Hey, it’s Marie Forleo and you are watching MarieTV, the place to be to create a business and life you love. You know, a few months ago I saw this incredible video online of a comedian and she made me laugh so hard that I nearly fell off my chair. Plus she made me even more proud to be from New Jersey. So the instant I saw her I knew I had to have this hilarious, brilliant woman on the show so that you can enjoy her talent as much as I do.
Maysoon Zayid is an actress, professional standup comedian, and writer. She is the cofounder and co executive producer of the New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Maysoon was a full time on air contributor to Countdown with Keith Olbermann and has most recently appeared on the Melissa Harris-Perry show and Huffington Post Live. She’s currently a writer at The Daily Beast and Maysoon has appeared on Comedy Central’s The Watch List, CNN, HBO, As the World Turns, Law and Order, MTV, 20/20, and had a feature role in Adam Sandler’s You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. She’s also the founder of Maysoon’s Kids, a scholarship and wellness program for disabled and wounded refugee children.
Maysoon, thank you so much for coming to New York to be here with us.
It’s my pleasure.
So ok, we’re both from New Jersey. You are from Cliffside Park and you made me laugh when you said, you know, “I’m not drunk, but the doctor who delivered me was.” Start us off.
Yeah, I mean, accidents during labor that cause lifetime disabilities are hilarious. So, yeah, the doctor who delivered me was drunk. I was born in New Jersey and, you know, I always picture him being down the shore like, you know, doing slip and slides and taking shots. And he came up and I came out fist first and the party was over. I lost 3 minutes of oxygen and as a result I have cerebral palsy. And in my case it manifests itself by me shaking all the time, which is fun. Burns calories. Very efficient.
You… just how you handle everything with such humor, and I also love the story that you tell about your dad. About both of your parents, how they didn’t believe in the word can’t, that you can’t do it. How did that impact you growing up?
I mean, I’m really blessed and lucky because so many people don’t have parents who are also their advocates. And often parents let doctors guide the way and don’t kind of question or push. My parents weren’t like that. They had really strong faith and I think that both of them kinda had big egos and weren’t willing to just settle for what the doctors told them would happen, which was they said I would never walk and, of course, I’d never graduate college and they’d be lucky if I got to a fourth grade level. And my parents decided to go against that. And I talk about my dad teaching me to walk because what he did was he put my feet on his feet and he just walked. So I always say I walked miles on that man’s shoes. Not in them, but on them. And also, my parents couldn’t afford physical therapy so they sent me to a tap class. So I’ve been tap dancing since the age of five, which is what most Muslim women in America do. And that was really helpful too because I learned to dance in heels. So walking in heels was never an issue.
That’s awesome. And being from Jersey, we typically like to wear heels.
When we can.
Heels, big hair, makeup. I mean, just the amount of hairspray that I used to put in my hair in high school, that was a whole other balance obstacle for the CP because I had to like, you know, wield this helmet that I was sporting.
Yeah, me too. My mom used to actually make me… I had so much hairspray in high school there’d be a layer of it in the bathroom on the sink and she was like, “You can’t leave that bathroom…”
I know. It was just… it’s how it was.
Yeah, I have pin straight hair, so in order to get it, like, that big I went through bottles of AquaNet. Bottles. Like 5 a week without… there’s an entire hole in the ozone just above my parent’s house. Right above it.
I can’t take you. So…
You can’t take me anywhere.
I can’t take you…
Because I have to sit down. It’s a problem.
Stop it. So I also read that you wrote… you learned to walk by tap dancing, but you learned to live by doing yoga.
Yeah. Tell me how… do you love yoga? Do you still do it?
Yeah, I love yoga but I don’t ohm.
You don’t ohm.
I’m really… like, I’m competitive at yoga.
I try to show up other people in the class and be like, “I’m disabled and standing on my head. What are you doing, fatty?” Like, you know, I’m really competitive. I don’t get into the whole, like, ohm, zen part of it. Just the stretching and standing on one hand. I was… I was working with Adam Sandler on a movie and one of the actresses there named Ryan Medin said to me, “You know, you should really try yoga,” and I was like, “I don’t really think I can stand on my head considering I can’t stand on my feet.” And I tried it and it completely, completely changed my life. And, first of all, it made me so much stronger. Like, I could never lift my arms above my head, now I can. I can stand now. Not for as long as I want to, but I’m sure that’ll happen. And I just always wonder, like, if I could have done that from when I was 5 years old, what would the difference be? Because when you watch me doing standup a decade ago and now, it’s night and day. It’s a completely different body, different coordination, much less shaking, much less pain. And… so I really advocate parents with young children with cerebral palsy, start doing yoga at 6 months because you can.
Now, I know a lot of my summers were spent on the Jersey Shore, but I know a lot of yours weren’t and you went back to Palestine. Can you tell us about that?
Yeah, I always… I joke about it on stage and I say my friends went to the Jersey Shore and my dad sent me to a war zone. So I spent, yeah, I spent my summers growing up in Palestine and, you know, in the beginning there was like one phone so it was like Little House on the Prairie where you would all gather on the phone and we’d call our parents and we’d be like, “Why do you hate us?!” And they’d be like, “When you grow up you’ll thank us.” And I do because I’m bilingual because of that, so I perform in Arabic and English when I do standup comedy in Jerusalem or in Dubai or in, you know, Jordan. I do it in Arabic, which is really cool. And I wouldn’t have that if I didn’t grow up spending summers in, you know, this village that I grew up in outside of Remoma. And I talk about my comedy is so heavily influenced by my aunts because I grew up in a time where you didn’t have TV, you didn’t have internet, a lot of them didn’t have bathrooms, you know, back then. And they would spend all day talking about other women. So they’d come home from a wedding and be like, “I can’t believe they found someone to marry this donkey. She was just the donkey in a white dress. They found someone, God is great.” And I feel like I learned so much comedy from them but I also learned, you know, a lot about the world because I grew up witnessing a conflict. So I’ve been in conflict since I was 5 years old and it gives me a really interesting perspective in America when things happen that are not to my liking. When I see religion taking a bigger role in government than it should, it really terrifies me because I’ve witnessed those things firsthand and I see how quickly you can get in a situation that’s the opposite of freedom and democracy.
And I… that actually leads me right to where I wanted to go next, which was I think one of your earlier ambitions was wanting to be an attorney.
And you took a class and things started to shift and you realized comedy was a possibility.
And I never told my parents, which was really funny. So I was gonna be a lawyer because I always talk too much and I’m very opinionated. And my parents were like, “You can fight with the wall, so you should become a lawyer.” And lawyers played a big part in my life because Drunky the Clown got sued and, you know, my lawyer, Gerald Baker, was my hero so I wanted to be a lawyer. And I had to take a fine arts class. And I was very, very academic, you know, just super competitive and I was like, “I don’t have time for this. What’s the easiest arts class?” And they said, “Take acting. You get to be like an ice cream cone.” And I went and right after my first class I was like, “I’m going to be an actress and I’m going to win an Oscar,” and I switched my major and I never told my parents. So when I graduated my mom was at Arizona State University and she looks at me and she’s like, “Why are the pre law graduations in the fine arts building?” And I’m like, “Haha, funny. I kinda have a degree in theatre with an emphasis in women’s studies.” And she was like, “I’m going to murder you.” Yeah.
And so for you, when you discovered comedy did it feel like somewhat of a coming home? Like this is what I was meant to do? Were you always funny as a little girl?
I was always very talkative.
And very opinionated. I’m not sure if I was funny or not, but I do remember like holding court. You know? Being like 10 years old and being like, “I think that what Reagan should be doing,” and people were like, “Wow.” But the comedy was a means to an end because I wanted to be on television and Hollywood doesn’t hire ethnic people willingly, and when they do it’s certainly not a disabled ethnic person. And I talk about this a lot in my work about how people with disabilities are the largest minority in the world and also in America. And we’re also the most underrepresented on television. And the story lines that are done are really quite offensive. So, first of all, you have able bodied actors playing disabled, which we call crip face and we find it really offensive. And they win Oscars and we’re like, “This is a caricature.” But on top of that, it’s always the same two storylines. You can’t love me because I’m disabled, and heal me. And I wanted to kind of flip the script and make it be like, “You know what?” I saw all these women that didn’t look like supermodels on TV and they were all doing comedy. From Carol Burnett to Ellen to, you know, even Queen Latifah on Living Single. And I thought, “Comedy is my way to get in there and change it.” And when I started doing comedy it was a perfect fit in that I wasn’t a disabled comic and I wasn’t an Arab comic. I wasn’t even a female comic, I was just a comic. Because I came up in New York City in clubs, at the Comedy Cellar, at, you know, Gotham where you had to bring people or you couldn’t get on stage and we were doing 5 minutes at 6:30 in the afternoon on a Tuesday. It wasn’t the whole YouTube generation. And I was treated as an equal by all of my fellow comedians, so after the TED talk come out and people really were like, “Oh, how cute. The disabled girl is trying to become a comedian,” or people saying, “You know, without her disability she’d have absolutely no material.” I had already had a decade long career prior to…
Yes. I mean, if you go online there’s a lot of people who say, “Without the CP, without the shtick, she wouldn’t have a career, she wouldn’t be on TED’s stage.” And I think, “It’s really amazing that you all thought the disability helped me in Hollywood, because it’s actually been the biggest hindrance.” And some people ask me is it being female, is it being ethnic, and it’s not. It’s really the disability is… it’s the most underrepresented and people just don’t want to take a risk on us. And I write so often because I want to change what we’re doing. Like, if you look at a TV show like Friends, there’s no reason that Phoebe couldn’t have had a disability, or Monica even, and not had that be the storyline. And we just don’t see that on television. They make such a big deal out of it that it’s the central storyline. And casting directors don’t think you can just cast us as anyone. I could be the wacky best friend, I could be the lawyer on The Good Wife. You know?
Yeah. It’s a… it’s a brilliant point and I’m really excited that you’re doing the work that you’re doing in the world.
It’s hard. It’s hard. They don’t want to take the risk, they immediately look at you and say, “Financially how much is this gonna cost me? Can you handle a 12 hour shoot?” And you’re like, “Sure, I can handle a 12 hour shoot, but there might be a disabled actor that can’t who’s worth making the ADA accommodation for,” because by law you’re supposed to and for some reason entertainment and media don’t think that they should follow the law.
The other thing that really struck me was that you talked about the fact that as a child you weren’t made fun of and even as an adult until you went on the Keith Olbermann show and then the kind of internet comments just blew up and you’re like, “Yeah, people are scumbags.”
Yeah. And I’ve learned because I’ve been so blessed that the TED talk was translated into 35 languages so I have people with CP from all over the world contacting me talking about their lives. And I was really blessed. There’s something about that small town in America where it was just not acceptable. I’ve had the same 7 friends since I was 5 years old, they were my bridesmaids, they’re my Jersey girls, and the idea of any of them making fun of me or leaving me out is unheard of. But also I think that if anyone else made fun of me, they would beat the living daylights out of them. And I always say my dad looked like Saddam Hussein and I think people were really genuinely afraid of him and wouldn’t dare cross him. But I was really never made fun of. So I got to college and I was kind of shocked by the attitude that I found there. So I wasn’t made fun of in college, but I wasn’t treated as an equal. It was the first time that I realized that I was different. Because I was getting A’s in all of my acting classes but I wasn’t getting cast in the plays. And, you know, I talk about how my senior year they did a play about a girl with cerebral palsy and I was like, “I’m a girl! And I have cerebral palsy!” and I didn’t get the part. And they said I couldn’t do the stunts and I was like, “Well, if I can’t do the stunts neither can the character.” And that was like the beginning. But I went through, I did my comedy, and I really slipped through the cracks as a disabled comic. It wasn’t a big deal. It was such a minor part of my routine. I was talking about politics, I was talking about being single and 30, I was talking about my dad, and it just wasn’t a major issue. And then I went on Keith Olbermann. And I had the best time, the hair and makeup was amazing, I thought I got in like 6 great jokes, and I went online and people were basically playing, “Guess what she has.”
Did… was it hard to recover from that to go back on the show?
It’s been hard. It wasn’t hard to recover from that to go back on the show because I felt really privileged about what we were doing because… it’s so funny, you can have 10 people say something negative, but if one person says the right thing it completely empowers you. And this newspaper in Philadelphia said, “It’s not often that you see someone with a disability talking about anything other than being disabled, but last night on Countdown with Keith Olbermann that’s what happened.” And I was like, “We did it.” Like, I was just a commentator and it didn’t matter. What’s been a bigger challenge for me is the TED talk took me to a different level and it exposed me to a lot more people. And they’re fully…
Millions, millions, millions. I mean, I think the last time I checked it’s way over 4 million. It’s growing every day.
I mean, it’s… yeah, it’s crazy. It’s… and, like, there’s videos in different languages that each have a million hits and you’re like, “Wow, why did this resonate with this group of people?” But people are aware that they can’t make fun of the disability because I address it. So instead they keep calling me fat. And it’s been horrifying and really hard to recover from. And I even came on here today not wearing makeup purposely because I just felt like I need people to understand that it’s what we’re talking about and not what I look like. And I’m fully aware that other girls with CP might not have the luxury of going to MAC and getting their makeup done, you know, to go to an interview. And I actually can do my own makeup. It’s terrifying. You should watch me put on eyeliner, it’s fantastic. But people have been really, really horrendous about my weight. And it’s funny because I don’t consider myself fat. I work out, I eat healthy, but I have no ab muscles. So one of the reasons I can’t stand is because my back is so weak from my disability. So people see this belly and they sit there and they say, “I don’t understand. Her face is skinny but she’s so fat. She would be so beautiful if she wasn’t fat.” And instead of going on and prepping for TV like I always had in the past where I was like, “What am I gonna talk about?” it’s totally become, “What am I gonna wear? How am I gonna sit? How am I gonna hold in my stomach? How am I gonna…?” and it’s really taken over my psyche in a way that I had to, like, step back and be like, “Ok, people need to understand that we don’t all look like supermodels and that in reality I am healthy.” I’m not a size, you know, 57 or something and it’s kind of ridiculous that people attack me on a daily basis for my weight. And it was like, “We can’t make fun of her being disabled, we can cut her down in a different way. We absolutely have to focus on the physical because there’s no way that this person who should be inferior should be excelling. So I need to find something that I can tear her down for.”
You make me wanna cry and I’m just… I’m, first of all, thrilled and I just wanna thank you for talking about all this because especially for women, no matter what age, what size we are, what we look like, it’s like the thing that we start to focus on the most. And I just want to thank you. I wanna thank you for coming on with no makeup and coming on and talking about this because it’s vital. And I’ve so many times said to myself, for no reason, I hate how I look. I think every woman in America has. So thank you for having courage.
On the flip side, I want to talk about something we talked about when I walked in…
…which was, I also have the ability to admit when I don’t look good.
And it happens. Like we were talking about how I went to do this thing called the Thrive conference and I had a makeup and an outfit fail. And I put up that picture and I said, “This is a teachable moment. I shall never wear leopard on television again.” And people were like, “No, you look beautiful. No, you look fantastic.”
I saw you and you did in person.
And I was like… in real life.
But I’ll send that video. It’s…
It’s hard. It’s hard to look at. And I said to them, “I also have the ability to go, ‘No. No. We’re not gonna do that again.’” And it’s like you and I were talking about how we had big hair in high school. I can look at that picture and go, “No, bad choice. No.” I don’t have to look at it. So we also have to have the ability to realize, and I think that this is missing with kids these days, that you don’t always bat a thousand. You’re not always a hit. Sometimes you do look horrible and you should fix it. You know? You can’t just be like, “No. I’m beautiful and it doesn’t matter that this red lipstick makes me look like I ate a rat on the subway.” You have to be able to be self critical but not to the point where you’re self destructive.
Yes. And I think there’s something to be said for being kind. There’s something to be said for being kind. And so many people have so much bravery behind a keyboard.
Yeah. I told somebody the other say and she was like, “But I’m trying to help you,” and I said, “I didn’t ask your opinion though.” So I need to ask you before you can tell me. You can’t just volunteer that I look 5 months pregnant on this day because I didn’t need to hear that today. I need to hear that tomorrow. You know?
It’s a lot.
It is a lot. It’s a lot.
And everybody’s very sensitive, you know, because I’m a comedian. And it’s really hard being a comedian in this day and age in America because we’ve become word police and thought police and we love spinning things and taking them out of context. And comics like George Carlin and Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, they went on stage and took risks and sometimes those risks got them in jail. You know what I mean? And I feel like now it’s like you say something wrong and your career is done. And I hate the fact that people focus so much on words and so little on context.
Yeah. One of the things that I was inspired by is the fact that you… when you’re doing your tour of the Middle East and you guys said, “Hey, let’s do some comedy workshops.”
Because comedy really is this universal language. And I thought that was the coolest thing. How was that received? Because in many spaces where, like you said, you can get thrown in jail for what you say.
Yeah. It was… it’s really interesting because we’re being brought into several of these countries by monarchies, so we’re coming in in a kind of box of censorship and you’re trying to teach people to use comedy as a voice of resistance. And I think of it as the same challenge as going on national television and not cursing. If you can find a way to do it without them even knowing you’re doing it, that’s the best way to get your voice through. And I was absolutely amazed by how quickly stand up comedy took off in the Middle East. From Egypt to Beirut to Jordan it has really taken off, people really got it and use it and I’m really impressed because I did stand up comedy in 2002 in Jordan and in Bethlehem and it was the first time they had ever seen stand up comedy. And it was great because I’m female and they didn’t realize that it wasn’t, like, a girl thing to do. So when I brought out the guys, Dean and Eric, they’re like, “Oh, how cute. Guys are trying to be funny,” because they thought it was, like, a girl thing. You know? And I love that, that it doesn’t have the stigma that it has in America that women aren’t funny.
But, like, I also fight people, because I like to fight people, but I fight people at the fact that my comedy actually doesn’t have a message. So people get the message or they get inspired or people who watch my TED talk and go, “She’s not really that funny,” and I’m like, “It’s not a stand up comedy routine, honey. It’s a speech.”
It’s a TED talk.
Yeah. It’s different. And, at the same time, I go and do stand up comedy and I have journalists being like, “Maysoon Zayid said this, but actually it occurred in Bethlehem, not Gaza.” And I’m like, “It’s a stand up comedy routine. None of this is real. None of it.” And one of my main topics that I make fun of is my husband and I call him a chef-ugee. And he’s this mysterious presence because apparently when people Google me… and you Google yourself, right?
I Google myself, I Google my guests. I Google everybody.
So when I Google myself the very first thing that comes up is “Maysoon husband.” Everyone wants to see who he is.
And because I’ve kept him completely hidden from view and I just call him Chef-ugee, no one can find him. So there’s all these pictures of me with, like, you know, by Brad Pitt and they’re like, “This is her husband,” and I’m like, “No, I was just photobombing a photo of him. I have nothing to do with that.” And nothing I say about him on stage is true. Nothing. And if it was I would be divorced a really long time ago. So it amuses me that people think that comedy is real. And, you know, I definitely draw from my real life. Some stories are true, true stories, but most of it is embellished. And if you look at any great comics in history, I don’t think that Bill Cosby’s wife really beat his children with a stick.
That’s very true. The last thing I want to talk to you about is your organization.
Yeah, tell us all about, like, where is it at? What are you guys working on now?
So Maysoon’s Kids is like everything else in my life. It started out as something and then evolved into something completely different. So I graduate college, right? And I wanna change the world. And I saw a movie with Michelle Pfeiffer called Dangerous Minds and I decide I’m gonna become Michelle Pfeiffer. I’m gonna go teach theater in a refugee camp so that they don’t throw rocks. And I got there and I was like, “Oh, heck. They need shoes and can’t read or write.” So I realized that, like, theatre was not what needed to happen. So Maysoon’s Kids, what we’re doing is children with physical disabilities in Palestine are not integrated into the public school system. And what we did is we started a first grade class that mirrors the exact academic path that the students in public school are doing. And we’re gonna get the kids to the third grade and then take them to the public school and show them that there’s no reason to integrate them. They’ll have writing skills, reading skills, everything they need to be integrated. Right now even though I object to the fact that they’re not integrated, I understand the school. Because the parents are not getting them to the basic level. They don’t have speech, they don’t know how to hold a pen, and the schools don’t know what the alternatives are. So we take these kids in very small groups, 7 at a time, and we get them ready to be integrated. And our dream is to replicate this all throughout the West Bank so that kids in every village can eventually be integrated, but for now we work with 7 kids each group so that we can track it and make it work and replicate it. I had two kids that graduated from college, one this year. You should never high five a girl with palsy, you could lose an eye.
I still have them. I’m good.
You’re just lucky.
And I’m lucky, yeah. That’s awesome.
And people can donate.
Tell us where.
Indigogo. You go to Maysoon.com, which is my website. Thank God I had a huge ego when I was 18, I bought my own name and now it’s, like, worth money because it’s 2 English words: May soon. M-A-Y S-O-O-N.com.
Maysoon.com and you can click to donate from there. There’s a whole link about Maysoon’s Kids and…
Perfect. So anything that we should know about anything coming up that you want us to pay attention to or for people to follow your work and what you’re up to next?
I mean, you can follow me on Twitter where I’ll be rambling about The Bachelorette. And they can go on Maysoon.com because I’m touring all over the place. I’m going to Virginia and I’m going to Indianapolis, Detroit, Iceland, and Greece and Mexico. So I’m gonna be all over the globe and that’s it. And then I’m just, you know, every day I’m hustling trying to get this elusive job on television. But I also wrote a screenplay called If I Can Can, You Can Can about a smalltown dance teacher with cerebral palsy. And I’m trying to get someone to make it because if they do I’ll win an Oscar because disabilities win awards.
Awesome. I love it. Maysoon, thank you so much for coming on today.
Thank you so much. I love your hand thong.
Thank you. We’ll get you one.
So now Maysoon and I have a challenge for you. We’d love to know what was the biggest insight that you’re taking away from our interview today? Now, as always the best discussions happen after the episode over at MarieForleo.com, so go there and leave a comment now. Did you like this video? If so, subscribe and share it with your friends. And if you want even more resources to create a business and life that you love plus some personal insights from me that I only talk about in email, come on over to MarieForleo.com and sign up for email updates. Stay on your game and keep going for your dreams because the world needs that special gift that only you have. Thank you so much for watching and I’ll catch you next time on MarieTV.