Tom Willard, 59, of Rochester, recently took home the top prize in the “Who’s Got Next” comedy competition at Photo City Improv in Rochester.
Willard outlasted 15 comedians from upstate New York in the four-round, bracket style competition. He made his standup debut July 6, 2016, at The Comedy Club in Webster as part of the Funniest Person in Rochester contest.
Willard started to lose his hearing at age 8 when growing up in New Jersey. At 22, he enrolled in the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology to earn a Bachelor of Science in photography.
After graduation, Willard founded and ran Deaf Artists of America for 10 years. He has worked as a journalist in the deaf community for most of the past 25 years. Willard is now attempting to become one of the few deaf professional standup comedians in North America.
“I’ve found six other comics with hearing loss who do standup in the hearing world,” Willard said. “Five talk and don’t sign, one signs and doesn’t talk. I think I’m the only one who does both.”
He learned this total communication approach as an RIT resident adviser who spoke to groups of deaf and hearing people.
“The audience for my standup is mostly the hearing world, but when any deaf people come out, they will be able to understand me, too,” he said.
Willard won “Who’s Got Next” a week after making his first out-of-town comedy trip to a contest in Utica and three days after completing a class in standup comedy at Writers & Books. He is now making plans to spend a week in New York City in April to do some open mics and get more exposure.
The “Who’s Got Next” contest will return April 28 to Photo City Improv with a new set of contestants.