By Brady Rhoades
What do you see when you look at Carol Burnett? How about Rosie O’Donnell or Margaret Cho? As for Maysoon Zayid, an actress who’s butted up against thousands of closed doors, she saw beauty. The beauty of opportunity.
“I realized that comedy was my way into Hollywood,” said Zayid, a stand-up comedian set to debut her new television series, Can Can. “I lucked out because I’m funny.”
Zayid galloped after her acting dream once she earned her degree in theater from Arizona State University … but it was a rocky start.
“I realized very quickly that casting directors were not taking me seriously because of my disability, cerebral palsy,” said Mansoon, in an interview with DIVERSEability Magazine. “I also became acutely aware of the fact that I didn’t see people who looked like me, a multiple minority, on TV.”
Born and raised in Cliffside, New Jersey, Zayid is of Palestinian descent.
She’s done plenty of comedic work, including starring in Stand Up: Muslim-American Comics Come of Age. She’s also appeared in films, most prominently in Adam Sandler’s You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.
As an advocate for equal rights for people with disabilities, she’s a shot in the arm to others who continue to face closed doors.
“People who have CP or other disabilities have often thanked me for being shameless about my shaking,” Zayid said. “Parents of kids with disabilities who are not disabled themselves tend to be inspired by how influential my father was in my life. They say it gives them hope that if they, too, are a good parent their child will thrive. People who feared disability seem relieved to be able to laugh about it while learning to be more inclusive. Some people just laugh because it’s funny. They are not learning, they are not inspired, and that is totally fine by me.”
ABC agreed to pick up Can Can last year—Zayid is still waiting for the word on when it will air.
“I am creator writer, star and producer on Can Can,” she said. “I definitely don’t want to direct myself. It is a comedy series that revolves around a woman who happens to have CP balancing work, family and relationships. That’s all I can tell you for now. Stay tuned!”
You might learn a lot by watching Can Can, or you might learn nothing at all but simply laugh out loud. Either way, Zayid will be pleased.
“I’m here to make people laugh, not to preach. If they learn to be better people in the process, that’s great, too,” the 45-year-old comedian said.
Zayid started her acting career spending two years on the popular soap opera As the World Turns, and she has also made guest appearances on Law & Order, NBC Nightly News and ABC’s 20/20.
During her early acting experiences, she found both her disability and her ethnicity repeatedly limiting her advancement. Zayid then turned to stand-up and began appearing at New York’s top clubs, including Carolines on Broadway, Gotham Comedy Club, and Stand Up NY, where she tackled some serious topics, such as terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
She co-founded the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival in 2003 with comedian Dean Obeidallah. Held annually in New York City, the festival showcases Arab-American comics, actors, playwrights and filmmakers.
In late 2006, Zayid debuted her one-woman show, Little American Whore, at Los Angeles’ Comedy Central Stage; it was produced and directed by Kathy Najimy. In 2008, the show’s screenplay was chosen for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. Production began with Maysoon as the lead in the fall of 2009.
Zayid usually tours by herself or as a special guest on the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour. She also co-hosts the radio show Fann Majnoon (Arabic for “crazy art”) with Obeidallah.
Zayid can be seen in the 2013 documentary, The Muslims Are Coming!, which follows a group of Muslim-American stand-up comedians touring the United States in an effort to counter Islamophobia. The documentary also features various celebrities such as Jon Stewart, David Cross, Janeane Garofalo and Rachel Maddow.
Cerebral palsy is extremely difficult, even torturous, so how does one make it funny?
Here’s Zayid in one of her stand-up routines, talking about getting passed over for the part of—can you guess?—a person with cerebral palsy.
“I went racing to the head of the theater department, crying hysterically like someone shot my cat, to ask her why, and she said it was because they didn’t think I could do the stunts,” Zayid said, with a quizzical, comical look. “I said, ‘Excuse me, if I can’t do the stunts than neither can the character!’”
Welcome to Zayid’s world, where one’s misfortune can be funny. It’s okay.
Audiences probably feel for her—“It’s exhausting,” she says of the constant shaking. But soon enough, they’re laughing from the gut up as they become more familiar—and following Maysoon’s lead, more comfortable—with her condition.
That’s key. Her shows have a family feel. Out of decency, respect and, yes, fear, folks do not laugh about a disability until they’re given permission to by an insider.
Here’s how Zayid-the-insider introduced herself at one show in San Francisco: “I don’t want anyone in this room to feel bad for me,” she said, scanning the crowd with her trademark goofy gaze. “Because at some point in your life, you’ve 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. And you’re like, ‘God, can’t I just be a little disabled?’”
Of people with disabilities, Zayid says, “We are not happy snowflake angel babies. We grow up, have relationships, experience a range of emotions, and deal with things like chronic pain. Not everybody in the disability community wants to be ‘cured.’ We can have multiple disabilities and also be multiple minorities. Disability intersects with every community.”
She points out that about 20 percent of Americans have a disability. “Disability doesn’t discriminate—you can become part of this group at any time,” she said. “We are 20 percent of the population, and disability rights are human rights.”
So, if you haven’t already, put Can Can on your radar as a must-see show. It’s possible you might learn a little something, but one thing is sure—you’ll definitely laugh.