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Comedians, courage, and truth in a world of online harassment

Zayid Maysoon Gotham
Maysoon Zayid performing at the Gotham Comedy Club in New York City. Photo by Basil Alafandi.

The first time I got back on stage after the tragedy of September 11 was on September 21, 2001 at Bananas Comedy Club in North Jersey. I introduced myself using my standard opening line at the time: “Hi, my name is Maysoon, and I am a Palestinian Muslim virgin with cerebral palsy from New Jersey. If you don’t feel better about yourself, maybe you fucking should.” I also made fun of the POTUS at the time, George W. Bush, that night. I made fun of W reading My Pet Goat and his delayed reaction to the fact that America was under attack. The centerpiece of my set was me shrieking, “Bush, Dick, Colin,” followed by my maniacal laugh.

I wasn’t the most evolved comic in my early days, and I was only two years into my comedy career when I witnessed September 11—from the Jersey side of the Hudson River. I hopped back on stage ten days later, still in shock and in mourning. I knew that being cinnamon and Muslim in the USA had drastically changed since my last show; yet I had no fear that night. It never crossed my mind that Bush & Company would jail me for joking about the president or for being utterly disrespectful, which I so often was. The First Amendment protected my right to comedy, and I was born in the USA. When our current president took over the Oval Office in January of 2009, I mercilessly mocked him too, and I definitely had no fear during the Obama years. I have traveled the world and done stand-up comedy in countries ruled by monarchs and dictators. I never censored myself, and even when I should have, I had no fear. 

In Jordan, I was begged by the producers not to say the Arabic word for whore because the king would be watching the show. I replaced it with dirty whore, which conveniently is one word in Arabic. This was long before I learned that slut shaming was basic and unfunny. I met the king right after, and he had absolutely no problem with my blue-collar comedy. In Ramallah, I mocked the Occupation and got standing ovations from my fellow Palestinians. In Egypt, I did a bit about the national airline flying the dirtiest, most unsafe planes I had ever taken. I joked that it was the first time my flapping CP arms came in handy because I was the only thing keeping the plane airborne. The name of the airline also included the Palestinian slang word for dick, so I mocked that too. Unbeknownst to me, the then dictator of Egypt owned the airline. The minister of tourism ran up on stage and began to swat at me. She was held back by comedians who had no idea they were tackling the very person who had invited us to Cairo. I laughed wildly the entire time. I had wicked food poisoning and wasn’t exactly in my right mind. That was in 2009; telling that joke today in Egypt would probably get me thrown in jail. The times have changed, and I must wonder: Is censorship in America near?

Since the rise of Trump, I’ve had the honor of being harassed online by his followers, who I lovingly refer to as the Trumpzis. For the first time in my career, I’ve had to have security at some of my shows stateside. I refuse to let their bullying silence me. After Hillary Clinton won the popular vote and Trump was crowned Mr. America, my friends began messaging me, begging me to be careful of what I said and posted. They knew I’d never comply. I chose not to censor my comedy in the Arab world, not because I had no fear of the ramifications, but because I simply did not care. I risked my life in the Middle East, and so there is no way I’d be voluntarily silenced in New York City.

If Trump and his minions started arresting comedians, would my fellow Americans do anything to stop it, or would they cheer, “Lock her up!" It wouldn’t be the first time a comic got thrown in the clinker for making the funny. Lenny Bruce was arrested for using the word cocksucker—a word which I’m sure Donald uses daily, since he’s such a fan of “locker room talk.” George Carlin got arrested at a Lenny Bruce show because he told the police he didn’t believe in government IDs. I don’t believe in being registered based on my faith—will that get me arrested soon? Mae West was jailed for ten days for writing, directing, and starring in a play called Sex. That was 1927. Now you can be an admitted sexual predator and still be selected for the most powerful job in the world. Times have changed. Or have they?

Today, comedians like Samantha Bee, Chelsea Handler, John Oliver, and Stephen Colbert are doing a lot more than just making people laugh. They are telling the hard truths at their own risk in a world flooded by fake news on social media. They pull no punches because all is fair in comedy. I never imagined I’d be forced to rock an orange jumpsuit when I mocked Bush, Dick, and Colin; but now my fear of orange is real. Newt Gingrich, the Goyle to Trump’s Malfoy, has suggested there be a committee to look into anti-American activities. Will standup comedians be considered traitors if they tell the hilarious yet frightening truth about our Angry Orange Leader? The Twitter Troll in Chief has repeatedly attacked Saturday Night Live for its spot-on spoof of his rise to power. Trump can’t take a joke or accept the fact the we the people have the right to roast him. It is impossible for me to censor my comedy. I can’t control what I say, not because I have cerebral palsy, but because it’s the American way. My microphone is my sword, and my voice is the only weapon I have against injustice. Supremacists are plotting a KKK coffee klatch in the oval office and I am going to joke about this nightmare, uncensored and un-spray-tanned. It is my unalienable right to do so—for now at least. Exercising my freedom of speech is the most American thing a comic like me can do.

More articles by Category: Arts and culture, Disability, Media, WMC Loreen Arbus Journalism Program
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