— Comedian Sunda Croonquist has been getting big laughs making ethnic-stereotype jokes about her husband’s family — but it’s no laughing matter for them. In fact, Croonquist’s Brooklyn-based mother-in-law has a zinger of her own for the former beauty-pageant queen from New Jersey: a defamation lawsuit.
“She doesn’t want any jokes about her anymore,” Croonquist told Al Roker on TODAY Thursday. “I was shocked and sickened by it. I thought it was a joke.”
But mother-in-law Ruth Zafrin is dead serious about the suit, which claims Croonquist’s act makes her and her family appear racist. The funny thing is, Zafrin’s own son Mark is having his New York law firm defend his wife against the action, which alleges that the comedian made false and “highly offensive” statements about the Zafrins, leaving them open to ridicule.
Brawl in the family
Zafrin's daughter, Shelley, and son-in-law, Neil Edelman, who live in Morganville, N.J., are co-plaintiffs in the action. Mark Zafrin told the press that his sister and brother-in-law “never even picked up the phone” to complain about the jokes before they took the matter to court.
Comic Croonquist is trying to keep her sense of humor: “Somebody has to pay for this,” she joked about retaining her husband’s firm to defend her in court. But she also admitted to Al Roker that the suit put a strain on their marriage when it was first filed in U.S. District Court in New Jersey in April.
Furious at being perpetual punch lines, Croonquist’s in-laws are seeking unspecified damages and demanding that the court force the comedian to remove offensive statements from her comedy act, Web site and recordings. They filed the suit after seeing material on Croonquist’s Web site, which they claim makes it easy to identify them as the butt of her jokes.
The comedian said her routine is a natural extension of her multiracial background, and that she bases many of her jokes on the natural culture-clash moments that occur within families of mixed backgrounds. “It’s my reality,” she told Roker.
Clash of the cultures
Croonquist is half-Swedish and half African-American (“which makes me Puerto Rican!” she quipped on TODAY). She has a Hindu first name and a Roman Catholic education, but converted to Judaism and has kept a kosher home since she married her husband 15 years ago. They have two daughters who are being raised Jewish.
Croonquist’s act includes jokes about her many encounters with her husband’s family over the years, like her first visit to her mother-in-law’s house. She gave Roker a sample: “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.’ ”
She told Roker her mother-in-law “enjoyed it in the beginning,” and that she cannot understand why her in-laws filed the suit now. But the comedian has her theories. “I guess since Barack won, everything broke loose,” she joked. “Maybe they don’t like Swedes.”
On a more serious note, Croonquist said that despite her obvious commitment to Judaism, she has suffered through painful incidences of exclusion from her husband’s family. “It’s not been easy,” she told Roker. “I’ve been asked to step out of family photos. I guess I’m just not right for the bar mitzvah picture.”
The comedian said that she has been the brunt of her in-laws’ jokes as well. “They made jokes at my expense. Not on stage, but in temple.”
Croonquist said she hasn’t talked to her mother-in-law since the lawsuit was filed, but sent her flowers from her children on Mother’s Day and added that she is most upset by the fact that her daughters “won’t be having Pesach or Passover with their bubbe [grandmother].”
Croonquist told Roker that she’s hoping for a reconciliation with her husband’s family: “That’s what black people do, they try to bring families together,” she said. “When Jewish people say they’re not talking anymore … they’re not talking anymore.”
She added that she has one message for her mother-in-law: “Ruth, it’s just not that serious. Call me! I need a new recipe.”