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Joking aside, Maysoon Zayid teaches lessons of inclusion

ASU's first comedian-in-residence aims to help university become most accessible in nation


Woman using air quotes.

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February 01, 2016

When Maysoon Zayid presented the most watched TED Talk of 2014, she spoke of a turning point in her career: her senior year studying theater at Arizona State University.

That year, Zayid auditioned for the role of a girl with cerebral palsy.

“I was a girl with cerebral palsy, so I was convinced that I was finally going to get the part. And I didn’t get the part,” she said. In that moment, Zayid more closely understood the challenges facing disabled performers.

Now, the stand-up comedian, co-founder of the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, Hollywood actress and global advocate for equality is back in ASU’s classrooms, this time as a faculty member and comedian-in-residence — thought to be the first role of its kind for a university.

Man in an interesting pose.

Graduate acting student Mike Largent performs a special character he has been developing during his stand-up comedy class with Maysoon Zayid at the Nelson Fine Arts Center in Tempe on Jan. 28.

Photos by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

“I decided to come back because one of the most influential people in my life was my theater teacher at Arizona State University, [director and Tony Award nominee] Marshall Mason. I believe that if I had not been taught by Marshall Mason I would not have even become a comedian. He set me on the path I made to use comedy as my way into entertainment,” she said, marveling at how the campus has changed since her graduation in 1996. “It’s really amazing to be back here 20 years later. I call it my triumphant return.”

During her residency, which is co-sponsored by the ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and ASU Gammage, Zayid (pictured above during class) is teaching a stand-up course for students majoring in any discipline, leading workshops (including one on Feb. 2) and moderating a comedy competition featuring celebrity judges.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said film student Robert Rossfeld, who is a member of Zayid’s class. “It’s a really nice atmosphere where everybody feels comfortable. I feel myself learning every day and leaving class a little stronger. It’s great.”

On the weekends, Zayid is on tour. She is working alongside her students to develop jokes, and she says she has more new material now than she has had in years.

In addition, Zayid is hosting a weekly web series, “Advice You Don’t Want to Hear,” in which she answers questions submitted from the ASU community. Her first pieces of advice are to compete with one’s self, not with others, and to let things go — or, if one can’t let go, to find help.

What she says she is most excited for is “Disability Festivus,” a sequence of open and welcoming meetings for students of all abilities to discuss their experiences on campus, learn to advocate for themselves, find encouragement to take advantage of the university’s disability resources and — importantly — be what Zayid calls “loud and proud” of who they are.

“I’m not just here to do comedy. I’ve put my shaky hand in the hand of ASU’s because we dream of making this the most accessible campus in the nation — if not the world,” Zayid said, noting that she thinks ASU is doing a fantastic job of making people from diverse backgrounds feel comfortable.

As part of that ambition, Zayid is working with ASU’s Disability Resource Center to introduce live captioning — a real-time transcription of spoken sounds and words for the deaf and hard of hearing — at her events. She wants to model that including others who may seem different makes “everything much more vibrant, and much more educational and much more fun.”

“We are so fortunate to have Maysoon back at ASU and telling her story,” said Jake Pinholster, associate dean of policy and initiative and professor of performance design in the Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts. “She demonstrates how comedy can bring people together — even if they don’t originally think they have much in common.”

“It’s something old, something new — that’s what I feel about coming back to ASU. The fine arts and music buildings are very familiar to me, but what I think is so different is the fact that the campus is so diverse. I’m amazed,” Zayid said. “I’m really proud to be back here because, in the past decade, ASU has really revolutionized itself. I think now ASU has become a school that people really want to go to because it’s so innovative, it has such an incredible staff and it has a guest comedian-in-residence.

“What more could you ask for?”

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