Obiter Dicta

Family Fracas

Kvetch at your own peril

Posted Nov 1, 2010 3:20 AM CDT
By Brian Sullivan

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Many of us have a relative or two we’re not quite sure of—Why is Uncle Max talking to that vase?—but we understand that you can’t choose your family, at least not blood relatives. So we choose a mate very carefully. However, with marriage come in-laws, and that’s a wild card.

Let’s say you’re half-black and half-Swede, and you marry into a Jewish family. Let’s also say you happen to be a stand-up comedian. It seems inevitable that you’re going to riff on your in-laws. You know, cultural differences and such. So when Sunda Croonquist married real estate lawyer Mark Zafrin, who practices in Lake Success, N.Y., she got more than a husband—she got a whole new act.

Croonquist found her new mother-in-law to be an especially attractive target for her quips. Here she is imitating Ruth Zafrin’s Brooklyn-accented response upon meeting her future daughter-in-law: “The pleasure’s all mine. Have a seat.” Then, in an aside to her husband, “Elliott, put my pocketbook away.”

Though that might seem fairly tame by today’s standards, the act also included name-calling, profanity and expressions of contempt. Croonquist’s shtick soon wore thin with the Zafrins, and matriarch Ruth—along with her daughter and son-in-law, Shelley and Neil Edelman—sued Croonquist last year, claiming she had spoken of them in defamatory and derogatory ways that made them appear racist. They wanted material they considered offensive to be cut from her act and website.

The complaint states that Croonquist’s remarks were “malicious” and “based on her hatred toward [Mrs. Zafrin].” The plaintiffs sought unspecified damages.

In a ruling issued April 30, U.S. District Judge Mary Cooper said Croonquist’s jokes were opinion, not fact, and were therefore protected speech.

Croonquist remembers when everyone used to be a better sport about her act. “They played my tape at Passover one year,” she was quoted as saying, “and they loved it.”

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