Interpreter Lets Hearing-Impaired Audience in on the Joke : Comedy: At Newport Beach's Laff Stop, Paula Dunn uses more than just sign language to convey the stand-up performers' humor to deaf guests.


Paula Dunn doesn't mind being the butt of a few jokes. In fact, she prettymuch expects it when she takes the stage at the Laff Stop in Newport Beach.

Every three months or so, the club hosts a special night for the hearing-impaired, giving them a chance to enjoy an evening of stand-up comedy. Dunn has gotten the call every time.

Comedians have been more than generous in sharing the stage with Dunn, who will interpret Sunday's show, headlined by Jeff Shilling. In fact, she says, "a lot of them play off me and use me, so that makes it hysterical for the deaf audience."

The deaf almost always need interpreters to communicate with hearing people--most of whom don't know sign language--and it is "awkward to have someone in on all of your business," Dunn says. "So when the interpreter gets to be the butt of some of the jokes, they love it."

Each Laff Stop gig can be as much a performance for Dunn as it is for the comics. Whatever the comedian conveys with vocal inflection has to be delivered by Dunn with facial expressions and body language. Otherwise, she says, "it would be like just reading the information."

"You have to take on the characteristics of the people you're signing for, as much as you can," Dunn says. "I have a lot of fun with it. I don't stay strictly in an interpreter role."

Dunn is "absolutely wonderful," says Laff Stop manager Janis Taylor, who organizes the special shows with the help of a group called the Southern California Recreation Assn. of the Deaf. Dunn signed the first hearing-impaired night at the Laff Stop in March, 1988, and Taylor has insisted on using her every time.

"It was very moving. They were just so thrilled," Taylor says of the first show, which featured Fred Greenlee. And the hearing audience, she says, was equally entertained: "Everybody feels like they've gotten a bonus."

Taylor will often line up guest spots for the shows. Sunday's bill, in addition to scheduled middle act Dave Wilson, will also feature a set by hearing-impaired comic Kathy Buckley.

There are certain kinds of comedy that don't go over well with a deaf audience, Dunn says. Musical references are a no-no, as are puns--words that sound the same may have entirely different signs. Allusions to movies can be tricky too, because few are closed-captioned.

Vocal impersonations usually don't go over, Dunn says, but "if they do the characteristics, the body movements, then it works."

Dunn, who lives in Santa Ana, also signs some local theatrical productions. It is physically demanding work, she says, something she does "for free lance and fun." Dunn works full time as a computer operator at a center for disabled people.

When she was first approached about the Laff Stop gigs, Dunn says the decision was easy: "I said: 'Sure, I'm a ham. Why not?' "

Jeff Shilling, Dave Wilson and Kathy Buckley will perform Sunday at 8:30 p.m. with sign-language interpreter Paula Dunn at the Laff Stop, 2122 S.E. Bristol St., Newport Beach. Admission: $7. Information: (714) 852-8762.

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