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‘The Simpsons’ Features First Deaf Voice Actor and American Sign Language in New Episode

“The Sound of Bleeding Gums” will introduce Bleeding Gums Murphy's son Monk, who was born deaf.

Lisa and Monk in 'The Simpsons'

After 33 seasons and over 700 episodes, there’s little ground The Simpsons hasn’t covered. But in an upcoming episode, the iconic animated series will deliver yet another first, featuring the first deaf voice actors and the first usage of American Sign Language (ASL) in its series run. Episode 17 of season 33 titled “The Sound of Bleeding Gums” will introduce Monk Murphy, the son of jazz legend Bleeding Gums Murphy, who was born deaf. Lisa meets Monk, who wants to get a cochlear implant, but in typical Lisa fashion she gets carried away.

The episode was the brainchild of writer Loni Steele Sosthand, who took inspiration from her own family. In an interview with Variety, Sosthand said “I’m mixed race; my father’s Black and jazz was big in our house, … 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 had previously worked with deaf actor John Autry II (Glee, No Ordinary Family) on a pilot based on her life with her brother Eli Steele, so he was the first actor she had in mind to play Monk. “Jim [L. Brooks] and Al [Jean] very much got on board and saw what a gem he was,” she said. “The character has little personal moments from my childhood with my brother but is also very much influenced by John.”

Autry said of the role, “It’s so incredible, … 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.” Autry is joined by Steele and other deaf voice actors, including comedian Kathy Buckley and three kids from No Limits, a nonprofit devoted to deaf children: Kaylee Arellano, Ian Mayorga and Hazel Lopez.

Sosthand also discusses the challenges of animating the character’s usage of ASL, given that they only have four fingers. “That was a little tricky, especially because the one thing we’re translating is Shakespeare,” she said. “But I think we pulled it off.” The show hired two ASL specialists to consult on the episode and had them review early animatics to ensure that the meaning of the words were accurately portrayed.

While the episode has been in the works for ages, it coincides with the critical success of Apple’s CODA, a coming of age story about a hearing teenager in a deaf family. CODA received rave reviews and took home three Academy Awards, for best supporting actor Troy Kotsur (the first deaf man to win an Oscar), best adapted screenplay, and best picture. “I was an early viewer of ‘CODA’ and really admire the movie,” Sosthand said. “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.”

(via Variety, image: 20th Television)

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Chelsea was born and raised in New Orleans, which explains her affinity for cheesy grits and Britney Spears. An pop culture journalist since 2012, her work has appeared on Autostraddle, AfterEllen, and more. Her beats include queer popular culture, film, television, republican clownery, and the unwavering belief that 'The Long Kiss Goodnight' is the greatest movie ever made. She currently resides in sunny Los Angeles, with her husband, 2 sons, and one poorly behaved rescue dog. She is a former roller derby girl and a black belt in Judo, so she is not to be trifled with. She loves the word “Jewess” and wishes more people used it to describe her.