Maysoon Zayid talks about comedy, acting, disability, politics & religion

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Maysoon Zayid [Credit: Michelle Kinney]

Maysoon Zayid is an actress, comedian, writer, and disability advocate. She is a graduate of and a Guest Comedian in Residence at Arizona State University. She is the co-founder/co-executive producer of the New York Arab American Comedy Festival and The Muslim Funny Fest. She was a full-time On-Air Contributor to Countdown with Keith Olbermann and a columnist for The Daily Beast. She has appeared on Oprah Winfrey Networks In Deep Shift, 60 Minutes, 20/20, CNN, ABC News and Al Jazeera, often talking about comedy, bullying, Islam, comedy, disability and pop culture. She had the number one TED Talk of 2014 and was named 1 of 100 Women of 2015 by BBC.

As a professional comedian, Maysoon Zayid has performed in top New York clubs and has toured extensively at home and abroad. She was a headliner on the “Arabs Gone Wild Comedy Tour” and “The Muslims Are Coming Tour”. She appeared alongside Adam Sandler in “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” and has written for VICE. She limped in New York Fashion Week and is a recurring character on “General Hospital”.

Maysoon Zayid currently has one of the hottest books in the country, Find Another Dream. The book is one of the first to be released on Reese Witherspoon’s company, Hello Sunshine. Maysoon, who has cerebral palsy takes the audience on her crooked journey from being born to immigrant parents in the great state of New Jersey to tap-dancing on Broadway. The book explores scenes of disability, living with Cerebral Palsy, bullying, love, loss, and bigotry all told through the lens of comedy. If your dream turns into a nightmare, find another dream.

See TV Series Hub‘s interview with Maysoon Zayid below.


Welcome to TV Series Hub, a growing acting career with an already successful stand-up comedy career. What is something people don’t know about you?

A lot of people are surprised by the fact that doing comedy is my job. I get asked all of the time, “But what do you do for money?” They don’t realize that you can do comedy full-time and make a really good living if you’re successful. I speak fluent Arabic and that comes as a shock to people because I speak fluent English, so they just assume that’s the only language I speak. I am also a tap dancer. I talk about that a lot and have written about it in my book, Find Another Dream, but there are still people who don’t know that about me.

Being one of the first Muslim women comedians in America, what challenges did you face in the industry?

I didn’t really face many challenges in the industry because of my faith. The challenges more often came from the audiences and haters in general. I started doing comedy eight months before 9/11. After the tragedy, when I came back to the stage, I endured hostility because I was a loud, proud Muslim American and a lot of folks blamed all Muslims for the terrorist attacks. Ten years later, I toured the deep south with Dean Obeidallah for a documentary called The Muslims are Coming. We performed in places that had burned Qurans and had protested the buildings of Muslim houses of worship. It is much worse now. Donald Trump incites violence against Muslims. As a public figure, I get threats constantly. The problem is not the industry, it is society.

How did comedy help you break stereotypes?

People always claim that they’ve never met a Muslim and I never believe them. I’m sure a small minority hasn’t, but most of them have had a doctor, waiter, or driver that was Muslim and they just didn’t know it. When I get on stage and say I’m Muslim, I destroy the image in their heads of what that looks like. I look like the lost Kardashian, not what most people picture when they think of Islam. I hope I destroy the stereotype that women aren’t funny, because I am and we are. As for disability, we are often thought of as happy snowflake angel babies who never grow up and should be pitied. I am definitely not that and hope that my presence on stage dispels some of the fear and loathing non-disabled people have for our community. The stereotypes I enjoy destroying the most is the “Palestinians are all terrorists” one. We’re not, and my comedy allows me to show the audience that we are just like anyone else and have a right to equality.

How does humor help send a message that sometimes may not be received well by someone?

If you get someone to laugh, they are less likely to kill you. They may still do it, but they are less likely to. Nobody likes being lectured to. If you hide the lesson in laughter, they are more likely to learn it despite their own resistance.

With the rise of Islamophobia in the Western Countries, how do you tackle such a situation?

I already answered that in Question 2.

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Maysoon Zayid with her cat Beyonce [Credit: Michelle Kinney]

You were also diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy, to those who don’t know what it entails, how would you explain it? How have you battled it so far?

Cerebral Palsy is basically brain damage caused either in utero or during the birthing process. It manifests itself differently in everyone who lives with it. Some of us are nonverbal, some of us are wheelchair users, and in my case, I shake all of the time. CP is not contagious, It can not be passed on if you have children, and it has no cure. It is a lifelong permanent disability.

What challenges are faced by persons with disabilities in the industry that needs to change?

The industry is completely inaccessible to disabled talent and crew. It starts on the educational level. It is a challenge for disabled students to find art programs that are accessible. Auditions are almost never held in spaces that wheelchairs can access. Hollywood shuns disability. We are 20% of the population and only 2% of the images that you see on TV. They prefer casting non-disabled people because they think it is easier and that the talent doesn’t exist. Entertainment is considered an escape and I think a lot of creators exclude the disability community because they think we are unattractive and depressing. The whole industry needs to change. Disabled kids need to see positive images of disability on TV. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.

Moving to your acting career, how did you decide to join this industry?

As I mentioned, Hollywood shuns disability and it’s not very inviting to people of color. I didn’t see people who looked like me on TV. Where I did see myself was in the world of comedy. Richard Pryor was huge when I was growing up. He had Multiple Sclerosis and was a person of color. I figured if he could do it, so can I! I believed that comedy could open the doors that Hollywood had slammed closed in my face. So I took a comedy class and the rest was history.

You had a comedy series in development at ABC “Can-Can”, what happened to the project?

It burned to the ground! Let me be clear, it was not ABC’s fault. The team I was working with refused to collaborate with me. The writing was ableist and offensive. So I wanted nothing to do with it. I learned my lesson and now I make sure to have final say in any scripts I develop. I am currently developing a comedy series called Sanctuary and a variety show, so stay tuned!

You have always wanted to be in “General Hospital” and finally did. How did you land the role? How exciting was it?

I have dreamt of being on General Hospital since I was five years old. When my comedy career took off, I made a point to mention General Hospital in every interview I ever did. Mark Teschner, the casting director, and Frank Valentini, the executive producer, finally heard me and had the phenomenal writing team create the role of Zahra Amir for me to play. It was a dream come true and it exceeded all of my expectations. The cast and crew are like a family. Not the kind you fight with, but the kind you actually like. The best part is I get to play a bad girl with great hair.

What other projects are you working on? Any other shows that you want to be on?

I would love to co-host The View, it’s my new dream. I am developing a talk show and I’m creating a comic book series for 10-12 year olds.

Speaking of current affairs, Coronavirus (Covid19) has given a lot of insights into the world’s healthcare systems. What role do you play as an actress and comedian in this?

My most important role is the same as everyone on Earth’s right now. I’m staying at home to stop the spread. Sadly, I also have to use my platform to combat the misinformation being spewed by the unfit occupant of the white house. Finally, I need to make people laugh. Laughter is healing for me and my audience and trying to figure out how to take my standup comedy online. I’m doing a virtual open mic on March 28th and a virtual comedy show on April 2nd, so we’ll see how it goes.

As a disability advocate, how has this pandemic, in particular, shed light on the treatment of persons with disabilities?

It is a horror show. Disabled people are being talked about as expendable. The economy is more important than our lives to this administration. It also shines a light on how easy it is to provide the accommodations that disabled people are so often denied, like online learning and virtual doctor’s appointments. The majority of disabled people live below the poverty line and this pandemic has also exposed that injustice.

Do you have any solutions in mind to try to improve conditions?

No!

Another part of your comedy is focused on Arab culture. Having Palestinian roots, the Palestine conflict is at the epi-center of your life. Do you have a stance on it? How do you see the way forward?

Yes! Palestine is definitely my core and for that, I do have a solution–equality for all regardless of faith. Supremacy is not democracy. You can not separate these Semites. So give them equal rights and get on with it.

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Maysoon Zayid with her cat Beyonce [Credit: Michelle Kinney]

How does comedy help engage in such a hot and emotional topic?

Palestine is another one of those issues that people either know nothing about or are misinformed about. When I joke about Palestine, I’m telling jokes about love and family—things everyone can relate to so that they can see our humanity and be less comfortable with our deaths.

A bit on your personal life, off the screen, what are your hobbies? What do you do for fun?

I do yoga every single day for 90 minutes. I walk three miles a day with my mother when I’m not on tour. I watch 120 hours of TV a week. I love TV. My most favorite thing to do is to chill with my cat, Beyoncé. She is marvelous.

Where do you see yourself in another 5 years?

I see myself either co-hosting The View or hosting my own talk show.

Thank you for joining us, what would you tell our readers to be more conscious about their behavior and actions?

Don’t post hate online. Words matter, and you never want to be the person who causes someone else to harm themselves. Fight for equality. Silence isn’t accepted.

Any final words?

Go to www.maysoon.com.


Maysoon Zayid is appearing on a virutal comedy show “Reelabilities Comedy Night – What’s So Funny?” on Thursday, 2nd April 2020. Book here