February 25th, 2024

Sign language choreography a logistical challenge on CBC comedy ‘One More Time’

By Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press on January 29, 2024.

DJ (D.J. Demers) (left) and Jen (Elise Bauman) watch Marie (Miranda Millar) (right) with colleague Juan Jaramillo in a scene from "One More Time." THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Ian Watson **MANDATORY CREDIT**

TORONTO – What do you get when you combine two lonely singles and three sign language interpreters? The fourth episode of D.J. Demers’ half-hour comedy “One More Time.”

Miscommunication is hardly new ground for comedy, but the CBC/Accessible Media Inc., series about the hard-of-hearing manager of a used sporting goods store aims to pull from the sitcom playbook while subverting tired tropes.

In this case, that involved casting three people who use sign language, and a handful of consultants and interpreters.

“We just wanted to make sure the sign was correct, and we’re leaving it entirely in other people’s hands. We’re watching, but we have no way to know, which is a sort of strange and vulnerable position to be in,” said showrunner Jessie Gabe.

In the episode, Demers’ character, also named D.J., is set up on a date with a non-verbal deaf woman. Despite being hard of hearing, D.J. doesn’t use sign language so he enlists his co-worker Jen (Elise Bauman) to interpret.

As it turns out, the woman D.J. is on a date with doesn’t use the same type of sign language as Jen, so Jen calls in her American Sign Language teacher to translate from ASL to British Sign Language. But his date doesn’t use BSL either – she’s fluent in French Sign Language, or LSF.

Enter a third interpreter and cue a game of broken telephone.

Behind the scenes, even more was going on.

“We had our deaf consultant on set, and she was holding up a camera to the monitor, and someone in England was watching to verify that the British sign was correct…and they were there to also verify the French. But this was a multi-continental experience to get it right,” Gabe said.

The idea sprang from a real-life experience Demers had while working for Accessible Media Inc., interviewing an athlete at the Deaflympics with the help of a sign language interpreter. But as it turns out, the athlete used British Sign Language and the interpreter used American Sign Language. They needed a translator for their translator.

“We needed to go from my verbal English to ASL, and then from ASL to BSL. It was just a really funny experience, because we’re filming this interview for TV and there’s just so much dead air between me asking the question and then waiting for it to come back,” Demers said.

But when it came time to dramatize the experience, there was a logistical learning curve, episode director Melanie Orr said. Was it appropriate to cut away mid-sentence? How do you maintain the comedic timing?

They settled on a combination of methods. At first, the camera pans across the characters as they interpret sign language – “‘That ’70s Show’-style,” Demers quips – highlighting the time it takes to get a simple message through the layers of translation.

At another time, the camera is trained on D.J. and Jen as they watch the interpreters translate. One shot features the whole table of date attendees, showing a silent cacophony of sign language when D.J. accidentally insults his date.

Sign language is not a common sight on prime-time TV – let alone three forms of it.

“The fact that we’re showing that there are different sign languages, that premise in itself is kind of showing that it’s not a monolith,” Demers said.

But for Demers, keeping the comedy central was key. He takes a “story first” approach, rather than starting with a moral he hopes to impart.

“I have a deep, deep fear of being unfunny. So for me, I just feel like the second you put ‘message’ first, you’re going to make it harder for yourself to be funny,” he said.

“And then if there is a message, how do you subvert it or how do you, you know, how do you have fun with it?”

The fourth episode of “One More Time” airs Tuesday on CBC, CBC Gem and AMI.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 29, 2024.

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