Deaf standup comedian Tom Willard made his Broadway debut on December 3 at New York City's Carolines on Broadway, one of the premier comedy clubs in the country.
Willard, 61, spoke and signed his jokes to an appreciative audience during Carolines' New Talent Showcase, described by the club as where "the country's top up-and-coming comedians shine."
Willard, who lost his hearing slowly while growing up, started doing standup comedy in July 2016 as a contestant in the Funniest Person in Rochester contest.
Since then, he has performed at more than 40 venues in nearly a dozen cities, including Toronto, Cleveland and Jamestown, N.Y., home of the National Comedy Center.
He's an RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) alumnus, having earned a photo degree in 1985 with support services from RIT's National Technical Institute for the Deaf.
He signs while he tells his jokes, making his act accessible to hearing and deaf people alike.
"I performed at a school for the deaf and everyone laughed at the same time," he said. "That rarely happens when there's an interpreter involved, as one group's always a little behind."
He made it to the quarterfinals of this year's Toronto Comedy Brawl and just missed the cut for the Cleveland Comedy Open finals.
In February 2017, he outlasted 15 other comedians to win the "Who's Got Next?" comedy tournament at Photo City in Rochester.
In addition to performing, he advocates to make comedy accessible to people with hearing loss.
In August, he was successful at getting two comedy festivals - the Pittsburgh Comedy Festival and the Lucille Ball Comedy Festival in Jamestown - to provide real-time captioning at several shows.
Willard said it had been one of his first goals in standup to perform in New York City during the holidays. He was especially pleased to make the trip with his children, Becky, 28, and Kevin, 26.
In fact, Willard warmed up for Carolines by doing an open mic earlier that day at the West Side Comedy Club with Kevin, who started doing standup comedy himself two months ago.
Willard continues to seek out opportunities as he works to build a later-in-life career as a standup comedian.
"I don't expect to become the next Jerry Seinfeld," he says, "but plenty of comedians you've never heard of make a good living from comedy, and so that's my goal, to become one of those comedians you've never heard of."
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