Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 7 August 2020

Maysoon Zayid on tap dancing and figuring out stand-up comedy in a virtual world

The comedian, who hasn't left her New Jersey home in weeks, is taking the time to work on a comic book, knit latch-hooks and, of course, tap dance

Comedian Maysoon Zayid, who is co-organiser of the New York Arab-American Film Festival, spoke to fans following the first-ever online screening of her 2017 show at NYU Abu Dhabi. Courtesy Maysoon Zayid
Comedian Maysoon Zayid, who is co-organiser of the New York Arab-American Film Festival, spoke to fans following the first-ever online screening of her 2017 show at NYU Abu Dhabi. Courtesy Maysoon Zayid

“I’m trying to figure out how to do stand-up comedy in the virtual world,” Maysoon Zayid said on Wednesday night.

The American-Palestinian comedian used to spend 200 days a year touring the US with her cat, Beyonce.

But this was in the “before time”.

Before comedy shows – like most public gatherings – were cancelled in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that brought the globe to an anxious standstill.

I always wanted that three-week writing retreat. Not the three-month one, with no salary and a global virus

“It’s unbelievable not to have shows, to just wake up one morning and have no stand-up comedy,” Zayid says. But she does think humour is a necessity in trying times. “Laughter is healing. And we need it right now.”

Zayid – whose Ted Talk I Got 99 Problems… And Palsy is Just One has garnered more than ten million views – spoke to fans via Zoom in a live event organised as part of NYU Abu Dhabi's Reconnect, a new online series.

"The pandemic is changing the way we do entertainment for the future. Maybe it's going to open the door for people like me to do more international work. But still, I hope it doesn't make the live stage obsolete because there's nothing like it."

The comedian told moderator Alana Barraj, that even though she has not left her New Jersey home since Saturday, March 14, she’s still found ways to stay busy and productive. She's tap-dancing to full-length concerts, weaving latch-hooks of the Disney character Stitch, and working on her new comic book.

Her new comic book

“It’s a fantastical comic book," Zayid says as Beyonce climbs the cat tree behind her.

"The central character is disabled, and even though she lives in a fantasy land, her disability doesn’t disappear. So she has superpowers and magic and all that other stuff and she’s still disabled. And I think that’s really important."

It was vital for Zayid – who has cerebral palsy – to have a powerful central character in her comic book who is disabled and who isn’t miraculously healed by her powers.

“We see that too often in the superhero world. You usually see actors who are not disabled play those characters or we see that having the superpower eliminates whatever the disability took away.”

Although Zayid did not divulge the title of her comic book, she did say that the book was aimed at 10 to 12-year-olds and was scheduled to be released in October 2021.

“It’s taking a long time to do because all the drawings are hand drawn,” she says. “I’m super excited. Right now we’re finalising the text but soon I’ll get to meet artists.

"I can’t think of a better way to spend this strange time-warp snapshot in history than writing a book. So I can say that I wrote this book during the great pandemic of 2020 and, by the way, it wasn’t that great.”

Self-isolating, Zayid says, has given her “more time to write than ever. I always wanted that three-week writing retreat. Not the three month one, with no salary and a global virus. But this is a variation on it,” she joked. “And I get to hang out with my cat, Beyonce, which is good for the soul.”

The comedian revealed that she’s been busy in the three years since her Abu Dhabi show. In October 2019, she released an audiobook Find Another Dream, published on Audible by Reese Witherspoon’s company Hello Sunshine. Written and narrated by Zayid, the memoir explores her hilarious and poignant journey as she creates her own path to stardom.

The book tells of how, as a child, Zayid dreamed of dancing on Broadway one day, until a choreographer told her to “find another dream.” Zayid, undeterred by the odds stacked against her, set her sights on becoming a soap opera star instead. While chasing fame, she found her voice in stand-up comedy, performing in multiple languages at sold-out shows all over the world.

“The memoir is available as a PDF as well, in case you can’t listen to it,” Zayid said. “I wanted to make sure it was accessible to everyone.”

Even though Zayid may have given up on her dreams of dancing on Broadway, she still tap dances as often as she can. Her metal-soled shoes have been seeing more wear time now, as she is self-isolating in her home in New Jersey.

“My parents couldn’t afford to send me to physical therapy, so they sent me to tap dancing lessons,” she says, adding that there’s nothing like tap dancing “when you’re trapped indoors, with the fear of death looming. Just put on some metal shoes and start banging on the floor like a tabla.”

Updated: April 3, 2020 12:57 PM

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