Take My In-Laws, Please!

Published: May 25th 2010
in Culture » Stage

Comedian Sunda Croonquist
Comedian Sunda Croonquist

Comedians everywhere breathed a sigh of relief earlier this month when a New Jersey judge ruled that mother-in-law jokes fall under protected free speech. But perhaps no one was more relieved than the woman at the centre of the controversy, comedian Sunda Croonquist.


“This is a victory for all comedians,” she told Shalom Life. “It goes way beyond the stereotype of the overbearing mother-in-law.”


It all began in April 2009, when the Beverly Hills-based comedian was served at her building with a lawsuit by her mother-in-law, sister-in-law and brother-in-law for poking fun at them in her act.


"You're entitled to make jokes about your family. My whole act is about my family: my mother, my father, my husband. [My in-laws are] not the only people who are included in the act," said Croonquist, who had converted to Judaism before she met her husband, who is Jewish. “All they had to do, honestly, is make a phone call. That's not the way you communicate with people. You don't have a lawyer send a letter. I mean, that's just craziness."


In her act, the comedian, who describes herself as half-Black and half-Swedish, jokes about her background and that of her husband’s family, including their initial reaction to meeting her: “When I met my mother-in-law for the first time, I realized that Jews can’t whisper, because I met her and I said, ‘It’s such a pleasure meeting you,’ and she said, ‘Have a seat, Elliot put my pocketbook away.’”


 She also compares her sister-in-law’s voice to that of a cat in heat.  


“When we were talking, she loved it. Everybody was fine with it. Then one day it just snowballed into something horrible,” she said. “Obviously, my in-laws haven’t been fans for a long time.”


Speaking on the phone from Beverly Hills, she said that if the ruling had gone the other way, “I think that comedians across the world would unite in protest.”


After all, the mother-in-law joke has universal appeal, does it not?


Even US District Court Judge Mary L. Cooper thought so. In her 21-page ruling dismissing the suit on all counts, she wrote that jokes are opinion and not fact, and therefore protected under the First Amendment.


“Do you know what this would have done to comedians? Don’t think they were not all thinking about it,” said Croonquist, who did her homework on the matter and could find only one real life parallel: In 1965, comedian Phyllis Diller’s ex’s family attempted to sue her under similar circumstances and lost.


Croonquist said that it has not been a pleasurable experience. Even though the controversial case has generated much publicity, making her a household name of sorts  – she’s been interviewed everywhere, including the Today Show, E! Entertainment, CNN, and the Joy Behar Show – she said that the suit has actually negatively affected her career. She’s been dropped from multiple fundraisers, including one for her old high school in New Jersey. Her kids, who attend a Jewish day school, have also been very embarrassed.


“You can’t make a Mohammed joke. You can’t make a mother-in-law joke. This is enough,” she said.


Related articles: (comdian, comedy, mother-in-law, beverly hills, joke, in-laws, New Jersey, Swedish)
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