Can a Disabled Palestinian American Launch the Next Big Sitcom?

How comedian Maysoon Zayid is planning to reshape television.
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Maysoon Zayid.

Maysoon Zayid.

On the day before the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), in 2015, a friend and I piled into the back of a limo with Maysoon Zayid, a Palestinian-American comedian from New Jersey who has cerebral palsy. Zayid had just gotten off the stage at the Kennedy Center, where she was one of the many people being celebrated during a gala for the ADA. But when we got out for drinks at the W Hotel, a doorman stopped us before we could reach the accessible entrance. Although Zayid and my friend both have cerebral palsy and wanted to avoid having to climb steps, we were forbidden to use the door unless we were hotel guests. Undeterred, Maysoon charged around the hotel, climbed the steps she'd been trying to avoid, raised hell, got the doors open for the rest of the group, then took us up to a gorgeous hotel bar that looks out over the city. After the stress of having to fight for basic access on a day when we were supposed to be celebrating inclusion, she promptly threw up on me. We've been friends ever since.

Earlier in September, ABC announced that it was ordering a pilot for a sitcom starring Zayid titled Can Can. Zayid will play a Muslim woman with cerebral palsy, making the show a first in a number of different ways. No other sitcom has centered on a Muslim-American main character or family (though Master of None, Aziz Ansari's Netflix show, touched on Ansari's Muslim roots in the second season). And while Speechless broke new ground for authentic disability representation, Zayid's status as co-creator of the show will push the boundaries on that front as well.

But first the show has to make it to air. Despite Zayid's fame as a comedian, and her creation of one of the most-watched TED talks in the program's history, Zayid reminds Pacific Standard that the odds for any show remain long. She and her team are writing the pilot now, and they'll film it in March. We spoke to her over the phone about her origins as a performer, and her goals with the new show.

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How did you decide to become a comedian?

My dream since I was five years old was to be on General Hospital. I studied theater at Arizona State University, then came back to the tri-state area and started auditioning. That's when I realized that people who looked like me didn't exist really on TV. There were some [disabled actors] like Geri Jewell, but really not like me. But I saw Richard Pryor, the original shaking brown comic, so I figured I'd just do comedy and get really famous. And it's kind of working out. If I have my own hit TV show on ABC primetime, General Hospital has to give me a cameo!

Is that what you told ABC?

When I walked into the meeting, I said, "I need you guys to make this show because it's the only thing that's gonna keep me out of an internment camp."

Describe the new show to me. Why Can Can?

The title Can Can is the idea. It's based on my dad's mantra, "You can do it, yes you can can." It's how he would cheer me on when I was a kid. This TV show is about a character defying the odds. She's someone that people depend on. She's a can-can girl.

I really want a show that reminds me of the shows and relationships I love—I Love Lucy, Laverne and Shirley, Rhoda and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Golden Girls, 227, Hot in Cleveland—really centered around friendship. Not a woman chasing a man, not a woman desperate to get married, but focused on her own life.

Will your character be named Maysoon, like Jerry Seinfeld playing Jerry Seinfeld? Is your character also a comedian?

She's totally fictional, but her mom and dad are based on my mom and dad. She's a restaurant reviewer. Her name is Muhammadia Ali, but they call me Mimi, which is a shout-out to [the musical] Rent. My parents were going to name me Muhammadia, but they thought I was going to die, so why waste such a great name?

Muhammad Ali inspired me as a Muslim kid growing up, and later as a performer, because he had Parkinson's and shook, just like me.

Is this a comedy about identity? About your identities as a disabled Muslim woman? Is it political?

Being Palestinian is inherently political, [but] it's funny first—really, really funny. I am super excited to see what I didn't see [on TV as a kid]. It's so rare we see a disabled person [who is] also a person of color; so rare we see an empowered Muslim woman, or a Jersey girl with style.

The story is just a single woman working on career, relationships, and family. She's single, Muslim, lives in Jersey. She has guys fighting over her, but her dating problems have nothing to do with disability. She just has very bad judgment.

How will Islam be portrayed in the show?

We're going to show the diversity within Islam. There are Muslim characters who are devout. People born Muslim who are completely atheist. Muslims who try to be good Muslims but sin all the time. I want to bring in the nuance and show Muslim women like me whose heads aren't covered.

This is a very, very American family. Muslims [on TV] are so otherized. I was born and raised in Jersey, [but] I am not used to seeing characters on TV who are Muslim who don't have accents.

Are you drawing from your life—telling stories about disability discrimination, for example?

We'll hit that in year three or four. For the first year, what I really wanted is a character who, if she was played by an actress who wasn't disabled, wouldn't be disabled. We're not writing in [disability], but that story will evolve.

What I really wanted to play with at the beginning is the idea [that] we're just mainstream. Some of us struggle; some of us don't. Some of us have great love lives; some don't. The things that hold [Mimi] back are more about who she "is" than what she "has." It's not a disappearance because there's no shame in my display of cerebral palsy. If she's walking, you'll see a limp, see her struggle with a fork. But it's only allowed to be an issue when the story dictates it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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