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Backstage at the Tory Burch “Embrace Ambition” Summit, I am talking to Maysoon Zayid about death threats. And no, she isn’t a politician or an activist—she’s a comedian.
Since Trump’s election, comedians have been created some of the most resonant work in the culture—from Jordan Peele’s searing “Get Out” to Michelle Wolf's hotly debated performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner. In some ways, the stakes for comedy have never felt higher. Zayid agrees. Ever since her viral 2011 TED Talk, “I Got 99 Problems…Palsy Is Just One,” the comedian has joked about everything from being Muslim to having cerebral palsy at a time when, she says, it’s dangerous to identify as either.
On stage at the summit, Zayid told the audience, “I feel like doing comedy is a fight for our lives.”
“I tell people all the time that if you make someone laugh, they’re less likely to kill you,” she continued. Then, after a beat: “They may still do it, but they’re less likely.”
After her talk, I pressed her on the state of comedy now, death threats, and why she said she’ll “never allow [herself] to go onstage and be a ‘teachable moment.’”
GLAMOUR: During your talk, you said that you feel like doing comedy is really “a fight for our lives” right now. You’ve also been doing this for a long time—do you feel it’s more intense now than it is when you first started.
Maysoon Zayid: It’s much more intense now. It’s interesting because the beginning of my comedy career was right after 9/11, and I founded something called the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival to combat the negative images about Arabs and Muslims in media. I did not think that 15 years later it would escalate and be so much worse.
So you were saying it’s harder now.
It’s so much harder now, and it’s not harder because of social media—I’m used to social media now, I’m very active on it. It’s harder because the hoods are off. Hate, supremacy, are mainstream and, as I mentioned on stage, when Donald Trump posts fake videos about Muslims on his Twitter, that backlash comes at someone like me because I’m public about being Muslim, I’m proud of being Muslim. And I don’t even face the violence that my counterparts that cover their hair and are visibly Muslim do. But there are other problems: 50 percent of people killed by law enforcement are disabled. Women with disabilities are three times as likely to face violence in their lives. So in addition to being Muslim, I’m a disabled woman in this country who wakes up every day wondering, “Will I have health care tomorrow or will I not?” So, it’s hard.
To that end, is there anything that you can’t make funny?
No, I can literally make everything funny. I always talk about how funny I make dead babies. There are no subjects off limits—I talk about disability, I talk about death, I talk about religion, I talk about all the stuff that you’re not supposed to, and I think it’s about context. I’m just not a mean-spirited comic, so even when I’m doing jokes about difficult subjects, I’m doing it because it’s personal to me. I’m not just doing it to see if I can.
Why did you pick stand-up?
Because Hollywood rejected me. People with disabilities are 20% of the population, but we’re only 2% of the images you see on screen; 95% are played by non-disabled actors. So I just didn’t see myself on TV, and if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. But I did see myself in comedy. The fact that I was disabled really didn’t factor into my comedy until the TED Talk. Comedy is a place for misfits and I was a misfit.
“I’ll take the punches for the disabled kids that come after me. I have the skin for it.”
Well, you said in your TED Talk that actually it was being disabled more than being Muslim that was the most challenging stereotype to overcome.
Oh yeah, because people don’t want to laugh at a disabled person. So you have to get them to be okay with laughing at things that they feel like they shouldn’t. And also people fear disability. They’ve done studies, and one of people’s biggest fears is becoming disabled—they literally fear it—so I’m up on stage and I’m trying to make them laugh, and I’m also their biggest fear right in front of them, and they have to confront it. A lot of what I do invokes the weakness in other people’s characters, so when I’m talking about really fucked-up things that people say to me online, people know that they’ve said those things. They know that they’ve made those jokes, and they know it’s not funny because now they’re looking at the person they were making fun of.
In your TED Talk, you talked about the internet and how it was actually crueler now than it had been when you were growing up. Is it worse or better now since you gave your TED Talk?
It’s not because of the TED Talk. It’s literally because of Donald Trump. I mean, I hate to be that broken record, but I get threatened by people who know where I’m going to be on stage. That wasn’t happening in 2010, 2011. I was being told I had chunky knees, and that my mouth was distracting. My favorite one—one that I say in my TED Talk—they called me “a crooked-mouth Gumby terrorist whore that we should pray for,” but now my favorite one is that people always say to me, “You need to accept Jesus.” And I say to them, “I do accept Jesus, because Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet. Now can you accept that Jesus looked like me and not Jared Leto?” So even though it’s hard because I’m being bullied all the time, I’m happy that it’s me because I grew up with hecklers in New York comedy clubs and you had to deal with those people live. I can now edit my clap-backs, so it’s so much easier than it was when I was onstage. I made the decision, and my decision was, “I’ll take the punches for the disabled kids that come after me.” I have the skin for it. I don’t care that I’m wearing socks and Getty is taking my image, I just don’t. I go out there, I battle the bullies because I always say this: For every hundred comments that I get that are nasty, I get one that’s life-changing and worth it all.
Originally Appeared on Glamour