From class clown to international stand-up, the deaf comedian on a lifetime of laughter

When he’s on stage, Gavin Lilly feels a rush. The 40-year-old deaf comedian loves to make people laugh – and it’s something he’s been doing since he was a “cheeky” young child.

“I remember telling jokes to a small group of friends and what started as a small group became a bigger and bigger and bigger group as more people were just taking an interest as they were walking past. And it was like, ‘oh, wow, people were really enjoying what I have to say’ … is this what it’s like to feel popular?” Lilly says.

But despite being “the clown of the family”, he never believed he could make a comedy a career until he saw deaf comedian John Smith.

“I think it I was in my late 20s. And I thought he’s really good and that I think planted a seed that this was something that was possible for me,” he says.

As a child, comedian Gavin Lilley says he was cheeky and the ‘clown of the family’ (Photo: Supplied)

Today he’s an international comedian and one of the headline acts on the bill of the newly launched Edinburgh Deaf Festival.

Organised by deaf-led charity Deaf Action, and working in partnership with the Edinburgh Fringe Society, the program will feature drama, magic, comedy, cabaret, tours and exhibitions, and even a deaf rave.

Born to deaf parents, Lilly grew up with two older hearing sisters but says the family use British Sign Language (BSL) as their first language.

Lilley says: “We’ve all had access from day one. That’s not true for most deaf people. And I recognise that I’m very lucky to have had sign language ever since I was born.”

As a father-of-three with a five-year-old daughter, who is a coda – a child of deaf adults, and two deaf sons, aged four and two, sign language has also been at the center of Lilley’s own family.

And while he is conscious of the challenges his children face, he is optimism about the future.

“Growing up, I’ve got to say we faced a lot of stigma and I think there were a lot of barriers that we experienced as deaf people. While today things aren’t perfect, it’s a lot better than how it was when I was growing up. I just think our ability to access things is a lot more improved now than it has been.”

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Like many other comedians, Lilly takes his experiences and uses them as inspiration for his standup.
His show Perspectives provides an insight to his life as a deaf person navigating a hearing world.

One of his jokes revolves around the commonly held belief that signing is internationally universal – it isn’t.
“You’ll see a few examples of actual real life experiences that I’ve had that have actually been quite embarrassing down to different signs meaning different things. That is definite proof that sign language is not universal,” he says, laughing.

The BSL sign for “shit” means “farm” in Finnish SL, the BSE sign for “sex” is “friend” in Dutch SL and “Important” in German SL is the f-word in BSL.

Concepts getting lost in translation is something that Lilly is conscious of when performing to audiences with hearing individuals and having his sign language translated into English.

“These are these are additional things that I’m mindful of that I don’t think very many standup comics ever have had to think about.”

On stage when performing to deaf and hearing audiences simultaneously, he works with an interpreter, Adrian Bailey, who live-translated this interview via Zoom, to communicate his material to those who don’t know sign language.
The pair’s connection is so seamless, Lilly admits he sometimes forgets Adrian is even there.

BSL does not follow the same grammar rules as the English language so the duo have to work together to ensure the jokes land well.

“If I can see people are laughing at the right time, then that kind of feedback lets me know do I need to speed up my signing, do I need to slow down.

“It’s a really, really lovely feeling to see people enjoying themselves and to be the reason why they’re enjoying themselves… That’s a really beautiful feeling.”

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