MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Switching gears now, the issues of Palestinians, both in the U.S. and abroad, are often in the news, but not, I think it's fair to say, because of the comedy scene, which is where Maysoon Zayid comes in.
MAYSOON ZAYID: I am a Palestinian Muslim virgin with cerebral palsy from New Jersey and, if you don't feel better about yourself, maybe you should. I'm just saying. So I'm a virgin and people are like, really? You're a virgin? And they feel sad for me and I just want you guys to know I'm a virgin by choice and that is my father's choice.
MARTIN: That was Maysoon Zayid on Comedy Central's "The Watch List" in 2008. Her tours have taken her from North America to North Africa to the Middle East and, when she's not entertaining crowds, she's running a nonprofit called Maysoon's Kids. That's a scholarship and wellness program for disabled and refugee children in the West Bank.
We caught up with Maysoon Zayid earlier this year when she was on a break from touring and she's with us now.
Thank you so much for joining us.
ZAYID: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: So how did you get bitten by the comedy bug? I hear that you actually starting thinking about being an actress.
ZAYID: I actually went to Arizona State University to become a lawyer and was forced to take a fine arts class and I wanted to take the easiest thing they had and my friends told me it was acting because I got to be, like, a tree and an elephant. And, after my first acting class, I switched majors and decided that I was going to become a huge soap star and I was going to be on "General Hospital" and it was going to be amazing.
And I realized very, very quickly that I was never going to be more than an extra because Hollywood didn't really have a place for fluffy, ethnic, disabled people and I wasn't really seeing people that looked like me on television unless they started doing comedy.
So my acting coach at the time, who was a legend, total legend named Tanya Berezin - she suggested to me that I started doing comedy, like Whoopi Goldberg and Rosie O'Donnell and Roseanne Barr and so I went to Caroline's in New York City. I took a comedy class and, by my third, like, open mic, I was professionally doing stand-up comedy.
MARTIN: So you weren't, like, the funny kid in class? You weren't the one that was always getting sent to the principal's office for trying to crack everybody up? That was not you.
ZAYID: I was the girl who did everybody's homework, but I was also, like, student council president and yearbook editor and, like, all-around overachiever, like, I'm disabled, but I can do anything.
MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask? How do your folks feel about this? I mean, you could see where being a super smart kid, head of the class, they might have been thinking dentist, maybe doctor.
ZAYID: No, not really. My parents are very interesting people and I think that they quite enjoy my career. First of all, I love the clip that you played. When I heard it, I was like, oh, my God, this is from such a long time ago because I got married and my father passed away.
MARTIN: Oh, I'm sorry.
ZAYID: God rest his soul. So it's changed a lot, but when I was on stage and my father was alive, he was very proud of what I was doing, because I think my mother and father are both well aware of the fact that I am showing people throughout the world that disability doesn't stop you. And it's not quite as big a deal here in the United States as it is when I perform onstage in Jordan or in Palestine or in Qatar where they're not used to seeing functional disabled people.
MARTIN: Oh, interesting. Yeah.
ZAYID: So I think that, as far as my parents, you know, went, being on Keith Olbermann on a weekly basis wasn't too shabby as compared to, say, being a lawyer or a doctor. And I definitely could have never been a doctor because I have no eye-hand coordination.
ZAYID: It'd be dangerous. There was, like, five things I could do, one of which was teach, which is what I did until my stand-up comedy took off. I taught seventh and eighth grade reading and English at a Catholic school, like all good Muslim comics do.
MARTIN: Which is scarier, facing a roomful of rowdy comedy patrons or teaching a roomful of seventh and eighth graders?
ZAYID: See, I'm totally fearless. I got my chops in the most, like, dangerous comedy atmosphere. If you can make it in New York, you can really do stand-up anywhere.
MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin. We're speaking with comedienne Maysoon Zayid. Talk a little bit about where we started out. You talked about being born with cerebral palsy. Could you just describe what that is for people who don't know and how it affects you?
ZAYID: It affects my motor skills because the messages from my brain to my body go in all the wrong directions, but they eventually get there, so I shake all the time, kind of like Michael J. Fox meets Tickle Me Elmo with a lot less income.
MARTIN: OK. And you do joke about that or you certainly talk about that.
ZAYID: I do. I talk about that and that was the whole point of the original intro that you played, because what's interesting about me is the fact that people can't tell what's wrong with me and, in a comedy club, it's distracting and it could read as nerves. And if it read as nerves, the audience would be uncomfortable and they wouldn't laugh. So I knew that I needed to get out there something about my disability within the first couple of seconds and that's why I buried it within the intro of, I'm a Palestinian Muslim virgin with cerebral palsy from New Jersey.
Now, the older I got and the more comfortable I got onstage and as a person and as a performer, the more I started doing jokes about the actual disability and how it affects my daily life, but I think one of the reasons people kind of don't know where to place me is because I don't focus on one thing. I don't focus on being a woman and dating, or focus on being married, or focus on being ethnic or being disabled. It's like I am who I am and the comedy I do is very personal, it's very political and I don't apologize to anyone.
MARTIN: Thanks for breaking it down for us in that way. I appreciate it. I did want to ask before we let you go. The organization that you founded, Maysoon's Kids.
ZAYID: Maysoon's Kids.
MARTIN: Want to talk a little bit about it?
ZAYID: Maysoon's Kids is a scholarship and wellness program and what we do is we attempt to raise scholarship money to mainstream physically disabled children into the top schools in the West Bank and we also facilitate adoption for special needs orphans. And we teach moms how to integrate their children into society and we support girls and have a soccer team for at risk girls who we coach through life and coach into college. And we have some kids at Bethlehem University on scholarship. So we're all about educating and empowering, and not just giving people stuff. It's definitely, definitely a teach a kid to have an education program.
MARTIN: How did you come up with the idea for that? Does that come out of your teaching background?
ZAYID: No. Uh uh. And my teaching background was really just like - I qualified to be a sub and someone got pregnant. I got to stay there for a really long time.
MARTIN: That's encouraging.
ZAYID: No. Definitely. No. Maysoon's Kids came from 2002. No. April 2001. I'm sorry. I was watching images on the news of Jenin (unintelligible) being bombed during the Second Intifada by Israel. And I saw this image of a crushed wheelchair and I thought, oh, my God, we're creating an entire new generation of disabled children in Palestine that nobody knows how to deal with. And they need someone who's going to fight for them the way that my father fought for me. Because, like, when I started the school system in New Jersey, they wanted to send me to a school for children with special needs. And the reality is, had I gone to that school, I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you, being a little bit too sarcastic.
MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. I'm happy to listen to you talk about whatever you want to talk about. Before we let you go, I mean, you are - I don't know how you feel about this, being called a role model, but you are a role model for a lot of people in a lot of ways. And I wondered if you had some words of wisdom for someone who might want to follow in your footsteps, who's listening to you and thinking, gee, I think I can do that. I want to do that.
ZAYID: If you're disabled and you're trying to achieve your dreams, accept the fact right now that you have to work 500 times more than the average bear next to you. Stop bucking for sympathy, put on your titanium legs and run.
I think that carries through for all artists - is that, like, if you think that you're so good, go out there and do it and prove it, and work, because nobody's ever going to give you anything. And, if you are handed anything, it's ephemeral and you're going to have to eventually build, anyway. So, like, know that you're worth it and do what you need to do to get there. Don't expect anyone to ever just hand you anything.
MARTIN: Maysoon Zayid is a professional comic. She also runs an education program for disabled and refugee kids in the West Bank. And she was kind enough to join us from New York at the Radio Foundation.
ZAYID: And everybody can find me on www.maysoon.com. My name. I bought it.
MARTIN: Maysoon Zayid, thank you for joining us.
ZAYID: Thank you, Michel.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: Coming up, R&B singer-songwriter Miguel made a huge splash with his debut album in 2010. Now, he's back with a second album that he hopes will let fans and critics know he's here to stay.
MIGUEL: This album, "Kaleidoscope Dream," is a really great statement for the kind of artist that I hope to become.
MARTIN: A conversation with rising star Miguel and we remember a musical legend, Ravi Shankar. That's all ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.