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TEDWomen 2013

Maysoon Zayid: I got 99 problems... palsy is just one

December 4, 2013

"I have cerebral palsy. I shake all the time," Maysoon Zayid announces at the beginning of this exhilarating, hilarious talk. (Really, it's hilarious.) "I'm like Shakira meets Muhammad Ali." With grace and wit, the Arab-American comedian takes us on a whistle-stop tour of her adventures as an actress, stand-up comic, philanthropist and advocate for the disabled.

Maysoon Zayid - Comedian and writer
Writer, actor, comedian, Maysoon Zayid is the co-founder of the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Hello, TEDWomen, what's up.
00:12
(Cheers)
00:14
Not good enough.
00:15
Hello, TEDWomen, what is up?
00:17
(Cheers)
00:19
My name is Maysoon Zayid,
00:21
and I am not drunk,
00:23
but the doctor who delivered me was.
00:25
He cut my mom six different times
00:28
in six different directions,
00:32
suffocating poor little me in the process.
00:35
As a result, I have cerebral palsy,
00:37
which means I shake all the time.
00:40
Look.
00:43
It's exhausting. I'm like Shakira, Shakira
00:45
meets Muhammad Ali.
00:49
(Laughter)
00:51
C.P. is not genetic.
00:54
It's not a birth defect. You can't catch it.
00:56
No one put a curse on my mother's uterus,
00:58
and I didn't get it because
my parents are first cousins,
01:02
which they are.
01:05
(Laughter)
01:06
It only happens from accidents,
01:11
like what happened to me on my birth day.
01:13
Now, I must warn you, I'm not inspirational,
01:16
and I don't want anyone in this room
01:21
to feel bad for me,
01:23
because at some point in your life,
01:25
you have dreamt of being disabled.
01:27
Come on a journey with me.
01:30
It's Christmas Eve, you're at the mall,
01:32
you're driving around in circles looking for parking,
01:35
and what do you see?
01:39
Sixteen empty handicapped spaces.
01:41
And you're like, "God, can't I just be
01:45
a little disabled?"
01:48
(Laughter)
01:49
Also, I gotta tell you,
01:55
I got 99 problems, and palsy is just one.
01:56
If there was an Oppression Olympics,
02:01
I would win the gold medal.
02:04
I'm Palestinian, Muslim, I'm female, I'm disabled,
02:05
and I live in New Jersey.
02:11
(Laughter) (Applause)
02:13
If you don't feel better about
yourself, maybe you should.
02:19
Cliffside Park, New Jersey is my hometown.
02:23
I have always loved the fact
02:25
that my hood and my affliction
02:28
share the same initials.
02:30
I also love the fact that if I wanted to walk
02:32
from my house to New York City, I could.
02:34
A lot of people with C.P. don't walk,
02:37
but my parents didn't believe in "can't."
02:40
My father's mantra was,
02:43
"You can do it, yes you can can."
02:45
(Laughter)
02:48
So, if my three older sisters were mopping,
02:51
I was mopping.
02:54
If my three older sisters went to public school,
02:55
my parents would sue the school system
02:58
and guarantee that I went too,
03:01
and if we didn't all get A's,
03:03
we all got my mother's slipper.
03:05
(Laughter)
03:07
My father taught me how to walk
when I was five years old
03:09
by placing my heels on his feet
03:12
and just walking.
03:15
Another tactic that he used is he would dangle
03:16
a dollar bill in front of me and have me chase it.
03:19
(Laughter)
03:23
My inner stripper was very strong, and by --
03:25
(Laughter)
03:28
Yeah. No, by the first day of kindergarten,
03:30
I was walking like a champ
03:33
who had been punched one too many times.
03:34
Growing up, there were only six Arabs in my town,
03:38
and they were all my family.
03:42
Now there are 20 Arabs in town,
03:44
and they are still all my family. (Laughter)
03:46
I don't think anyone even noticed we weren't Italian.
03:49
(Laughter) (Applause)
03:52
This was before 9/11 and before politicians
03:59
thought it was appropriate to use "I hate Moslems"
04:02
as a campaign slogan.
04:06
The people that I grew up with
had no problem with my faith.
04:08
They did, however, seem very concerned
04:11
that I would starve to death during Ramadan.
04:14
I would explain to them that I have enough fat
04:17
to live off of for three whole months,
04:19
so fasting from sunrise to sunset is a piece of cake.
04:21
I have tap-danced on Broadway.
04:26
Yeah, on Broadway. It's crazy. (Applause)
04:28
My parents couldn't afford physical therapy,
04:32
so they sent me to dancing school.
04:34
I learned how to dance in heels,
04:37
which means I can walk in heels.
04:38
And I'm from Jersey,
04:40
and we are really concerned with being chic,
04:41
so if my friends wore heels, so did I.
04:44
And when my friends went and
spent their summer vacations
04:48
on the Jersey Shore, I did not.
04:51
I spent my summers in a war zone,
04:54
because my parents were afraid
04:56
that if we didn't go back to Palestine
04:58
every single summer,
05:00
we'd grow up to be Madonna.
05:02
(Laughter)
05:04
Summer vacations often consisted of
05:09
my father trying to heal me,
05:12
so I drank deer's milk,
05:14
I had hot cups on my back,
05:16
I was dunked in the Dead Sea,
05:18
and I remember the water burning my eyes
05:20
and thinking, "It's working! It's working!"
05:23
(Laughter)
05:26
But one miracle cure we did find was yoga.
05:29
I have to tell you, it's very boring,
05:32
but before I did yoga,
05:35
I was a stand-up comedian who can't stand up.
05:37
And now I can stand on my head.
05:40
My parents reinforced this notion
05:43
that I could do anything,
05:48
that no dream was impossible,
05:51
and my dream was to be
05:53
on the daytime soap opera "General Hospital."
05:54
I went to college during affirmative action
05:58
and got a sweet scholarship to ASU,
06:01
Arizona State University,
06:03
because I fit every single quota.
06:05
I was like the pet lemur of the theater department.
06:08
Everybody loved me.
06:13
I did all the less-than-intelligent kids' homework,
06:14
I got A's in all of my classes,
06:17
A's in all of their classes.
06:19
Every time I did a scene
06:22
from "The Glass Menagerie,"
06:24
my professors would weep.
06:26
But I never got cast.
06:28
Finally, my senior year,
06:30
ASU decided to do a show called
06:32
"They Dance Real Slow in Jackson."
06:34
It's a play about a girl with C.P.
06:36
I was a girl with C.P.
06:39
So I start shouting from the rooftops,
06:41
"I'm finally going to get a part!
06:44
I have cerebral palsy!
06:46
Free at last! Free at last!
06:48
Thank God almighty, I'm free at last!"
06:50
I didn't get the part. (Laughter)
06:53
Sherry Brown got the part.
06:57
I went racing to the head of the theater department
06:59
crying hysterically, like someone shot my cat,
07:02
to ask her why,
07:04
and she said it was because
07:05
they didn't think I could do the stunts.
07:07
I said, "Excuse me, if I can't do the stunts,
07:10
neither can the character."
07:13
(Laughter) (Applause)
07:15
This was a part that I was literally born to play
07:22
and they gave it, they gave it to a non-palsy actress.
07:27
College was imitating life.
07:32
Hollywood has a sordid history
07:35
of casting able-bodied actors
07:37
to play disabled onscreen.
07:39
Upon graduating, I moved back home,
07:41
and my first acting gig was
07:44
as an extra on a daytime soap opera.
07:46
My dream was coming true.
07:49
And I knew that I would be promoted
07:50
from "diner diner" to "wacky best friend" in no time.
07:53
But instead, I remained a glorified piece of furniture
07:57
that you could only recognize
from the back of my head,
08:00
and it became clear to me
08:03
that casting directors
08:05
didn't hire fluffy, ethnic, disabled actors.
08:06
They only hired perfect people.
08:10
But there were exceptions to the rule.
08:13
I grew up watching Whoopi Goldberg,
08:15
Roseanne Barr, Ellen,
08:17
and all of these women had one thing in common:
08:19
they were comedians.
08:22
So I became a comic.
08:23
(Laughter) (Applause)
08:26
My first gig was driving famous comics
08:31
from New York City to shows in New Jersey,
08:35
and I'll never forget the face of the first comic
08:37
I ever drove when he realized
08:40
that he was speeding down the New Jersey Turnpike
08:42
with a chick with C.P. driving him.
08:45
I've performed in clubs all over America,
08:48
and I've also performed in Arabic in the Middle East,
08:51
uncensored and uncovered.
08:54
Some people say I'm the first
08:58
stand-up comic in the Arab world.
09:00
I never like to claim first,
09:02
but I do know that they never heard
09:04
that nasty little rumor that women aren't funny,
09:06
and they find us hysterical.
09:10
In 2003, my brother from another mother and father
09:15
Dean Obeidallah and I started
09:19
the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival,
09:21
now in its 10th year.
09:23
Our goal was to change the negative image
09:25
of Arab-Americans in media,
09:29
while also reminding casting directors
09:31
that South Asian and Arab are not synonymous.
09:33
(Laughter)
09:36
Mainstreaming Arabs was much, much easier
09:39
than conquering the challenge
09:45
against the stigma against disability.
09:47
My big break came in 2010.
09:50
I was invited to be a guest
09:52
on the cable news show
09:54
"Countdown With Keith Olbermann."
09:55
I walked in looking like I was going to the prom,
09:58
and they shuffle me into a studio
10:01
and seat me on a spinning, rolling chair.
10:03
So I looked at the stage manager and I'm like,
10:08
"Excuse me, can I have another chair?"
10:11
And she looked at me and she went,
10:14
"Five, four, three, two ..."
10:15
And we were live, right?
10:18
So I had to grip onto the anchor's desk
10:20
so that I wouldn't roll off the
screen during the segment,
10:22
and when the interview was over, I was livid.
10:26
I had finally gotten my chance and I blew it,
10:29
and I knew I would never get invited back.
10:31
But not only did Mr. Olbermann invite me back,
10:34
he made me a full-time contributor,
10:37
and he taped down my chair.
10:39
(Laughter) (Applause)
10:43
One fun fact I learned while on the air
10:48
with Keith Olbermann
10:50
was that humans on the Internet are scumbags.
10:52
People say children are cruel,
10:56
but I was never made fun of as a child or an adult.
10:58
Suddenly, my disability on the
world wide web is fair game.
11:02
I would look at clips online
11:05
and see comments like,
11:07
"Yo, why's she tweakin?"
11:09
"Yo, is she retarded?"
11:12
And my favorite, "Poor Gumby-mouth terrorist.
11:14
What does she suffer from?
11:17
We should really pray for her."
11:19
One commenter even suggested
11:22
that I add my disability to my credits:
11:24
screenwriter, comedian, palsy.
11:27
Disability is as visual as race.
11:32
If a wheelchair user can't play Beyoncé,
11:35
then Beyoncé can't play a wheelchair user.
11:38
The disabled are the largest —
11:41
Yeah, clap for that, man. C'mon.
11:43
(Applause)
11:46
People with disabilities are the largest minority
11:51
in the world, and we are the most underrepresented
11:53
in entertainment.
11:56
The doctors said that I wouldn't walk,
11:58
but I am here in front of you.
12:00
However, if I grew up with social media,
12:03
I don't think I would be.
12:05
I hope that together
12:07
we can create more positive images
12:09
of disability in the media and in everyday life.
12:11
Perhaps if there were more positive images,
12:15
it would foster less hate on the Internet.
12:17
Or maybe not.
12:21
Maybe it still takes a village
12:23
to teach our children well.
12:25
My crooked journey has taken me
12:28
to some very spectacular places.
12:30
I got to walk the red carpet
12:32
flanked by soap diva Susan Lucci
12:35
and the iconic Lorraine Arbus.
12:37
I got to act in a movie with Adam Sandler
12:40
and work with my idol,
12:42
the amazing Dave Matthews.
12:44
I toured the world as a headliner
12:46
on Arabs Gone Wild.
12:48
I was a delegate
12:50
representing the great state of New Jersey
12:53
at the 2008 DNC.
12:56
And I founded Maysoon's Kids,
12:58
a charity that hopes
13:00
to give Palestinian refugee children
13:02
a sliver of the chance my parents gave me.
13:04
But the one moment that stands out the most
13:07
was when I got -- before this moment --
13:10
(Laughter) (Applause) —
13:12
but the one moment that stands out the most
13:20
was when I got to perform
13:23
for the man who floats like a butterfly
13:25
and stings like a bee,
13:28
has Parkinson's and shakes just like me,
13:29
Muhammad Ali.
13:32
(Applause)
13:35
It was the only time
13:43
that my father ever saw me perform live,
13:45
and I dedicate this talk to his memory.
13:47
(In Arabic)
13:51
My name is Maysoon Zayid,
13:53
and if I can can, you can can.
13:56
(Applause)
13:59

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Maysoon Zayid - Comedian and writer
Writer, actor, comedian, Maysoon Zayid is the co-founder of the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival.

Why you should listen

Early in her acting career, Maysoon Zayid realized she'd get a lot more stage time if she showed off how funny she was. As she told the BBC, "It became very obvious to me that in the United States of America, a fluffy ethnic disabled chick was never going to get a job unless she did stand-up."

A Palestinian woman from New Jersey, Zayid jokes about her family, global culture, and her life with cerebral palsy. Along with Dean Obeidallah, she founded the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, now in its 10th year. She spends several months of the year in the Palestinian Territories running workshops for disabled and orphaned kids in refugee camps, using art to help them deal with trauma. And yes -- if you're an Adam Sandler fan, you'll recognize Zayid as the woman behind the beauty-shop counter in You Don't Mess With the Zohan.

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