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‘The Simpsons’ Makes History With First Deaf Voice Actor and Use of American Sign Language

When “The Simpsons” creative team decided to use American Sign Language in this Sunday’s episode, there was one hitch: The show’s animated characters have only four fingers.

“That was a little tricky, especially because the one thing we’re translating is Shakespeare,” says writer Loni Steele Sosthand. “But I think we pulled it off.”

Sosthand, who joined “The Simpsons” in 2020, is the writer behind the show’s April 10 installment, “The Sound of Bleeding Gums.” The episode is not only notable for featuring the first-ever use of ASL on “The Simpsons,” but it also includes the show’s first-ever deaf voice actors. 

Monk (John Autry II) meets his dad’s biggest fan, Lisa Simpson (Yeardley Smith) on The Simpsons. (Photo: 20th Television)

The story centers on Lisa Simpson, who discovers that her favorite musician and mentor, the late saxophonist Bleeding Gums Murphy, had a son who was born deaf. She meets the young man, Monk, who wants to get a cochlear implant — but Lisa gets a little too over-exuberant in trying to help him.

The episode is inspired by Sosthand’s family. “I’m mixed race; my father’s Black and jazz was big in our house,” Sosthand says. “We grew up in the suburbs, and it was a way for my dad to bring in that aspect of our culture. But when I think about music, I also think about my brother, who was born deaf. When we were talking about this Bleeding Gums character in our initial brainstorms, we thought, wouldn’t it be cool if Lisa discovers this whole other side of his life. That led to him having a son, and then we based that character at least somewhat on my brother. And the story grew from there.”

Sosthand and her brother, Eli Steele, had previously developed a pilot based on their lives, featuring deaf actor John Autry II. So when it came time to find someone to play Monk, Sosthand pitched Autry, whose credits include “Glee,” to exec producers James L. Brooks and Al Jean.

“Jim and Al very much got on board and saw what a gem he was,” Sosthand says. “The character has little personal moments from my childhood with my brother but is also very much influenced by John.”

Autry lauded “The Simpsons” for hiring a deaf actor to play the role. “It’s so incredible,” he said of the gig. “It’s life-changing equality and participation. This can impact change for all of us. It’s about hard of hearing and hearing characters coming together. It’s a part of history.”

Sosthand also sought her brother’s approval while writing the script, which includes a scene where Bleeding Gums discovers his son his deaf — patterned after how Sosthand’s parents discovered Eli was hearing impaired. Eli also voices a part in the episode, as do several other deaf performers, including comedian Kathy Buckley and three kids from No Limits, a nonprofit devoted to deaf children: Kaylee Arellano, Ian Mayorga and Hazel Lopez.

“When she pitched this idea, about Bleeding Gums having a son, we thought it would be great for an episode,” Jean says. “The Sound of Bleeding Gums” was in development long before “CODA” came on the scene and won the Oscar last month, but there’s serendipity in the timing. 

“I was an early viewer of ‘CODA’ and really admire the movie,” Sosthand says. “There are themes in it that are somewhat echoed here, coming out of a sibling relationship. And also ‘CODA’ has the tension between music and the deaf experience. I think it’s great, because the Deaf experience isn’t just one story, there are so many stories to be told.”

By Michael Schneide | Variety

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