Maysoon Zayid is becoming a master a getting the last laugh.
As a woman of Palestinian descent with cerebral palsy who lives in New Jersey and works in show business, Zayid has managed to spin day-to-day challenges into comedic material on her own terms. Since earning a BFA in acting at Arizona State University, the writer, performer, and activist has landed appearances on major television networks, including MSNBC as a once regular contributor to Countdown Keith Olbermann, and co-founded the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, now in its 12th year. Perhaps her most recognizable role to date however is her 2013 TedWomen talk, "I Got 99 Problems and Cerebral Palsy is Just One," which currently has over six million views.
Zayid talked with Jackalope Ranch via e-mail about comedy, mentors, and returning to her alma mater for a special performance on Friday, February 27.
What got you into comedy? I wanted to be on General Hospital. And as I was auditioning for other soaps like As the World Turns, it became clear to me that Hollywood wasn't big on casting ethnic, brown, disabled people like myself. I decided to get into comedy because the people that looked like me on TV had all gotten there by telling jokes. I decided it was my way in. So I took a comedy class at Caroline's Comedy Club in New York City, and 15 years later I'm still touring.
Who has been the biggest influence on your career? I have several different influences and they're not all entertainers. I learned to do comedy from hanging out with my aunties in Palestine. There was no TV, no social media, so they would sit around and gossip and it was hilarious. My dad was also a really funny guy. He used to pull the best, most traumatizing April Fools pranks. I learned how to be on stage from my mentor at Arizona State University, Marshall W. Mason. He taught me how to be confident and that's such a big part of comedy. I'm also heavily influenced by George Carlin. He's the reason I refuse to censor myself when I do comedy in the Middle East. And I learned a lot from watching and working with great comics like Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, and the legendary Dave Chappell. As a kid I loved The Carol Burnett Show, so she is a huge influence, too.
Favorite comedians right now: I am obsessed with Amy Poehler and Tiny Fey. They are smart, strong, funny, and brilliant; they are everything I want to be when I grow up. As far as stand up goes, I love Laurie Kilmartin and Joe DeRosa. Also, Bob's Burgers might be the funniest cartoon in the history of mankind. It's my favorite show on TV right now.
You're making changes in the way in which the entertainment industry is represented in terms of ethnicity, physical disability, gender, etc. What would you say is your ultimate goal for the future of show business? Do you think it will happen? I'm really happy that people feel my work has helped change how entertainment views disability, ethnicity, etc. If that is true, maybe I'll finally get a job on TV. I've been to the top of the mountain. I was a contributor on Countdown with Keith Olbermann. I loved that gig and I was never reduced to a token disabled person, or the token Muslim. But since that show ended, I've hit a brick wall. I thought that my TEDTalk getting millions of views would get me an invite to be a guest host on The View. Instead, I've had no luck getting back on TV. But I'm keeping hope alive. My ultimate goal is to have the entertainment industry recognize that cripface is offensive and that they need to end the practice of having able-bodied actors playing characters with visible disabilities on screen. I would also like Hollywood casting actors with disabilities in roles that are not written as disabled. There is no reason an actress with cerebral palsy couldn't have been cast as one of the girlfriends on Big Bang Theory, or a gladiator on Scandal.
Do you have any advice for anyone aspiring to pursue a career in entertainment -- particularly if they aren't, well, perfect? Nobody's perfect, so I guess that's the most important thing to remember. As for advice, I tell performers regardless of their ability, you have to work harder than everyone else. This is a very competitive field and you have to hustle in order to make your dreams come true. And if your dream becomes a nightmare, find another dream.
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What do you want people to take away from performances such as the one you're doing at ASU? I want them to leave laughing. I want their sides to physically hurt. I know there are people who want me to be some kind of inspiration or think I'm here to deliver some sort of message about inclusion. But I'm not here for that. I started out doing comedy at open mics in New York City without labels. My only goals, then and now are to make people laugh and perhaps win an Oscar.
Maysoon Zayid will take to the stage at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, February 27, at ASU's Galvin Playhouse. General admission is $29.35. Student tickets are available for $10 at the box office. Visit www.asugammage.com or call 480-965-3434.