Comedian D.J. Demers is taking it upon himself to ensure his comedy shows are as accessible as possible.
In his new, one-hour stand-up special, “D.J. DEMERS: INTERPRETED,” Demers is raising the standard of accessible comedy with two versions of special, one complete with closed-captioning subtitles and an onstage American Sign Language interpreter, as well as descriptive captioning for the visually impaired.
“I wanted to have an interpreter because I do wear hearing aids and I wanted to make an accessible comedy show for everybody, hearing deaf, everything in between, I want everyone to be able to enjoy it,” he says in his special, which will be released tomorrow in Canada.
Demers, who rose to fame after performing on the late-night TV show, Conan in 2014, has been wearing hearing aids since he was four-years-old. Inevitably, his hearing loss has become part of his identity, as accessibility has became part of his mission. In 2017, he hosted the Here to Hear Tour, a month-long comedy road trip to break down stigmas around hearing loss, sponsored by Phonak.
“I had so much fun performing with interpreters, including almost every show on the Here to Hear Tour, so I knew there was an extra amount of comedy to be gleaned from that element,” he says.
“I thought the interpreter would be a fun way to bridge the gap between the hearing and Deaf communities,” Demers says. “Since I am hard of hearing, I don’t fit neatly into either community and I thought it would be worthwhile to make my special accessible to both sides of the aisle, so to speak.
“I’m also great friends with my interpreter in this special (shout out to Jennifer!), so I knew she would be down for some unscripted riffs and what-not. The idea was borne out of both fun and accessibility and I’m really happy with how it turned out.”
Laughter is a universal sound, but the jokes that spark them aren’t always accessible. But making comedy fully accessible is particularly challenging, Demers says.
“Comedy albums or podcasts are often purely audio, which makes them inherently inaccessible for deaf and hard of hearing people,” he says. “And a lot of comedy in film and TV is based on physical humor, which makes it inaccessible for blind people.”
Demers says that there are ways to get around this, such as transcribing podcasts or “using descriptive video to describe Moe tripping Curly in the Three Stooges,” but it can diminish the original magic in the situations.
There’s also the sensitivities between the deaf, Deaf and hard of hearing communities, which Demers respects. Like many people who grew up using hearing technology, he doesn’t fully fit into a Deaf or hearing world. Comedy, he says, also doesn’t always smoothly cross these lines.
“Even with my special, for example, some Deaf people might not care to see the jokes of a verbal man interpreted into their language. They would prefer a 100% ASL show performed by a Deaf person. And that’s great too. There are a lot of factors to be considered with making our media accessible, but the good news is there are far more opportunities to make our media accessible if we seek them out.”
Read more: Celebrating the diversity of deafness
Overall, Demers says, audiences of all hearing levels have been receptive of his comedy.
“The live audience had a great time, I think. Or they were terrific fakers, and I’m ok with that too,” he says. “There is one off-the-cuff moment in particular that happened between me, my interpreter, and an audience member during the show that was delightful, and I’m happy we were able to capture that on film. I’m just pumped for this this special to be released.”
Canadians can watch “D.J. DEMERS: INTERPRETED” on Crave on February 22nd. Demers says he hopes it will be released in other countries in the near future.