Two minutes into her viral 2013 TED Talk, Maysoon Zayid jokes, “If there was an oppression Olympics, I would win the gold medal. I’m Palestinian, Muslim, I’m female, I’m disabled and I live in New Jersey.”
Zayid is an actress, author, advocate for the disabled and self-proclaimed “sit-down stand-up comedian.” Standing is difficult for the 40-something Zayid, who has cerebral palsy, the result of a botched C-section. She temporarily lost oxygen while being delivered; her mother nearly died. “She likes to remind me I almost killed her,” says Zayid.
Fifteen years later, Zayid won a malpractice suit against her mother’s obstetrician. “It changed my life,” she says. “It gave me the nest egg to be able to pursue my dreams.”
Her dream was acting—inspired in part by TV’s General Hospital.
“From the age of five, I would limp home quickly from school just in time to turn [it] on,” she says about the soap opera. Zayid grew up in Cliffside Park with her parents and three older sisters. She still lives in the borough with her husband and cat, Beyoncé.
Zayid studied theater at Arizona State University. When the school held auditions for And They Dance Real Slow in Jackson, Zayid was confident she’d be chosen to play the lead character—a girl with cerebral palsy. Instead, an able-bodied student got the part.
“The idea that someone without a disability could play that disability better than someone who actually has [it] is ludicrous,” says Zayid.
After college, acting roles were hard to come by. “I would walk into auditions, and people would say no before I even spoke,” says Zayid. Comedy became her safe haven. “Stand-up comedy is the island of misfit toys,” she says, “and I fit in perfectly.”
In 2003, Zayid teamed with fellow comedian and Paramus native Dean Obeidallah to launch the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival. It’s held every fall at Gotham Comedy Club in Manhattan. Zayid’s own self-deprecating style of stand-up touches on such subjects as marriage, disability, Arab culture and her fanaticism over General Hospital.
Zayid is often credited with being the first person to do stand-up in Palestine. She doesn’t know if that’s true, but has traveled to the region to perform several shows in Arabic. Other career highlights include the 2006 one-woman show Little American Whore, several comedy tours and a gig as a political commentator with MSNBC.
Incredibly, Zayid’s journey has led her back to General Hospital. Last March, she got a call from the show’s executive director, Frank Valentini, who was aware of her obsession with the show. The result: a recurring role for Zayid as the lawyer Zahra Amir.
“We’ve never explained or made apologies for Zahra’s disability,” says Zayid. “She’s disabled because I am.”
Currently, Zayid is developing a comedy series, a talk show and a children’s book series. Her next local stand-up show/speaking engagement is March 7 at El Barrio’s Artspace PS109 in New York.
Last year, Hello Sunshine and Audible published Zayid’s audiobook memoir, Find Another Dream. The book was a new kind of challenge. “As a stand-up comic, you change people’s names, dates, details—you embellish,” says Zayid. “It was really hard to keep all the comedy while being tied to reality.”
Zayid was grateful to be paired with a disabled editor. “It was really great to work with someone who got it,” says Zayid, “because she’s lived it, too.”