Deaf comedian Greg Bland too often is treated
‘as if I’m a kid or stupid.’ But hearing people’s
rude behavior also gives him his best material.
By Julie Marshall
Greg Bland sits at Boulder’s Dushanbe Teahouse on an autumn night, with a view of “The Seven Beauties”—copper sculptures of wise and worldly princesses who inspired a fabled hero to seek and define himself to the world.
Such poetic mythology is fitting décor for Bland, 32, of Boulder. He is on a similar quest, because as a deaf person, he’s often disregarded or seen in limited ways. In restaurants, for instance, waitstaff turn to hearing friends to speak for him.
Bland points to the menu’s spicy Indonesian peanut noodles and the waitress takes his order. “She did a pretty good job,” Bland signs in American Sign Language (ASL), “because she tried.”
Being deaf is full of disempowering moments, Bland says, but he has a secret weapon—humor, the great equalizer. Called a “rising star” by nationally acclaimed ASL comedian Keith Wann, Bland is breaking down barriers between deaf and hearing cultures. And he’s having a lot of fun, after being hand-picked by Wann to join his small troupe of deaf comedians performing shows throughout California, New York, Texas and Florida this year with interpreters for non-signing audiences.
Boulder Magazine: What is your ASL sign name?
Greg Bland: My sign name is the “G” ASL hand shape across the side of your face, mimicking a smile. The story is I came out of the womb with a big, silly smile. My mom, who is deaf, named me then and there.
Sign names are a big deal. You can imagine how much fun it’d be if you had to spell out your friends’ names every time you said them: T-I-M. F-R-A-N-K. I imagine people named Bartholomew wouldn’t make many friends.
Hearing people sometimes get sign names, but you have to earn them from a deaf person.
Boulder Magazine: SWD [single, with dog], right?
Greg Bland: Yes. My dog’s name is Kallie. Her sign name is a “K” to the right eye, indicating her black spot. Kallie knows a bunch of ASL signs—roll over, sit, wait, stay, bathroom.
Boulder Magazine: Were you born deaf?
Greg Bland: At birth my ears handed in their resignation notice and headed for the Bahamas. My father is hearing. I have two brothers, Doug [who is deaf] and Jeff [hearing].
[accordion title=”For information about the ASL Slam ” close=”0″]Visit www.aslslam.com. Meanwhile, catch Greg Bland’s “goofy, slapstick” act (he’s also co-emcee) at Voodoo Comedy Playhouse in Denver Dec. 18, or at Hamburger Mary’s in Denver Jan. 24, Feb. 28 and March 28. [/accordion]
Boulder Magazine: What are some of the most revealing cultural missteps you’ve experienced?
Greg Bland: A booth vendor at the Boulder Creek Festival asked if I could read to fill out a form—while I was wearing a CU Alumni sweatshirt! … In yoga class, I still get high-fives as if I’m a kid or stupid. But I’ve gotten my best material from stereotypes.
Boulder Magazine: You work as chief operating officer for the Boulder fitness startup BaziFIT, and as a board member for three nonprofits helping deaf people. What made you join Keith Wann’s ASL 2014 national comedy tour?
Greg Bland: I do comedy to communicate my cultural experience through humor. Comedy defuses our amygdalae—like, you might feel strongly about your favorite politician, but you’ll laugh at a joke about him or her. … I also feel this itch to make ASL cool. Sexy, even. It’s an endangered language as [deaf] people are getting cochlear implants.
Boulder Magazine: How about a joke?
Greg Bland: Keith Wann does a great skit about his mother driving with her knees, so she can yell at his dad in ASL in the car. … In the past, my own material has been a little “blue”—meaning not clean enough for print. It was a point in my personal growth recently when I decided I wanted to grow away from blue. I still do it off-stage and to small groups if they request it, but the formal comedy [on the tour] is going to be as minimally blue as possible.
Boulder Magazine: Should hearing people who don’t know ASL try to sign?
Greg Bland: A friend challenged me to sign to everyone. Forget writing notes; just sign. I was floored by the response. People who didn’t know ASL gestured. Some panicked, but those who panic are good sources for free beer. … They saw me as speaking a foreign language, rather than trying to be hearing. That was a major lightbulb moment. It really doesn’t matter to me if you get it wrong, like my food order. It’s more important that you look at me—and just try.[quote]For information about the ASL Slam, visit www.aslslam.com. Meanwhile, catch Greg Bland’s “goofy, slapstick” act (he’s also co-emcee) at Voodoo Comedy Playhouse in Denver Dec. 18, or at Hamburger Mary’s in Denver Jan. 24, Feb. 28 and March 28.
Julie Hoffman Marshall is a freelance writer and the author of Making Burros Fly: Cleveland Amory, Animal Rescue Pioneer. She met Greg Bland while learning ASL to communicate with her daughter Sarah, 10, who has autism and limited verbal communication.