Comedian Maysoon Zayid knows no borders. Onstage, her jokes find their way into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, her traditional Palestinian father and the facts that she’s Muslim, has cerebral palsy and is still a virgin in her early 30s. Offstage, she spends time in the West Bank helping at-risk youths and as of late, working alongside Adam Sandler.
There is much to be said about stand-up comedian Maysoon Zayid. She’s warm, affable and rather striking– the kind of groovy chick you would want to crack open a case of Coors with. She’s the type of girl who peppers all of her statements with repeat phrases, as if to place special emphasis upon their value: “crazy, crazy,” and “really, really” are examples.
She is not, however, your average comic. As an Arab-American — her parents emigrated from Palestine to New Jersey — she delivers jokes about Palestinian-Israeli relations and Islamic identity with sharp wit and miles-deep insight.
Maysoon also has cerebral palsy, which provides not just the industry but also society with a unique voice rarely bestowed upon disabled Americans. In her words, she’s the “first shaking comic without a drug problem.”
If anything, her affliction has compelled her to move further than most traditionally-abled bodies. In 2002, she and fellow native New Jerseyean and comic Dean Obeidallah founded the New York Arab American Comedy Festival, which still runs annually in New York City.
And over the course of this year she has been a subject of the PBS documentary America at a Crossroads: Stand Up: Muslim Comics Come of Age, has a role in Adam Sandler’s latest goofball feature, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (out June 6) and will continue charity work with Maysoon’s Kids, an organization she founded in 2001 that provides assistance to oppressed children in Palestine.
She will also serve as a performer and delegate to the Democratic National Convention. Finally, her one-woman stage show, Little American Whore, is in the process of being turned into a motion picture.
Clearly, Zayid’s career beholds nothing but promise. And that’s really, really the truth.
What sorts of comedians does a Palestinian-American girl from New Jersey with cerebral palsy idolize?
First and foremost, I was crazy, crazy, crazy about Whoopi Goldberg. I was a big fan of Whoopi Goldberg and Rosie O’Donnell because they didn’t look like the rest of the people I saw on television, and they weren’t like these supermodels that were perfect and ethnically typical. They were people that I could relate to.
But the comics that I love, love, love the best are Bill Cosby, George Carlin and of course Richard Pryor; Richard Pryor is the original shaking comic. He was all buckled, and I was like, “If he can do it, I can do it!” Although, I’m the drug-free shaking comic, so that gives me an edge.
What made you decide to pursue comedy as a career?
I got a degree in theater and acting, and went out into the real world and did great as an extra. People loved me because I filled that great disabled and ethnic quota. But I kind of knew that I would never be seen on television — other than the back of my head — if I didn’t create my own career. I went back and drew on Whoopi and Rosie and Ellen [Degeneres], and all these very non-conventional actresses that found a way to make it by using comedy as an introduction to the business.
So for you, stand-up comedy revealed itself to you later your life?
No, it wasn’t that late; it was within a year and a half of graduating college. I was like, ‘Comedy is the way.’ But no, my dream was never, ever to become a comic, but then I started doing it and instantly fell in love.
You’ve mentioned in interviews that your parents have been very supportive of your career choice.
Yeah, they’ve been amazing.
Has that always been the case?
No, my dad thought I was a stripper in the beginning. He’s an old-fashioned Palestinian, Muslim dad who has been here for 47 years; you’d never know it from his accent. In the beginning he had no concept of what stand-up comedy was, and when I tried to give him examples of famous comics, it was only men’s names that I could come up with that he could recognize. So all he knew was that I was working in bars at night. He thought I was a stripper.
How did you convince him otherwise?
He saw me on Al Jazeera. He was so proud. It was a complete turning point for him, the day he saw me on television and was able to tell his friends, ‘That’s my daughter.’ Then, he was, like, thrilled. [Adopts Middle Eastern accent] ‘Now so many more Arab men will see you, maybe you’ll finally get married.’
That is the ultimate goal, isn’t it?
That is the only goal. [Laughs]
Obviously, being Muslim and having cerebral palsy are such big portions of not just your act, but your life as well. Have you ever worried that you might not be able to develop beyond that persona and niche?
No, because I’m a Jersey girl at heart. So when it comes down to it, I feel like the stuff I do is really relatable. I don’t think that when Arabs are no longer in style, I won’t be; I think it’s because I have so many different facets of my personality– whether it’s being Muslim or Palestinian or a Jersey girl or disabled or single and in my 30s. I have so many different areas to draw from that I don’t think I’ll ever hit a wall.
What are some of your favorite areas to draw from, besides being Muslim and having cerebral palsy?
I wouldn’t say that being Muslim and having cerebral palsy are my favorites. [Laughs] It’s kind of not like that. It’s like I go, ‘Okay, I’m going onstage, and I must talk about being Muslim!’ I like to draw on my own life history. My favorite, favorite stuff to do is anything that takes the audience by complete surprise– like being able to tell a joke that contains a fact that completely shocks my audience. That makes me really stoked. I love doing family stuff; I love doing political stuff, and I mostly like doing jokes about my dad.
You’re involved in a tremendous amount of charity work.
Yes, the love of my life is the charity I run called Maysoon’s Kids. It’s a wellness and education program for disabled, wounded, and orphaned refugee children in the West Bank. I’m going back [to the West Bank] on July 7 for that. I can’t wait. Between the PBS special coming out, the Adam Sandler movie premiere, being a performer and delegate at the Democratic National Convention, and a tour in Kuwait, I get six weeks in Palestine with the kids.
So this is going to be a big year for you.
This is already a big year for me. This year has been incredible, and to have the PBS special come out now, I couldn’t be happier. It was really amazing when they filmed it: I didn’t realize how much footage [Glenn Baker and Omar Naim, the directors] had really gotten. It’s really interesting to be at this point in my career, where I’m really happy and things are rolling; people can see that I’m not a flash in the pan. I also have a movie in development.
Little American Whore?
Yeah. It started off as a one-woman show, directed by one of the greatest comedic actresses ever, Kathy Najimy. Oh my god, it was such a blessing to work with her! I don’t care if people think I’m niche or that the fact that me being Arab got me to meet her. Wonderful! We’re hoping to go into pre-production in September, if I make it through the Democratic National Convention without winding up in Guantanamo.
I think that might be more of a problem at the Republican National Convention.
That would be hilarious, if I was a delegate at the Republican National Convention. I could never have pulled that off, because I’m sure Dick Cheney would have accidentally shot me in the face.
Do you find that jokes about 9/11 or the Iraq War are difficult to sell? Is it too taboo to be funny?
I find the association of 9/11 in comedy uncomfortable. I’m from New Jersey; I’m from a town called Cliffside Park, and I saw the [Twin Towers] every morning, every night, and every day. The whole concept of what that day was, and how it affected us that day and at large, I just don’t draw humor from.I find it very hard, if not impossible, to do jokes about that. I don’t find it hard to do jokes about the Iraqi War. Dean [Obeidallah] and I were doing jokes at the beginning, and got kind of a backlash against us, and that was in 2003 when people were really gung-ho about the war. Now, people are so aware of all the misleading information that got us into the Iraq War, so I think they’re much more receptive to jokes about the occupation.
Is it possible to be a Muslim in stand-up comedy without being inherently political?
Yeah, because you don’t really have to reveal that you’re Muslim. We don’t have a banner on our heads that says, ‘I’m Muslim!’ Muslims come in all different sizes and colors, and unless I told people I was Muslim, no one would have known. I could have easily been the random disabled comic; and I could have just gone out and been the girl who was in drug withdrawal, if I didn’t want to claim that I had a disability.
When you’re a comic, you can create your own history, your own character; you can do anything you want onstage. It’s like the last bastion of free speech. I think that if I had chosen not to say I was Muslim, I could have easily done it without trying to be more concise. But I think that once you do say you’re Muslim, it does become more inherently political for certain audience members, who have no concept of what Islam is.
I felt like I had to talk about being Muslim, because we’re so inundated with these ridiculous, stereotypical images of Islam on television. And quite often, even in entertainment, the images of women in Islam are ludicrous. So I was like okay, I’m a Muslim woman and I’m very spiritual and proud of who I am and who my family is and where I come from, so let me talk about it so that people can see that Islam has different faces.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
I consider myself a human being. I do; I really do. I say that to people, because a lot of people are like, ‘Are you this? Are you that?’ and I don’t consider myself anything more than really someone who’s a human being. I’m a humanist; I believe in equal rights for everybody at all times; I tend to be more vocal about the disabled, about women, and about Palestinians because those three major groups that I belong to are just constantly, constantly under siege.
Any of my comrades will tell you that it’s so much harder for a female to book a show than a male, even if we’re on the exact same level. In fact, sometimes I have more credits than some people, and I’m still not given a chance to do what the guys are able to do. So I think thats why I’m much more vocal. But I don’t consider myself a feminist so much as a humanist.
Stand-up comedy has always had a huge American-Jewish performer base. Since you come from a Palestinian family, has the Palestinian-Israeli conflict ever manifested itself in your act?
Oh yeah, I talk about Palestine and Israel all the time. It’s such a major, major, major part of my life. I’ve been told by so many people that I should stop doing that, and I just can’t. I go back and forth to Palestine every single year four or five times so it’s a big part of my life. If I’m going to do jokes about the tolls going up across the George Washington Bridge, I’m going to do jokes about another 50 checkpoints popping up in Palestine and Israel. It’s unavoidable for me to talk about, because it’s such a huge part of my life.
Is your family supportive of the fact that you work in a heavily Jewish-influenced part of entertainment?
Wow, that’s a really crazy question. No, we’re not like that. My family and me and pretty much all the people I work with don’t really care what religion anyone is, to the point where I don’t even ask people what religion they are. Dean and I run the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, and people always come in who are like, ‘Do you let Jews in the festival? Do you let Christians in the festival?’
I always kind of answer the same way: I never ask anyone what religion they are, and I don’t care what religion anyone is. It doesn’t affect me in any way, and I have no prejudice against anyone who’s not Islam, and I have no issue with anyone’s religion. I just don’t. There’s just such a huge difference between being Jewish and being a Zionist. That’s not even a blip on my screen, and it’s not even something I’ve ever thought about.
And because I’m very vocal about Palestine and Israel and crimes against humanity, people tend to think I’m anti-Semitic. I’m always like no, I’m not, it’s absolutely impossible. If anyone questions what my opinion of Jewish people is, they should talk to Adam [Sandler], because he’s my idol and one of the men I love most in this world and totally respect. If I had an issue, I would never work with him.
I think that’s another reason why I’m so happy to do comedy, because I have the opportunity to dispel these stereotypes. I was in Palestine when I found out that I had gotten the part [in Sandler’s movie], and people were like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re doing a movie with Big Daddy?’
Have you ever received threats from more conservative members of the Islamic-American community?
No, but I have received threats from the more conservative members of the Israeli community! [Laughs] The worst thing that anyone’s ever said to me from the Muslim community is, ‘You would look so much prettier if you covered your hair.’ [ed.note: Maysoon has amazing hair.] That’s as far as they go. In general, when you look at comments and blogs, people are really excited about what I’m doing. People in the Muslim community tend not to attack me because I’m very vocal about who my father is, and he’s a really religious guy, and I think they’re like well, if her dad’s cool with her, we’re cool with her.
I’ve gotten such positive feedback from the younger Muslim community; they’re so excited about what I’m doing. I always joke that my core audience is like 20 to 29-year-old female hijabis — the girls who wear hijabs — along with moms and dads and aunts and uncles. They love me because, I think, they’re seeing [other Arab-American comics and I] doing stuff that they weren’t able to do in the community. I feel that we’re the first generation of Muslim-Americans who are able to do this type of work, because when they came over to America, they just had to work to feed their families. We’ve been given the opportunity to explore the arts, so it’s kind of hot.
One of your ongoing bits revolves around the fact that you’re still a virgin. Have you received any titillating offers from anyone to change that status?
Oh, it’s constant. I get offers all the time, and it’s usually one of those things where the dude is drunk off his ass in the front row of the comedy club, and he’s like, ‘I don’t care that you’re a cripple; I’ll totally fuck you!’ And it’s like, I’m so thrilled for that offer, thank you so much.
If I really wanted to, I could, so it’s always fun when people offer. I always say that I’m a virgin by choice, and that’s my father‘s choice. But I’ve decided that if I’m not married by the time I’m 35, it’s game over. It’s going to be like Britney Spears; anyone who wants to come in, can.