’s really interesting to get to see someone with that experience,” she said, referring to Wann’s unique lifestyle as a CODA.
Wann’s road will lead him and his family to the West Coast where prominent ASL entertainers will show off their stuff to vacationers on a “CODA cruise.” The cruise is meant to bring awareness to the deaf community. More information about Wann can be found at www.keithwann.com, and cruises can be found at www.aslcruise.com.
Development Editor Aaron Hedge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.