Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
It’s the one about the Muslim girl named Maysoon Zayid, from New Jersey, of all places, who’s a stand-up comic – well, “sit down,” really, because she’s got cerebral palsy. (You know this one?) The first ever female comic to perform in Palestine and Jordan because, you know, no one ever told them over there that women can’t be funny. And she also works with disabled kids in the Middle East every year (you followin’ me, here? ) and started the New York Arab American Comedy Festival after 9/11 to combat the negative image of Muslims in the media (that could have gone better, I guess) and who now has a television series loosely based on her own life in development – okay? – and who needs to travel with security for the first time because death threats against her have escalated so badly since the Trump thing started – hilarious, right? – anyway, you know what she did?
She performed a free show for delegates at the Republican National Convention Tuesday afternoon. And she killed it.
“I thought it was going to be a tough crowd but I got so many hugs and so much love,” she says. “I don’t think I swung any votes but I do think I squashed some bigotry.”
Maysoon Zayid decided to get funny after her dream of being an actor died shortly after college. “It became clear to me that casting directors didn’t hire fluffy, ethnic, disabled actors,” she says. The not-so-perfect performers, the Whoopi Goldbergs, the Roseanne Barrs, – went for comedy. So, she did too. It wasn’t for a lack of material. “If there was an Oppression Olympics, I would win the gold medal,” she likes to quip. “I’m Palestinian, Muslim, I’m female, I’m disabled, and I live in New Jersey.”
But her keen social observations come with a fine helping of righteous activism. In her TED talk, I’ve Got 99 Problems and Palsy Is Just One, she talks about the role people can play in making the world a more inclusive place. “People with disabilities are the largest minority in the world, and we are the most underrepresented in entertainment,” she says. Citing the terrible things people say about her shaking and slurred speech on social media, she asks a bigger question: What if the images we saw of disabled people normalized them, instead of diminishing them?
She’s doing her part. Her web series “Advice You Don’t Want To Hear,” is simply her answering fan’s dopey questions with humor: Should I get a job or go to college? Do I really need to shave my legs? How can I make friends without going to bars? “I did one series in the US and one in the Middle East,” she says. “It’s totally non-political. We are all people struggling with the same stupid stuff.”
The television series that’s currently in development is about a funny, young woman from New Jersey who has a job and a life and problems with multiple cute guys — and also happens to be a person of color, Muslim and disabled. “I’m really excited,” she says. “It’s a strong comedic character who’s not talking about their disability all the time. No different from Monica on Friends.”
Last night’s show was performed with Dean Obeidallah, her co-founder of the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival. She plans to keep performing, in spite of death threats. “I wish I was noble but I’m really not,” she says. “I’m just an equality junky and that’s what motivates me.”
Zayid also has a cat named Beyonce who travels with her every where she tours, and she co-owns a vegan food truck with her husband, who comes from a Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem. “He’s a chef and a refugee,” she says. “A chefugee!” She’s worked him into her act:
“I told a joke about how when my husband and I fight, I have a way of resolving it super quick,” she says. “I say do you want to go back to the refugee camp? There is no Pokemon go in the refugee camps because Pikachu would get killed instead of caught.” Right? “That joke landed really well last night.”
But she says, it’s not all fun and falafel. “Honestly, it’s harder to be Muslim in American than it is to be disabled these days,” she says. “And I’m not even joking right now.”