Maysoon Zayid, a standup comedian and political activist with cerebral palsy, explicitly incorporates her disability into her material and says that aspect of her is no different than any other aspect of a comedian’s life that comes up onstage.
“I think that comedy is very effective in taking things that people hate, fear or don’t understand and putting it in a form that they can listen to because they don’t feel like they’re being lectured,” Zayid told Changing America.
In her case, however, she also realized her disability would have to come up in her routine out of necessity. “When I became a comic, I had no intention of talking about my disability, [but] my comedy teacher told me that I had to because the way my cerebral palsy looked, I looked drunk,” forcing her to work an explanation into her jokes, she said.
This finds its way into her 2014 TedTalk “I got 99 problems… palsy is just one,” which has nearly 5.6 million views on YouTube. “I’m not drunk, but the doctor who delivered me was,” she says to open the talk.
“That’s how I started talking about my disability … I talked about it because I was talking about myself and I had to talk about it,” Zayid told “Changing America.” “Disability is part of who we are and we talk about it the way any comic” talks about their life, she added.
Zayid, a New Jersey native, is also a Muslim and Palestinian American, and those aspects of her identify also inevitably find their way into her material, she told Changing America. “I completely compartmentalize [the different characteristics] to get the original concept of the joke or what I’m writing, and then inevitably, the other intersections flow into it, but there’s like a dominant intersection that’s rolling the piece or the jokes,” she said.
Zayid is far from alone in the landscape of disabled comedians — others include the troupe Asperger’s Are Us, the subject of a 2019 HBO documentary, whose members are all on the autism spectrum, as well as “Last Comic Standing” winner Josh Blue and British stand-up comedian Rosie Jones, both of whom also have cerebral palsy.
Disability is often a politically fraught subject, and Zayid has been involved in politics for many years as well, which often finds itself in her material, disability-related or otherwise. Asked how she responds to people who don’t think politics has any place in comedy, Zayid simply responded “Lenny Bruce. That’s all I have to say,” name-checking the legendary stand-up comic whose raunchy material put him at the center of multiple freedom-of-speech controversies, including a 1964 obscenity conviction for which he was posthumously pardoned in 2003.
Zayid’s perspective has also been shaped by her experience working with disabled children and children dealing with trauma in the Palestinian territories, she said.
“I’m not a trained professional, but I’ve seen just about everywhere that laughter is healing,” she told Changing America. “I’ve been doing comedy for exactly 20 years and when I was at my lowest, when I was surviving the hardest moments of my life, doing jokes about it helped me so much, so I wanted to give that ability to people I felt like needed it but I also wanted to hear their story.”
In addition to her comedy, Zayid is heavily involved in disability and other political activism, serving as an alternate delegate for then-Sen. Barack Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention and recently endorsing Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) for president. Zayid said the disabled community seems particularly radicalized this election cycle, and that’s a positive.
“I really think what helped mobilize disabled people was the internet,” she told Changing America, specifically citing the #CripTheVote hashtag, co-founded by disabled activists Alice Wong, Gregg Beratan and Andrew Pulgrang in 2015 to discuss the intersection of disability and politics. The movement recently achieved another milestone when Warren held a Twitter town hall in the hashtag. “#CripTheVote really brought together the community and mobilized us to get involved in campaigns, involved in voting,” Zayid said.
Zayid, who said she offers her perspective on disability policy to “any candidate I can get within a yard of,” was one of several disabled people the Warren campaign consulted with while developing its disability plan, which drew praise from activists within the community. During this process, Zayid said, Warren “listened to me, and she listened to such a diverse group of disabled people, many of whom I know and respect, some of whom I met for the first time. She’s listening to poor disabled people, she’s listening to rock stars like me.”
“She’s really listening and taking that listening, processing it and putting it together in the most detailed plan I have ever seen in my adult life,” Zayid added. “Images of disability can often be so white, and she really hit it out of the park getting a diverse group together.”