Comic tells one too many mother-in-law jokes, gets sued by MIL

Stand-up comic Sunda Croonquist, who is half Swedish and half black, has spent years climbing up the comedy circuit by mining her fractured family tree for laughs. Her humorless mother-in-law, though, has decided to jump into the act and fulfill her comedy stereotype in an unexpected way: She's suing for defamation.

In a case that goes before the U.S. District Court in New Jersey on Sept. 8, Ruth Zafrin is suing her son's wife for "false, defamatory, and racist" gags about her. Croonquist's sister- and brother-in-law joined the suit, too, which was filed in April and seeks damages.

Croonquist, who was raised Catholic, converted to Judaism to marry Zafrin's son. Hilarity ensued. Everything was cool until, as so often happens, social media intruded: Croonquist posted something on her website that made it easier for fans to connect her mother-in-law's identity with the exaggerated mother-in-law that was spoofed on stage at places like the Laugh Factory.

How savage were Croonquist's jokes? She has removed all of them from her act pending the judge's ruling, but here's a sample that was culled from earlier recordings: "'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.'"

I don't know about you, but it's not my racial sensitivity that's offended by one-liners like that.

Is it a big publicity stunt? Could be, except two months ago on her blog, Croonquist said that she won't discuss it anymore. Silence would be an odd tactic for a publicity stunt, but in declining to speak further about the matter, Croonquist did allow for one more family-based rib: "It's not every day a comedian is sued by their in-laws! Most people pick up a phone if they don't like a joke. Let's focus on the good things on life like my children's shoe addiction...actually, I passed that on!!!"

Many comics make fun of their family. It's one of the biggest, most reliable hammers in the comedy toolbox, and almost no sane audience member takes those depictions literally. From Henny Youngman to Ray Romano to Margaret Cho, stand-ups have always mined major laughs out of outsized family foibles. In their acts, every one of those comics ladled on plenty of self-deprecation, too.

If this case succeeds -- and given legal precedents that protect satire, it's not likely to -- then Jerry Seinfeld's family could be in for a major windfall. For that matter, so could half of Century Village.

The real laugh may end up being on Zafrin once again. If Croonquist's star rises because of this unwanted publicity, she won't share in any of the riches. And that's really not funny.

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