Signing for a Punch Line


By Martel Reid-Warden

Photo courtesy of Windell Smith Jr.

Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Chris Rock are names that often roll off the tongue when discussing the greatest comedians of all time. Their work has been experienced by audiences across the globe. A quick visit to YouTube will provide a healthy reminder of why their stand up careers are so highly regarded. Those lucky enough to have been able to see a talented comedian at a live show could testify that encountering how a comedian deals with hecklers and seeing the pyrotechnics that may accompany today’s shows trumps watching the same events unfold on a TV or computer screen.

Unfortunately, the deaf community has been deprived of experiencing the talent of stand-up comedians in their full glory through the absence of an interpreter or closed captioned versions of shows.

Windell “Wink” Smith Jr, a full time deaf rights and ASL (American Sign Language) advocate, comedian, and interpreter, is attempting to bring comedy to the deaf community. Though he is not deaf, Wink was raised as a CODA (child of a deaf adult). Both of Wink’s parents are deaf and were left frustrated after they were denied sign language interpreters despite the presence of the Americans with Disability Act, Section 504 of the Rehab Act, and various state laws. The difficulty that his parents endured played a huge role in his decision to be an advocate for deaf rights and attempt to “bridge the gap by educating the hearing world about the deaf community.”

Wink tours across the nation alongside comedian Keith Wann who voices Wink’s show for the hearing and those that aren’t fluent in ASL.

“I studied under many deaf performers and under Keith Wann, who is hearing but his parents are deaf,” Wink tells BTR. “The discussion always centers around, will deaf people find this funny?”

During each show, audience members experience Wink’s ASL set, which derives from exposure to his parents’ own ASL storytelling capabilities during his earlier years.

His early exposure to ASL provided him with the inspiration to become a qualified interpreter at the age of 17. This long-time experience with the deaf community has enabled him to develop a deeper meaning to his shows in which he is able to spread awareness of deaf rights and ASL in an insightful yet humorous manner: “I have designed my shows to be very culturally centered around my experiences in the deaf community in order to educate, but also entertain.”

On his decision to choose comedy as an avenue to spreading awareness of ASL and deaf rights he explains, “I discovered that I enjoyed entertaining people but also teaching. I tend to gravitate toward films and shows that will teach me a bit about culture and to ask more questions, films that will lead me down the Google rabbit hole for hours. This requires a lot of planning on my part with a designated voice interpreter who knows my goal and wants to deliver the same impact I am delivering to the deaf audience members [as] to the hearing.”

His name, Wink, derives from a personality trait picked up on by the deaf community that recognized his tendency to wink during a conversation to display his understanding. The deaf communities give others names based on their personality and mannerisms as opposed to using ASL to spell out their name.

Wink’s shows are typically seen by university students across the nation. Despite the maturity of his audience, Wink still aims to keep the content of his shows clean. However, he does aim to push the boundaries a bit in an effort to change perceptions of ASL as a language for “mostly poetry and pretty stories.”

“My show is relatively clean, but I [err] on the side of caution and advertise as ASL-13,” Wink says.

The comedian’s attempts to raise awareness about ASL and deaf rights have gone further than the popularity of his comedy shows. His workshops, also known as “Winkshops”, can be found at conferences, agencies, and online. Workshop audiences are provided with insights to a variety of ASL-related matters, such has how to become an advocate for ASL and learning how to convey messages effectively through ASL.

When discussing deaf rights, his father’s often hard-hitting views about the insensitivity displayed toward the deaf community provided Wink with the ammunition to launch his own advocacy services. As a means of directly addressing the insensitivity, Wink offers consultancy to organizations seeking to comply with laws by making their company more accessible to the deaf community.

However, Wink isn’t the only performer who works to raise awareness of ASL. The comedian often recommends followers of his work to check out Peter S. Cook, a deaf performer that uses ASL, pantomime, and acting among other tools at his disposal.