No joke: Stand up comics get sued for offensive material

No joke: Stand up comics get sued for offensive material

Some of the most successful stand-up comics have a charismatic onstage persona, impeccable comic timing, and great material. In short, they’re excellent at delivering jokes. Any standup comic, however, will tell you that not all jokes will land. It’s great to be offensive yet funny, but being sued for jokes is a legal hassle to be avoided at all costs.

Finding material for a comedy act actually isn’t that hard. Stray observations, everyday encounters around your neighborhood, and personal anecdotes are a great source for a stand-up comedy. Even offensive humor can work up a crowd — it all depends on the delivery and the identity of the person telling the joke.

We’re no experts at making jokes, but as lawyers, we can offer some advice as to whether a joke will elicit laughs or lawsuits. If you’re aspiring to become the next great wit, try to learn a thing or two from these stand-up comics who got sued for their allegedly offensive material.

Jokes about one’s mother-in-law

It’s easy (even therapeutic) to make jokes about your in-laws especially when the audience is just your friends or colleagues. But when you tell in-laws jokes on a bigger stage like the neighborhood dive bar, the jokes tend to spread like wildfire and the subjects might get offended and sue.

Standup comic Sunda Croonquist mined rich material from living with her in-laws. There are so many jokes she could make about her lineage and upbringing because she is half-black and half-Swedish. And when she married a Jewish man, she grabbed the opportunity to write jokes around her marital circumstances. Her white mother-in-law Ruth Zafrin was initially fine with being used as a punchline in jokes of the “hide-my-pocketbook-so-the-black-girl-won’t-steal-it” variety. Mrs. Zafrin eventually resisted being the subject of the Jewish-are-stingy jokes, and in 2009 sued her daughter-in-law.

Ms. Croonquist’s sister-in-law, who was a co-defendant in the lawsuit, also took offense at being described as having a speaking voice that resembled the sound of a “cat in heat.” The New Jersey judge ruled in favor of the comedienne, saying that the cat in heat joke was protected speech and that the dig was ultimately a “colorful, figurative rhetoric that reasonable minds would not take to be factual.”

The Federal Court ruled in Ms. Croonquist’s favor, but it’s safe to assume that her in-laws have stopped inviting her to their Hanukkah celebrations.

Jokes about politicians’ campaign strategy

Many politicians are comedians although many of them are unaware of the fact. In some parts of the world, former comedians get elected to high government positions despite being woefully incompetent. But alas, entertainers are much beloved by the general public so they get voted into public office. But we digress.

In South Korea, certain politicians did not take kindly to the setlist of 26-year-old comic Choi Hyo-jong. In one skit, Mr. Hyo-jong was pretending to advise children on how they can win in elections. He told the kiddies to befriend the head of the ruling party, visit local markets and shake the hands of old ladies, eat their working-class soup, and make promises they can’t keep.

All things considered, these are actually pretty solid advice. But certain politicians were triggered. Policymaker Kang Yong-suk sued Mr. Hyo-jong purportedly on behalf of all politicians.

Being targeted by a former policymaker must not be fun at all for the comedic and political savant, but he did win the support of South Korea’s comedic community and fans of political commentary.

Jokes about your ex-spouse

One’s separation or divorce is devastating, but it can also be a rich source of comedy. Couples fighting over splitting marital assets like a massage chair and leftover peanut butter? Comedy gold!

British standup comic Louise Reay mined her separation for comedic material for her show Hard Mode, an act primarily about censorship and authoritarianism with at least two minutes’ worth of references to her ex-husband.

Ms. Reay has won awards for her comedy shows, so she’s probably good. Regardless, her husband was unmoved by her show which intimated that their relationship was abusive. He sought 30,000 British pounds in damages for breach of privacy and data protection, and demanded an injunction that will prevent her from publishing statements referencing him. His lawsuit seemed to have dealt a serious blow to Ms. Reay’s career and finances. She would have been at risk of being bankrupt had she lost the case. Thankfully, Ms. Reay’s ex-husband dropped the case and settled.

To sustain a career in stand-up comedy, you need many jokes and, in certain scenarios, a solid legal team. For matters concerning injuries at the workplace, around your neighborhood, or at an open mic night, contact Washington state personal injury attorneys Buckingham, LaGrandeur, & Williams for legal advice that never bombs. Call our Renton, Seattle offices – 425-228-6662.