SHE NEVER GETS NERVOUS. Yet she shakes all the time. “A bit like Shakira, a bit like Arafat,” as she puts it. To those not familiar with her, watching the comedian Maysoon Zayid on stage or on Keith Olbermann’s Countdown show on Current TV, the shaking and the twitching could appear to be serious stage fright – either that or she’s drunk.
Either would be unlikely, since Zayid is a Muslim, as well as an experienced stand-up comedian. Listening to the 33 year-old Palestinian-American combating stereotypes of Islam and Arabs with humor, touching on American political affairs, verbally frying male-dominated Hollywood, or addressing the question of Palestine and Israel, it’s hard to get a handle on her, and some come away asking, “What’s the deal with this Maysoon Zayid?”
The deal is this: When her mother went into labor (on Labor Day), Maysoon Zayid was ready to enter the world like a diver entering the swimming pool: fists first and head down. The doctor, on the other hand, was not ready. He was drunk. And when Zayid came out fists first, he panicked. As a result, baby Maysoon didn’t breathe for about three minutes. Those 180 seconds of missing oxygen caused damage to the motor control centers of her far-from-fully-developed brain and left her to grow up physically impaired in all her limbs. There is no cure for cerebral palsy (CP). Her condition was expected to define all aspects of Zayid’s life. And yet she has grown up to become the first female Arab-American professional comedian, she has tap-danced on Broadway, and she has a passion for driving.
Maysoon has opened many stand-up shows with the anecdote of the drunken doctor. On this particular September evening at the Arab-American Comedy Festival in New York, though, her mother – a short, fair-skinned woman with curly red hair and green eyes – is in the audience. So she’s going with another version:
“I’m not drunk, I’m inbred. My parents were first cousins from Palestine.”
She flicks her long wavy brown hair over her shoulder and fixes the audience with a stern gaze. There is silence. Nothing. Then the predominately Arab audience bursts out in laughter.
On her first day at Number Six Elementary School in Linden, New Jersey, Zayid’s father, who emigrated from Palestine to America in 1959, placed his six-year-old daughter’s feet on his own and together they marched to the principal’s office. The principal’s verdict was swift: Maysoon would have to attend Number Four school instead: the school for children with Down’s Syndrome. She was terrified. “Excuse me,” she said, “but I know that Down’s Syndrome means retarded. I met a retarded boy in the playground and he beat me up.” But the principal remained steadfast. As quickly as she could, Zayid explained his intentions to her father, whose English was still limited. “If I go to that school, I will die,” she told him.
Her father’s reaction was fast and furious. He decided to threaten litigation: “If you put my daughter in that school, in the name of God, I will suit you!” he shouted in his heavy Arabic accent.
It’s unclear whether it was the prospect of a new suit, a court case or the simple fact that Zayid’s father stands at six foot three, weighs 250 pounds and bears a passing resemblance to Saddam Hussein, but the principal immediately let the young girl enroll in his school, where she excelled academically.
ZAYID, THE YOUNGEST OF FOUR GIRLS, grew up with her Palestinian parents in the New Jersey neighborhood of Cliffside Park. Her mother, who arrived in the U.S. in 1967, started studying to become a medical technician just four weeks after giving birth to Maysoon. (“If she could take my blood – because I was a moving target – she thought she could take anyone’s,” Zayid jokes from her stool onstage.) With her mother studying and her father working at a nearby funfair before becoming a traveling salesman, there wasn’t enough money to send Zayid to physical therapy to strengthen her muscles and improve her movement. So when she was five, her parents sent her to tap-dancing classes. Not only did the classes help her physically, Zayid became a passionate tap dancer and eventually danced on Broadway in the Arabs Gone Wild comedy show.
“My signature move is flapping hands,” she says backstage after the gig, letting out one of her deep husky laughs. “If it wasn’t me [tap-dancing], I would make fun of me on YouTube.” Nowadays she dances and does yoga whenever she can find the time.
“Being tough and not being self-conscious comes from the dancing,” she says. “Back then, it didn’t occur to me that I was different than everyone else. I didn’t know that everyone was just cheering for me because I was crippled.”
At Arizona State University – “the whitest, drunkest, date-rapiest state school in the country” – Maysoon was initially studying law. But a class on how to close arguments triggered her passion for acting.
“I was delusional,” she concludes now. “I apparently never watched American TV, because I would have realized that Hollywood never casts disabled people.”
Even the most famous CP role in cinema history – Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Christy Brown in My Left Foot – was, she believes, no better than a caricature. “The fact that characters with disabilities are still played [almost exclusively] by able-bodied actors is obscene,” she continues. “There are a ton of actresses with autism who could have nailed Claire Danes’s role [in Temple Grandin]; there are a ton of actors in wheelchairs who could have played Kevin McHale’s role on Glee.” It’s a bias that Zayid has had to contend with since she first decided she belonged on the stage.
At university, there were auditions for a play, They Dance Real Slow in Jackson, in which the main character has CP. Zayid believed her big break had arrived. “This is the part I was born to do,” she excitedly told her friends. The organizers didn’t agree. Sherry Brown, a Mormon gymnast, was cast as the lead. The official explanation was that Zayid couldn’t perform the stunts. Understandably infuriated, she marched to the office of the theater director. “If I can’t do the stunts,” she told him, “then neither can the character.” She got the part.
AFTER THIS VICTORY, HOWEVER, getting cast – in any role, no matter how small – became a rare event. Zayid began to reconsider her ambitions. She noticed that actresses like Whoopi Goldberg and Carol Burnett, women who didn’t conform to the Hollywood norm, had all gone into comedy. So, in January 1999, Zayid took a stand-up class. She loved it. One year later she met Palestinian-Sicilian comedian Dean Obeidallah and they clicked instantly. Both were frustrated with the lack of quality roles for Arabs, and both would twitch with irritation when they heard the accent of Indians playing Arabs onscreen. In 2003, they founded the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival – an annual showcase of Arab-American comics, actors, playwrights and filmmakers.
They were later invited by Middle Eastern comedians Ahmed Ahmed, Aron Kader and Maz Jobrani to be special guests on the Axis of Evil comedy tour – Obeidallah for the whole tour, Zayid (the only woman performing on the tour) in New York and Washington D.C. Comedy Central came to film one of the shows, and later released it on DVD. But Maysoon was in for a surprise – she was the only performer not featured. It was a huge blow. And not just to her ego. Because she is not featured on the Axis of Evil DVD, Zayid believes she has missed out on certain opportunities in the U.S. and the Middle East. She also says she’s often paid less than her colleagues who were featured.
Obeidallah, though, thinks it was for the best. “I don’t think it would been a service for her, if she had been profiled back then,” he explains. “[Axis of Evil] was written for mainstream America, her material was mainly for American Arabs.”
Zayid’s not convinced. “I spent my whole life figuring out what is more difficult: being Arab or being disabled,” she says. “The reality is: It always comes back to being a woman.” It’s clear she’s still smarting from this snub. And there have been others that hurt just as much, like the one that made her realize she might not be quite exotic enough – as a Muslim girl from Jersey who doesn’t wear the veil – for media outlets looking for representatives of Middle Eastern origin.
The culprits this time were the ladies of ABC’s talkshow/shout-fest The View. The show was looking to talk to comedians from the 2007 PBS documentary America at a Crossroads. Zayid was expecting them to invite her and Obeidallah along. “Instead they featured this other girl, who had performed three times in her life,” she says. “Her whole routine was stripping off the hijab. That was the one time that I sat in my house and cried.”
However, the tide quickly turned.Adam Sandler had seen Zayid perform on the Axis of Evil tour and wrote a part for her in his 2008 film, Don’t Mess with the Zohan. Later the same year, her screenplay for a one-woman show, Little American Whore, was chosen for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and was put into production – with Zayid as the lead – in the fall of 2009. Her dream of a career in showbusiness was starting to look like a realistic goal. Which is no surprise to Obeidallah. “Maysoon is a very strong, opinionated, independent person and comedian,” he says, adding that he thinks of Zayid as a sister. “I forget she has CP. In a way she is the most able body I know. I admire her comedy, personality and her ability to overcome obstacles.”
THE DAY AFTER the opening of 2011’s comedy festival, Maysoon heads to Current TV and the studio of political commentator Keith Olbermann to feature in his live news show, Countdown. She was only told the subject of her section three hours before broadcasting: Michele Bachmann’s remarks in Florida on the relationship between Cuba, Iran and Hezbollah. “I’m absolutely convinced that the inside of this woman’s head looks like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory – the Gene Wilder version – but wackier,” she tells Olbermann on air. “I think that, first of all, she thinks, like, Castro and Nasrallah [secretary general of Hezbollah] are the same person, because they both have crazy facial hair.” An hour after Countdown wraps, Zayid is back on stage at The Gotham Comedy Club.
Her program the following day is no less hectic. At five in the afternoon, she heads to New York University to speak to an Arts Politics class. The subject: Ethnicity, femininity and disabilities in Hollywood and the media. Unscripted – but with punchlines every minute – she tells the students the story of her success, using satire, self-deprecation and gallows humor. She makes eye contact with each and every student. Focused and present, her finger tapping the table to underscore her points. No umms, no pauses. “Now give me some questions,” she says when she’s finished. The students who had been rapt by her unusual story, look down at the table, seemingly intimidated by this articulate, funny, politically conscious woman.
“Alright, ask me about women in the comedy industry.” Silence. She proceeds to answer her own question.
“As a woman, you have to work 1,000 times harder, because there is an idea out there that women aren’t funny” she says. Often, she adds, a comedienne walks onstage, and the first thing she hears will be sighs from the audience. She tells the students how, when she used to ask for gigs at comedy clubs, she was rejected on numerous occasions because, “We’ve already got a woman.”
“Alright, that’s all I got for you kids,” she says after 90 minutes of monologue.
Back in her slate grey hybrid SUV, Zayid quickly checks her phone for missed calls and texts – “No. Don’t have time for her right now” – and sets off to Gotham Comedy Club. The first show has already started.
Watching her navigate the traffic, it is hard to believe that, when she was born, Zayid was not even expected to be able to walk. “Yeah, you wouldn’t think I could drive when I can’t even pick up a glass, right?” she says. Zayid is in pain all day, every day. But she hides it so well that people tend to wonder what exactly it is that makes her somehow “abnormal.”
Case in point: the guy who Tweeted her after her appearance at Olbermann’s Countdown show. “Great show but what the f*** is with your mouth?” Patiently, she explained about CP. But her followers were deeply offended by his approach and flamed him. “Poor guy, he meant well, he was just ignorant about CP. We never announced my condition on the show, so some viewers naturally go ‘What’s wrong with her?’” she says. “And now he knows.”
THE FACT THAT ZAYID has managed to carve out a career for herself in comedy is remarkable in itself. But she’s also using her experience to help others in her parents’ homeland, running a scholarship and wellness program – Maysoon’s Kids – a charity for disabled, blind, deaf and orphaned Palestinian children in the refugee camps of the West Bank. She teaches the children to use art and humor to help deal with trauma and to bridge the gap between disabled and able-bodied children. Zayid travels to Palestine five or six times a year and is currently in the process of adopting a toddler from an orphanage in Bethlehem that works with Maysoon’s Kids. If everything goes to plan, the adoption will go through in June this year. Because of her condition, Zayid can’t have any children herself.
In general, Zayid keeps politics out of her comedy – she says she doesn’t want to force her opinion of what is happening in Israel and the Occupied Territories on her audience. But with all the focus on “Palestinian terrorism,” she feels that nobody ever talks about all the Palestinian children who have been left disabled by the Israeli military occupation. The charity work is her way of fighting back. “The question of Palestine and Israel makes me crazy,” she says. “It’s a simple question of bigotry and racism.”
Aside from Palestine, Zayid has visited several countries in the Middle East to perform. “I’ve made a lot of trouble in a lot of places,” she says, grinning. She’s received a lifetime ban from Egypt – the Minister of Tourism’s response to her onstage review of state airline Egypt Air: “This is the first time I was happy I have cerebral palsy,” she said. “If I wasn’t flapping, that shit would have crashed.” That ban might not be in place any longer; during the Egyptian revolution Maysoon saw the minister marched off in handcuffs. “I cheered,” she admits.
In Jordan, where Zayid claims she was the first person ever to do a stand-up gig, she got herself in trouble again by asking how many of the Jordanian audience members were also Palestinians. The majority of the crowd applauded enthusiastically. “We don’t talk about the fact that Palestinians are the majority here,” a Jordanian security official told her after the show.
One place she hasn’t been is Saudi Arabia, despite being invited. “I just couldn’t picture myself doing comedy for a bunch of privileged, rich Saudis,” she says. Also, she would have had to put on a “sack” as she calls it. “And I can barely walk.”
The woman who can barely walk is starting to make a name for herself. Commentating on live TV, such as Olbermann’s show, Zayid says, makes her feel “empowered like never before.” Her dream, she says, is to have her own late night show: “Oprah meets The Daily Show.”
She admits to having another dream too. It involves an Oscar acceptance speech. “I would trade being live on stage for being in a film any day, at the moment,” she says. She’s rehearsing for the day she receives her Best Actress Oscar and is able to say, “F*** you, Daniel Day-Lewis,” then walk off the podium laughing.