Who's laughing now?

A mother-in-law sues over mother-in-law jokes -- but does she have a case?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 28, 2009 7:29PM (EDT)

It's the oldest routine in the standup comic's repertoire – the crazy mother-in-law. And Sunda Croonquist has plenty of material – as she says, "I'm a black woman with a Jewish mother-in-law. You know the only thing we have in common is that we don't want to get our hair wet." But her mother-in-law isn't laughing – she recently sued the comedian for the family-oriented cracks in her act.

A story that appeared earlier this week in the New Jersey Law Journal reported that Ruth Zafrin, her daughter Shelley Edelman, and son-in-law Neil filed suit in New Jersey District Court against the Los Angeles comic, alleging she "depicts them in a false light with intent to harm." They're asking unspecified damages and an order to remove "offensive statements" from her blog, routines and recordings.

Croonquist, like most comics who don't rely on smashing watermelons for laughs, draws heavily on her personal life for inspiration. With her black mother, Swedish father, and Jewish husband, it's inevitable her act would be racially charged. Onstage, she does an over-the-top re-creation of meeting "Ruthie," who looks her up and down and squawks to a relative to "Put my pocketbook away."

 Appearing on the "Today Show" yesterday, Croonquist declared she initially thought the suit was "a joke," proving that perhaps Bubbe should consider developing her own act. Croonquist went on to say, "It's my family, it's my reality."

At first glance, one could dismiss Zafrin as just a humorless drip who can't take a joke. Croonquist's lawyer – who works for her attorney husband Mark Zafrin's firm -- told reporters this week that "they don't have a leg to stand on. There is nothing to stop someone from saying, 'I can't stand my mother-in-law.'"

But the case isn't that simple. Croonquist's act isn't a mere series of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" potshots. She identifies her extended family by name in her act and online, working in gags about "My name is Shelley Edelman and I'm the president of my temple in Marlboro, New Jersey." It's that exposure, along with the depiction of her husband's family as a pack of shrill racists, that could make the case for slander.

So does this mean that one lawsuit-happy trio could have a chilling effect on edgier comedy? Are we the audience going to be sentenced to an onslaught of tame, Bill Cosby-esque whimsical observations? Highly unlikely. Most comics – the ones who are any good, anyway – learn early how to mine their personal lives while maintaining a level of protection for others. Watch Louis CK or Chris Rock demolish with their jibes about their relationships and families, and you probably don't even notice that the people they're speaking about are never named.

But even when it goes more directly for the jugular, comedy is a well-protected province. In 2005, veteran New York talk show host Joe Franklin failed to see the humor in Sarah Silverman's deadpan "Joe Franklin raped me" punch line in "The Aristocrats" and threatened to sue for defamation. The controversy sputtered out before it ever got off the ground. And this spring, a London judge dismissed a suit against Sacha Baron Cohen filed by a woman who claimed the British comic had used her name in a defamatory way in a sketch on his "Da Ali G Show."

But Croonquist may have the last laugh. Prior to this week she was just another working but not terribly well known comedian whose act, a series of heavily accented "I'm from the hood!" one-liners, could hardly be considered groundbreaking. Today she's an in-demand interviewee who's appearing this weekend at Standup NYC. Not bad, especially considering that two of the big movies opening today star standup comics – Patton Oswald's "Big Fan" and Demetri Martin's "Taking Woodstock." Meanwhile, a judge is scheduled to hear the suit on Sept. 8, ten days before the start of Rosh Hashanah. No word on who's bringing the tzimmes to the Zafrin festivities.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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