“Once my show is on TV, Hollywood will be shamed out of ever casting an able-bodied actor to play disabled ever again.”
Whether she’s flying across the US for comedy gigs, accompanied by her Scottish Fold cat Beyoncé, travelling to the Middle East to perform in English and Arabic or pushing for greater inclusivity for disabled performers and Arab comics, Maysoon Zayid is one hilarious tornado of an entertainer.
I first met Maysoon last year when she was performing shows at New York University Abu Dhabi and Ajman University. I had signed up for a comedy writing workshop in the capital and she made us all get up on stage and tell a joke within 10 minutes. Although I was terrified and wanted to flee, I figured if Maysoon – who wore a T-shirt that said “Angry Crip” – could do it all those years ago, then I could too.
The New Jersey, US-born Palestinian comic, activist, writer and actress, who was left with Cerebral Palsy after a botched delivery, has not stopped since earning more than 14 million views for her top-rated 2014 Ted Talk, “I’ve got 99 Problems… palsy is just one”.
“I had the privilege of doing my first-show ever in Australia and I got to open for Pitbull in Las Vegas,” she tells me. “I’ve been touring for the past 15 years and will continue to be on the road throughout 2018. I am also preparing for the New York Arab American Comedy Festival 15th Anniversary. I am so proud of this festival that I co-produced with Dean Obeidallah and I can’t believe it’s been so successful for so long.”
Maysoon is working on three new movie scripts, a children’s book and is also developing a talk show. She is also deep into a loosely autobiographical anthology series for television that she’s been developing for the last seven years. If I Can Can is a nod to her late father, who was determined to teach Maysoon to walk even though doctors told her parents she never would. Whenever she was tired or doubted herself, he would tell her “yes, you can can”.
“Developing a TV series takes a very long time, but I have the most incredible team in Hollywood,” says Maysoon. “My head writer Joanna Quraishi is one of the funniest in the game. I am so lucky to be working with her and Hazy Mills Productions, they are like a family to me. I am so proud of the groundbreaking work we are doing and can’t wait to share it with the world.”
When the show hits small screens in the US, Maysoon will become the first disabled woman to play a lead character on American television.
She will also be one of only a few Muslims. “Audiences are not used to seeing an uncovered Muslim woman on the small screen, so that kind of exposure is needed now more than ever,” she believes, arguing that the community has faced a “giant setback” from US President Donald Trump. “His hatred has seeped into mainstream media, sadly,” she says.
One of the injustices she frequently speaks out against is the low percentage of disabled actors working in entertainment: they are represented in just 2 per cent of television images, despite making up 20 per cent of the audience.
Then there is the dearth of disabled representation behind the camera, and the continuing practice of having famous, able-bodied actors play disabled or mentally challenged characters.
“There have been many setbacks in Hollywood this year, including the casting of actors who are not actually autistic to play autistic characters on The Good Doctor and Atypical,” says Maysoon. “The one that broke my heart the most was the casting of Joaquin Phoenix as John Callahan in Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot.
“John is a disability icon and it’s heartbreaking to see him disrespected in this way. This is why it is so important to get If I Can Can on screen. I think that once my show is on TV, Hollywood will be shamed out of ever casting an able-bodied actor to play disabled ever again.”
Maysoon is an instructor at her alma mater, Arizona State University, has a weekly YouTube series, Advice You Don’t Want to Hear and also runs her own charity, Maysoon’s Kids, which aims to put Palestinian children with disabilities into public schools.
When she set out, she focused a lot more on pop culture and silly, raunchy jokes. She didn’t hit her stride as a comedian until after 9/11, when she started turning pain into comedy.
“Once I did, I realised very quickly that it was easier to talk about difficult subjects in a humorous way rather than lecturing people,” she says. “I’ve also found that turning things that anger, hurt or frustrate me into comedy gives me power over them rather than having them control me.”
Words: Ann Marie McQueen