Sign language: Did you see the one about...?

A comedy club has hired a sign language interpreter to make sense of the jokes for deaf customers

When it comes to jokes, as the saying goes, it's the way you tell 'em. So one comedy club is taking no chances at its stand-up gigs: bosses have hired a staff sign-language interpreter to help deaf customers to enjoy the shows.

Comedians will be joined onstage from early October by 25-year-old Jessica Heller, who will sign gags for the benefit of anyone who understands British Sign Language (BSL).

"I am relishing the challenge. It will be one of the most difficult things I have ever done, but I think I will enjoy it," she said yesterday. "I am nervous, even a little apprehensive, because this is unlike anything else I have ever done. But I like being onstage."

Heller, who began learning to sign as a teen in college, said she was a little worried some of the jokes would not come across, "particularly those which rely on wordplay". She added: "You can imagine that, to a deaf person, jokes which rely on sibilance or alliteration might not work so well. The deaf community has some of its own jokes, in any case. I will chat to the comedians beforehand and try to prepare as best I can."

Anthony King, one of the comedians lined up to appear at the first signed gig on 7 October, said he had no such worries. He said his style was "quite dry", with a lot of wordplay. "But it should come across well."

He added: "I am not very active onstage like, say, Lee Evans, and I do a lot of one-liners. My jokes are all self-contained: you don't need to get the punchline and a specific action at the same time to get it, so the delay should not cause me a problem.

"I will have a word with the interpreter before the gig, to see if there are likely to be any issues, but I am confident it will work fine," he said.

King added that he would not be including any material specifically for the deaf community because he does not want to patronise anyone. "They will get my normal show, interpreted. I am looking forward to it. If someone who wouldn't usually be able to gets the chance to come see my show, that's great."

The show is planned as a one-off in the Highlight club in Leicester, but if it proves a success the concept could be adopted across the chain's 10 sites. Heller said she could "carve out a niche" for herself. "As far as I know, there is no one else interpreting stand-up gigs at the moment."

Interpreters can spend years training, and linguists consider the discipline to be one of the hardest to master. But it can also be one of the best-paid. A professional interpreter is expected to be able to hear, understand, translate and communicate a message, simultaneously using all of the skills required of a linguist.

Many educational institutions now offer BSL courses alongside their modern foreign languages, with uptake among students thought to be high.

Heller began learning after spotting a note in the prospectus of her local college offering free tuition to under-19s. "A lot of people learn sign language because they have a friend or a relative who is deaf, but that is not the case with me. A friend and I thought 'why not' when we saw the prospectus. It was only as I learned more that I decided I wanted to do it as a career."

The show will follow the venue's format of two comedians and a compère, all signed by Heller, who told the Chortle comedy website her normal duties would more likely include "accompanying people to doctors' appointments, or providing office support".

The line-up includes comedians Craig Murray and Miles Jupp. Highlight sales manager, Laura Williams, who came up with the idea, said: "I have not seen anything like this being done before, and I thought there must be loads of people in Leicester who are missing out on seeing live comedy. I wanted to give the deaf community a chance to see something that's not usually on offer."

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