Maysoon Zayid: Should Humor Make Us Uncomfortable?

Mar 24, 2017
Originally published on October 26, 2018 10:03 am

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Painfully Funny.

About Maysoon Zayid's TED Talk

Maysoon Zayid teases herself for all the ways she's different: she has cerebral palsy, she's Muslim, she's Palestinian. By making us laugh at it, she gets us to think about acceptance.

About Maysoon Zayid

Maysoon Zayid is a writer, actor and comedian. She co-founded the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival. She also spends several months of the year in the Palestinian Territories running workshops for disabled and orphaned kids in refugee camps, using art to help them deal with trauma.

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today Painfully Funny, ideas about how humor can make uncomfortable things a little easier to deal with.

MAYSOON ZAYID: I don't like doing radio ever...

RAZ: Why?

ZAYID: ...Unless I'm totally in control.

RAZ: Really?

ZAYID: Because I have a face for TV not radio.

RAZ: That's true.

This is Maysoon Zayid. She's a stand-up comedian.

ZAYID: And I'm slurring, and everyone thinks I'm drunk (laughter).

RAZ: Now, the reason why Maysoon is a little self-conscious about doing radio is because of a disability she has which in her stand-up routine she tackles head-on. Here she is on the TED stage.


ZAYID: My name is Maysoon Zayid, and I am not drunk, but the doctor who delivered me was. He cut my mom six different times in six different directions, suffocating poor, little me in the process. As a result, I have cerebral palsy which means I shake all the time. Look. It's exhausting. I'm like Shakira, Shakira meets Muhammad Ali.


ZAYID: CP is not genetic. It's not a birth defect. You can't catch it. No one put a curse on my mother's uterus, and I didn't get it because my parents are first cousins, which they are.


ZAYID: It only happens from accidents like what happened to me on my birthday. Now, I must warn you. I'm not inspirational, and I don't want anyone in this room to feel bad for me because at some point in your life, you have dreamt of being disabled.

Come on a journey with me. It's Christmas Eve. You're at the mall. You're driving around in circles looking for parking. And what do you see? Sixteen empty handicapped spaces.


ZAYID: And you're like, God, can't I be just a little disabled? Also, I got to tell you. I got 99 problems and palsy is just one. If there was an oppression Olympics, I would win the gold medal. I'm a Palestinian, Muslim, I'm female, I'm disabled, and I live in New Jersey.


RAZ: I remember when I was in San Francisco, I remember watching you talk in the audience and...

ZAYID: Oh, you saw it live?

RAZ: Yeah.

ZAYID: That's so cool.

RAZ: So when you came out and you started to talk, the audience was like kind of uncomfortable - right? - because you were talking about how you shake like Shakira and - but within just a few seconds, you were able to disarm that entire, you know, massive roomful of people by just kind of putting people at ease which - is that - is this something you do consciously or are you aware that initially...

ZAYID: It's something that I do naturally because I've been a stand-up comedian for 15 years. And when I started doing stand-up comedy, I was doing New York City clubs like the middle of the night, just like begging to get five minutes of stage time.

And I didn't have time for audiences to be shy or uncomfortable with me, so it's just part of who I am as a comedian is that I get out there, I get the fact that I have a disability out of the way and then I move on. And I think because I move on in a strong, funny, relatable way people are able to move on with me.

RAZ: Yeah because I think for most people like the idea of making fun of a disability is - it's uncomfortable. Like, we're not used to that.

ZAYID: Do you think so? Because, I mean, disability has been mocked mercilessly throughout stand-up comedy, characters on television, disability is made fun of all the time. I think what they're not used to seeing is someone with a disability who's proud...

RAZ: Yeah.

ZAYID: ...Unashamed, and talking about it in a way that they've never heard before. But we have been mocked because like even someone like me who managed to, like, get all the way through high school without ever being mocked or bullied, when I became a performer, it became pretty common place for people to do that to me.


ZAYID: A lot of people with CP don't walk, but my parents didn't believe in can't. My father's mantra was you can do it. Yes, you can can.


ZAYID: So if my three older sisters were mopping, I was mopping. If my three older sisters went to public school, my parents would sue the school system and guarantee that I went, too. And if we didn't all get A's, we all got my mother's slipper.


ZAYID: My father taught me how to walk when I was 5 years old by placing my heels on his feet and just walking. Another tactic that he used is he would dangle a dollar bill in front of me and have me chase it.


ZAYID: My inner stripper was very strong. And by...


ZAYID: Yeah. By the first day of kindergarten, I was walking like a champ who had been punched one too many times.

RAZ: So when you were a kid, I mean, first of all, you describe, like, upwards at the age of 5, you weren't able to walk, right?

ZAYID: I was able to walk at 5. I had to be able to walk in order to be mainstreamed into public school. And my father worked day and night to teach me how to walk. And I think what's so amazing about this is the fact that he was told that I would never walk. And he decided that he was going to try.


RAZ: When did you realize that you were funny?

ZAYID: (Laughter) So my dream in life was to be on "General Hospital." I didn't know that I was funny. I went to college for drama. And then I came back to New York City, started auditioning, realized no one was hiring me. And I had a conversation with an amazing acting coach. And she said to me why don't you do a one-woman show? That way you can stand out. And I started looking at things like that. And who did I see? I saw Whoopi Goldberg.

And when I saw what Whoopi Goldberg did and saw, like, how she used comedy, I was like wait a minute. When I look at my TV, the people who look like me are all comedians - Richard Pryor, you know, Ellen, Rosie O'Donnell. Those were the people who were not typically beautiful, possibly had disability, you know, had different races like Margaret Cho. And I felt like comedy was how I could break through the fact that I was an other and still get on TV. And so I signed up for a comedy class. And it worked out because I had no idea I was funny. And it turned out I'm hysterical.

RAZ: (Laughter) You know, it's interesting because, like, all these comedians that you mentioned, I mean, they dealt with their demons - right? - or their challenges through humor, right? And do you, I mean, do you see yourself doing that in your comedy in the same way? I mean, do you see yourself as almost like kind of an advocate for people with disabilities or for Arabs and Muslims as well?

ZAYID: I've never tried to be an activist or an advocate. I was telling my own story. And just by telling my own story, I was controversial. I was telling people things they didn't know. And this started post-9/11 in New York City. My friend and I founded the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival to counter the negative images of Arabs in media.

And we always made sure that the comedy came first. So we weren't a bunch of Arabs trying to be funny. We were a bunch of comedians who just happened to be of Arab heritage. And, you know, sometimes I just want to talk about Beyonce. I named my cat Beyonce.

RAZ: (Laughter).

ZAYID: And people are like talk about Gaza, talk about cerebral palsy, talk about - you know? And I'm like, but I really just want to talk about Beyonce the cat. So it gets exhausting having to constantly battle. But I feel like more than ever in my life, it's important now that I do battle.

RAZ: Yeah.

ZAYID: Because having grown up with, you know, one foot in Jersey and one foot in the Middle East, I'm really worried about where we are right now in this country. And when I did the TED Talk, I didn't know how important it was to say a Muslim in front of everyone. I really thought it was the disability that was going to be the thing that I was championing.


ZAYID: Growing up, there were only six Arabs in my town. And they were all my family.


ZAYID: Now there are 20 Arabs in town. And they are still all my family.


ZAYID: I don't think anyone even noticed we weren't Italian.


ZAYID: This was before 9/11 and before politicians thought it was appropriate to use I hate Moslems as a campaign slogan. The people that I grew up with had no problem with my faith. They did however seem very concerned that I would starve to death during Ramadan. I would explain to them that I have enough fat to live off of for three whole months, so fasting from sunrise to sunset is a piece of cake.


ZAYID: I spent my summers in a war zone because my parents were afraid that if we didn't go back to Palestine every single summer, we'd grow up to be Madonna.


ZAYID: Summer vacations often consisted of my father trying to heal me. So I drank deer's milk. I had hot cups on my back. I was dunked in the Dead Sea. And I remember the water burning my eyes and thinking it's working, it's working.


RAZ: Do you think ultimately that comedy can change people's minds?

ZAYID: I think it already has. We've seen from generations comedy taking the risks that no one else would, whether it was "Will & Grace" mainstreaming the LGBT community on primetime television or, you know, "Black-ish" right now. I think comedy is the easiest, most relatable way to tell people things they don't want to hear.

RAZ: You know, earlier you were saying that you didn't set out to be an activist or an advocate but, I mean, you sometimes end up changing people's minds, right?

ZAYID: Right. So like I've never been, like, OK, if I'm going to talk about Palestine-Israel and how people deserve equality regardless of faith, I have to use comedy 'cause otherwise people are going to get defensive. It's more like, oh, I'm going to tell that joke about when I was strip searched. And I'm not really thinking about, like, this is the best way to deliver this message. I'm thinking about this is a really funny story. I'm totally going to get them to laugh.

And then it's usually not till after the show where I'm like, oh, my God, someone just came up to me and said they didn't know that Palestinians were people. They thought it was the name of a terror group. And it's like it's always afterwards that I realize I've shaken someone's ground. It's never my intention to go out and do that. My only intention is make them laugh, get on "General Hospital," win an Emmy.

RAZ: (Laughter) That's Maysoon Zayid. You can hear her full talk at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.