EMILY BOBROW | MOREOVER | November 29th 2007
Maysoon Zayid is a rare presence on New York's beer-stained comedy circuit: an Arab-American virgin with cerebral palsy. And she wants you to laugh at her. Emily Bobrow caught her show at the Gotham Comedy Club ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Maysoon Zayid, a stand-up comedienne, has her work cut out. "Your typical female comic is walking on stage talking about being fat, having her period, boy problems or being a lesbian," she explained to me. "In general I'm talking about Israeli soldiers and what it means to be a virgin at 30--things that people haven't heard before."
On the beer-stained stages of New York comedy clubs, she is a rare presence. "I'm a 30-year-old Palestinian-American virgin from New Jersey with cerebral palsy. And if you don't feel better about yourself, maybe you should." This is the sucker-punch that usually begins her set. There is usually a surprised pause, and then a lot of laughter.
Stand-up comedy is a fundamentally raw form. Performers typically trot out their insecurities and neuroses, hoping for an alchemical transformation of fear into laughter. When a joke falls flat, the comedian is still there, on-stage, naked and rebuffed. (My English friends tell me this is a uniquely American take on comedy. Performers elsewhere are often less needily extroverted. We Americans all want to be loved, often for our flaws, not despite them.) If this transaction--entertainment for something like therapy--is awkward at times, the queasiness quotient is certainly upped at a "New Talent Showcase", such as one I caught at New York's Gotham Comedy Club.
Perched on a stool on-stage in jeans and a black sweater, Zayid stood out from the hapless parade. Her set emerged like a phoenix amid the ashes of jokes about Starbucks ("I mean, why call it a tall, then!"), iPods, sex and weight problems. She managed to steer the evening towards zingers about terrorism, Islam and disability. And the audience laughed. "I'm a virgin by choice", she announced, looking mischievous. "My father's choice." Her cerebral palsy is subtle, leading to a slight jerkiness of movement and a bit of a droop on the side of her mouth. My recording of her set is peppered with the booming, nourishing laughter of the man at the table next to mine--a big, middle-aged fella whose wholesome look bespoke a lifetime of Denny's Grand-Slam breakfasts. Some of his guffaws sounded almost painful.
Zayid falls in line with a long tradition of immigrant and minority humour in America. The jokes cracked by outsiders are often self-effacing, a way to inoculate criticism by tweaking it to include a punch line.
"So many people haven't seen a modern Muslim woman, haven't seen a Palestinian," Zayid explained earlier in her car, on the way to the comedy club. "I feel people brace themselves, but I tend to win them over. And that's why I love comedy, because it is such a gentle way to get your point across. People start laughing and they don't feel they're being lectured to."
With Dean Obeidallah, a fellow comedian, she helped create the annual Arab-American Comedy Festival in 2002, essentially formalising their roles as ambassadors for a suddenly besieged community. (The next one will take place from January 18th-23rd 2008.) I caught the festival in late-2005, when Zayid headlined the night of stand-up. "I'm so glad you can all stay out late tonight, because you're not under curfew", she said to a warmed-up audience. She was in her element, preening in a T-shirt that said "Hookah That's Hot", and predicting "I'll be the funniest person in the internment camp."
She takes her show on the road, poking gentle fun at her Muslim heritage at universities around the country (which is evidently where the money is for emerging stand-up comedians). She invests a chunk of her earnings into an art programme she runs for disabled and wounded children in Palestinian refugee camps several months out of the year. Living with her parents in New Jersey helps keep expenses down. "Muslims are not allowed to move out until they get married," she explains. "I'm a 30-year-old disabled Muslim woman, who refuses to marry a non-Palestinian, and no Palestinian is going to marry me. And I'm a comic! So yeah, I'm never going to get married." (Thankfully the same isn't true for assimilated Jews who grew up in the suburbs. Oy.)
"People don't think women are funny," she explained in the car. "As a woman, when you walk on stage the audience immediately tightens up. When I start talking about being Arab or Muslim, I think it is something that people are really interested in right now. They say Arabs are the new blacks," she laughed.