Maysoon Zayid knows her story, and isn’t afraid to tell it. In fact, she’s been telling it since she was born. “The doctor who delivered me was drunk, so I have cerebral palsy,” she shares. “My parents couldn’t afford physical therapy, so they sent me to tap class.”
Zayid, who was seen in the Adam Sandler comedy You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, says her love of the stage started when she was only 5 years old. “I loved being a performer,” the 45-year-old New Jersey native states. “My dream was to be on the daytime soap opera General Hospital, and I pursued that by studying theater. But when I went to auditions, no one would take me seriously.
"And that’s because, even though people with disabilities are 20 percent of the population, we’re nowhere to be found on TV – especially 20 years ago. There were some exceptions: Marlee Matlin, Gary Jewel, but I was up against the wall of not seeing people on TV who looked like me, whether it was being a woman of color, or being disabled, or being of fluffy size. Where I did see people like me was in stand-up comedy, especially Richard Pryor – the original shaking brown comic.”
2020 marks Zayid’s 20th year as a stand-up comic, and she’ll be sharing her gift of wit with Houston through a conversation presented at the Asia Society Texas Center, with an assist from Houston PBS favorite Ernie Manouse this Saturday. When asked if she’s having more fun now, Zayid doesn’t miss a beat. “It’s more of a rush because now it is MY show,” she explains. “When I started out, I was an imitator. I was trying to be like Andrew Dice Clay and Eddie Murphy, so I used a LOT of slurs. I shamed everyone I could think of shaming, I was mean-spirited and that changed after I did my TED Talk. After I did my TED Talk, I realized how much words matter. I don’t think of it as censorship at all – I love the challenge of being able to go out, do comedy and first: do no harm. I don’t pretend I didn’t have a horrible past of using slurs, and saying terrible things. I just think I’m funnier and my audience is having a much better time now that I’m putting good ahead of evil.”
One of the catalysts for her evolution as a comedian was her 2014 TED Talk, I’ve Got 99 Problems… Palsy Is Just One, which has wracked up nearly 6 million views on YouTube. “I wasn’t really writing it, I did my TED Talk the same way I’d do any stand-up show: it was all in my head. But it was the reaction to it, through the TED Talk, I realized that I was privileged. And I realized that there was a day of mourning for people with disabilities who were killed by their caretakers in America. I realized that kids were getting bullied in school all day, and on social media all night. I realized that my jokes about pedophilia were reminding audience members of the worst moments of their lives, on a night where they just wanted to escape and laugh.
"It opened my eyes to the Spider-Man thing: with great power comes great responsibility. I really do think that. I’m obsessed with comics, and I’m working on a graphic novel right now and I do believe that it opened my eyes to the fact that I could make us laugh, but I could also push us to be better.”
Reactions to Zayid’s comedy have been all across the board. Here’s the type of person-to-person feedback that sticks with the comic, herself. “The best thing I get is people just think I’m funny, that I laughed and my stomach or my face hurts. The second most important reactions are from people who may have a disability, but it doesn’t show and they’re embarrassed to talk about it, but after they’ve seen me that that stigma is lifted and they feel brave. I love that. And I like the shallowness! I like when people are like, OH MY GOD, your boots are amazing! Because I think disability is disassociated with being sexy, and I like to bring sexy back to disability – and to Muslim women! You don’t hear about that enough!”
Zayid is used to putting it all out there, and to get to the know the comic more in-depth, there’s no better avenue than her original Audible production, Find Another Dream – which is more than a memoir to its author. “I was doing a speaking event and I met Reese Witherspoon,” the comic recalls. “And I’m so so grateful to Reese Witherspoon, because she partnered me with a disabled editor! It was life changing to be able to put down this story, with an editor who I didn’t have to explain the whole disability angle to. She has an inherent and clear understanding.”
“My approach was like four stand-up comedy specials. And I really compartmentalized my life, and I removed all of my friendships to save for a sequel, because there just wasn’t enough time. So that book focused on Family, Career and Love. I just approached it like four comedy specials – and the fourth one was about cats!”
Maysoon Zayid will perform at Asia Society Texas Center at 1370 Southmore on Saturday, February 8. For more information, call 713-496-9901 or visit asiasociety.org/texas.$25-$50.