Waiting for the Punchline

by Tina Blue
August 9, 2003

          Several years ago I pretty much stopped watching TV.  Then, about a year ago I gave my TV and my VCR to my 23-year-old son, since I never used them.

          It's not that I never ever watch TV at all.  But mostly when I do, it's with my friend Michael.  We usually rent DVDs and watch them on his TV.  Only rarely do we ever watch anything that is actually on TV.  When we do, though, it is usually something like Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,   or  The Conan O'Brien Show.  In other words, comedy.

          Until about a year and a half ago, I used my "hearmuffs" to watch TV with Michael.  These were big ol' earphones that worked really well to block out ambient sound and to channel the dialogue right into my ears.  I still missed some words, but I did pretty well, and if it was a rented movie, we could always rewind if I missed something important.  As time passed, though, and my hearing deteriorated, I was working harder but understanding less, even with the hearmuffs on.

          But then Michael's brother, who had joined the Navy, was sent to Japan.  When Nathan deployed, he left his big new TV with Michael.  Unlike the TV I gave to my son, Nathan's TV has closed captioning.  Not the knd tht luks lk ths nd tht non cn rd, but real words in real sentences.

          I still wear my hearing aids, so I can pick up the intonations of sentences and even a few words.  But for the most part, I am quite dependent on the closed captioning to understand what is being said.

          And that's where it gets a bit strange.

          When we are watching a rented movie, the captioning appears at the same time the words are being spoken.

          But when we are watching a network show, the closed captioning appears after the words have been spoken.

          And when what you are watching is comedy, that means that you don't get the joke until the punchline appears on the screen. 

          Sometimes the delay between the spoken words and the captioning can be significant.  When that happens, I end up laughing out loud as soon as I see the end of the joke. But by that time, the joke is long over, and sometimes the scene has even changed!

          When I watch TV with my friend, that's not such a big deal, of course.  He knows I'm deaf and that I have to wait to read the joke.

          But the fact is, it seems a little weird, almost surreal, to me.  There I am sitting in the dark, laughing in the present at a joke that was over several seconds ago.  While the punchline is being delivered, and Michael is laughing and slapping his leg, I am silent and as serious as a judge, because I am focused on reading the lines at the bottom of the screen. 

          But later, when all the humor is in the past, and Michael is no longer even snickering, that's when I start chuckling and giggling.

          And when that happens, I can't help but imagine how bizarre it would seem to an outsider watching me watch TV.
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