It sounds like perfect fodder for a comic working the improv scene. A Jewish woman who is half African American and half Swedish is being sued by her Jewish in-laws because, they claim, she made them sound like racists in her stand-up comedy act. Oh, and by the way, the woman’s husband’s law firm is representing her against her husband’s own mother. This all may seem like a set-up to a great punchline, but for Los Angeles-based comedian Sunda Croonquist, “It’s not funny.”
The case involves issues of free speech and fair-comment performance rights on one side, and charges of the worst kind of defamation on the other. Some could argue that it’s also a family matter involving hurt feelings that has spiraled out of control.
Croonquist was born in Paterson, N.J., holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and has been working on stage since a chance meeting with Jackie Mason at a party in New York, where the comedic legend told her she should seriously consider a career in stand-up. Croonquist converted to Judaism before ever meeting her husband, Mark Zafrin, and keeps a kosher home with him in Los Angeles. She has been doing parts of her current act onstage for more than 10 years.
Last April, Croonquist was sued by her husband’s sister and his sister’s husband, Shelley and Neil Edelman. Her mother-in-law, Ruth Zafrin, joined the suit approximately a month later, all of them claiming, among other things, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and demanding that she stop using them in her act. The suit claims that Croonquist crosses the line between comedy and slander by, they believe, depicting them as racist, and they claim she makes public their private lives.
The jokes in question include Croonquist’s declaration: “I am a black woman with a Jewish mother-in-law, and that’s a problem.” She also tells a story about the first time she met Ruth Zafrin: “I walk in, I say, ‘Thank you so much for having me here, Ruthie.’ She says, ‘The pleasure’s all mine, have a seat.’” Then, [in a loud aside], ‘Harriet, put my pocketbook away.’”
Croonquist says her in-laws have seen her act and laughed along with the audience. According to the legal papers, her in-laws’ complaint arose when Croonquist allegedly posted information on her Web site that made them easily identifiable. In addition, the Edelmans and Ruth Zafrin claim that Croonquist’s statements about them are false and misrepresent their characters and their beliefs. In the complaint, they also state that Ruth Zafrin received an e-mail from a friend informing her that she was in Croonquist’s blog entry.
Croonquist argues that joking about family matters has been the comic’s livelihood since the beginning of time. She says she has been entertaining audiences with jokes like these for decades, and no relatives are immune. Her act also includes mention of her infamous “Uncle Junie,” as well as a bit on the first time she took her Jewish husband to an African American family reunion. “They’re not the only family members in my act,” Croonquist said in an interview in the lobby of her apartment building in Los Angeles.
Her husband commented, “I could not believe that my sister and brother-in-law were unable to pick up the phone if they were upset about something. I am still amazed about their behavior.”
Neither the Edelmans, nor Ruth Zafrin, nor their attorneys would return calls asking for comment.
“I have to act like it’s OK, but it’s chilling,” Croonquist said. She continues to perform her act on stage on Saturday nights at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood, and continues to be the chairperson for the annual “Laugh Off” for Gilda’s Club, a cancer support group; she is also currently touring the country with The Raging Jews of Comedy and will perform in Los Angeles with them early next year.
Croonquist admitted the situation is painful and said it affects her performances. “I don’t have the same passion I had for stand-up anymore. And that’s sad.” Despite the pain, however, Croonquist insists she will keep using the same material “until they tell me I can’t.”
Croonquist’s lawyer, Robert Ontell of Abrams, Fensterman, et al, insists, “There’s nothing that is defamatory about what [Croonquist] said. It’s all opinion and said in jest. It’s either on a comedy Web site or in a comedy act. The law is pretty clear that that’s not defamation.”
In spite of everything, Croonquist maintains, “I don’t hate her [Ruth Zafrin]. She’s my kids’ grandmother.” Croonquist and her husband have two daughters, Tovah, 7, and Aviva, 8.
When asked how the lawsuit has affected his relationship with his family, Zafrin replied, “What relationship? A normal family member, if upset by comments made by another family member, would vent, yell and scream and that would be the end of it. They have demonstrated to me their total lack of interest in myself, my daughters and my wife.”
On top of the personal ramifications for both Croonquist and her family, Ontell said, this lawsuit has the potential to set a dangerous legal precedent for what comedians can and cannot say. “Family is where a lot of comedians get their material from, and if they’re censored for what’s clearly not stretching the truth or not supposed to be taken seriously, that’s a slippery slope that we will go down,” Ontell said.
The lawsuit could open comedians up to concerns they have not yet faced. In fact, word is already starting to spread. “Comedians are coming to me telling me that now their mothers-in-law don’t want to be in their acts,” Croonquist said.
Although the lawsuit is taking its toll on everyone involved, Croonquist remains a comedian at heart, pointing out, “When Ray Romano made fun of his family, he didn’t get sued — he got a sitcom.”
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