From TED Talk to OZY Fest: How This Comedian Keeps the Laughter Alive
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because whether or not you agree with her, she’ll make you laugh.
By James Watkins
If there were an “Oppression Olympics,” Maysoon Zayid would be a gold medalist, she says in her hugely popular TED Talk. After all, she’s a disabled Palestinian Muslim woman … from New Jersey. Appearing at OZY Fest 2017 in New York City’s Central Park to discuss disability and inclusion on a panel hosted by the Ford Foundation, Zayid said, “I’m here to represent intersectionality and Islam. And sexiness.”
The 40-something comedian didn’t hold back, with the jokes or the inspirational calls to action, while describing growing up with cerebral palsy. “I was treated just like my sisters — if they were cleaning, I was cleaning. I told my mom, ‘I can’t clean, I’m disabled.’ She would put a towel under me and have me scooch,” she said. “My parents fought to mainstream me. If they hadn’t won that battle, I wouldn’t be sitting here.”
Zayid has a long history of smashing stereotypes. The first woman to perform stand-up comedy in Palestine and Jordan — uncensored and uncovered — she is also the co-founder of the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, which debuted in 2003. Despite her disability, she fulfilled her lifelong dream and tap-danced on Broadway to a sold-out crowd as part of the Arabs Gone Wild show. She even performed stand-up at last year’s Republican National Convention, at which Donald Trump accepted the presidential nomination. “Believe it or not, it wasn’t the worst gig I’ve ever done,” she said backstage at OZY Fest. “At the time, we thought Trump was a joke, but now that we know it’s real, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever done.”
Following her set, which was filled with pointed identity comedy about disability, feminism and Islam, convention attendees gave Zayid a standing ovation and then gathered round to try to persuade her that a Trump presidency would be better for her, she said. Given the contemporary climate around the issues she discusses, it’s difficult to avoid politics in her comedy. She’s also usually “way fiercer” than the TED Talk, which was “all about just making sure they broadcast it.” The RNC gig taught her that “laughter crosses boundaries. Until they put you in an internment camp, and then you’re fucked.”
Hollywood shuns diversity. [Disabled people] are the largest minority in the world, but we represent only 2 percent of the images on television.
Being a Muslim in America has become harder than being disabled in recent years, according to Zayid. “I’m inundated with hate, and not just from internet trolls,” she said. “It’s become the mainstream media. People have discussions about whether my faith is a religion or not, whether Muslims can really be American.” But despite this, “being a woman is the hardest thing of all.” And although her comedy and her advocacy aim to challenge stereotypes and give a voice to underserved issues, “my No. 1 duty is to make people laugh,” she said. “If I ever feel like I’m going out on stage just to preach and not make people laugh first, I’ll quit comedy and become an evangelist.”
Zayid didn’t always have her comedic instinct. “The lost Kardashian,” as she calls herself, was “a complete drama queen” growing up and obsessed with soap operas. “When I went to college, I even had designated spots where I would go and weep,” she recalled. She originally pursued a career in acting, an experience that fueled the passion behind one of her most forceful points: “I was hitting a dead end, and it’s because Hollywood shuns diversity. [Disabled people] are the largest minority in the world, but we represent only 2 percent of the images on television. Of those, 95 percent are played by nondisabled people … we call it ‘cripping up.’”
Inspired by Richard Pryor, Zayid transitioned to comedy 17 years ago. “I realized that laughter makes people who hate you and want to harm you, listen to you,” she explained. And living in New York City, post-9/11, meant “it was really important for me to get people laughing and get them to relate to me so I could make my enemies my friends.”
Another topic on which Zayid’s personal experience leads to a mixture of incisive comedy, heartbreaking personal stories and powerful social narratives (in true Pryor fashion) is social media. “If I grew up with social media, I wouldn’t be doing the career that I’m doing right now, because the bullying that people with disabilities face, especially teens and young adults, is paralyzing,” she explained, recounting some of the comments she received after her breakthrough moment, appearing on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, in 2010. “We were raised to believe that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.’ That’s completely untrue,” she said. “Words matter.”
Again, Zayid cannot avoid referencing contemporary politics, even if only implicitly. “We’ve been taught that being politically correct is a bad thing. I don’t want to use the term ‘politically correct,’ I want to use ‘decent.’ We need to get back to decency,” she said. “If you have nothing nice to say, go scream it in a mirror at yourself.”