Diverse Family Inspires Comedian To 'Laugh Out Loud'

Her mom is an African American and her father is Swedish. Now couple this with her lawyer husband and her Jewish mother-in-law �" and it sounds like the beginning of a joke. That’s because it is. It’s the real-life story comedienne Sunda Croonquist. She chats to host Allison Keyes about her controversial performances, diverse family and whatever else is on her mind this holiday season.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

I'm Allison Keyes, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up we will hear from a Dineh Navajo Native-American band that rocks out. Blackfire will join us to talk about fighting oppression through music.

But first, it might sound a bit like a skit from the old Fox variety show, "In Living Color," but Sunda Croonquist's life is nothing sort of real.

(Soundbite of Comedy Routine)

Ms. SUNDA CROONQUIST (Comedienne): Black people want you to mind your business. You ever know that? That's the truth. Mind your business. That's not your business. You keep your business - that's your business. Mind your business. You minding my business? You better not be minding my business. Don't mind my business, right.

Jewish people tell all their business, all right? All their business, your business, everything. You can't - and they can't hear, it's unbelievable. It's really hard hanging out with your Jewish friends, you know? You can't whisper, like in L.A., you can't be like, oh, man, check it out, there's Halle Berry. Hairy Belly? Who has a hairy belly? What did she say? Who has a hairy belly?

KEYES: Her mother is African-American, and her father is Swedish. She says in New York people thought she looked Puerto Rican, and she converted to Judaism long before she even met her Jewish husband. The mix of religions, races and perceptions gives Sunda rich fodder for her comedy act which insults nearly everyone, and I mean everyone.

So on this Thanksgiving day instead of serving the usual turkey and pie, or tofu, we're serving up a plate of humor. It's healthier. And Sunda joins us now from our studios in Culver City, California. Welcome.

Ms. CROONQUIST: Well, glad to be here. Glad to be here and just can't wait to eat that turkey if one's not thrown at me.

KEYES: Speaking of things being thrown at you, wait, I've got to say happy Thanksgiving, so happy Thanksgiving.

Ms. CROONQUIST: Happy Thanksgiving to you too. Get your sweet potato pies on the table. Sweet potato pies and matzo balls, that's what we're going to have in my house.

KEYES: That sounds fabulous. But I've got to ask you, in your act, I mean, you pretty much mock everyone from the workers at Asian nail shops to African-American women and their hair weaves, to clueless white Beverly Hills women who are intrigued by your looks. The first time you walked out on stage, didn't that give you a little pause?

Ms. CROONQUIST: Well, you know the first time I walked out on stage I wasn't doing this act. I was doing - I was dating my husband at the time, so I was doing that dating routine, and...

KEYES: Oh, the clean and safe routine?

Ms. CROONQUIST: Oh, girl, please. I was out there in the miniskirt doing a Tina Turner impression. I don't know. I had lost my mind. And so I think it's everyone's fair game, and it's comedy, you know. It's nothing to hurt someone, it's comedy. And people have to lighten up a little bit, that's all.

KEYES: I mean, OK. I can see you on stage in some places in Brooklyn, and people would be coming across the table at you. I mean, do you ever get that total whip your head moment of where people are like what did she say?

Ms. CROONQUIST: They're like, well, it's OK though. You can do that, you have to know your audience. For example, someone said to me, I don't like your new routine. You know, I do a routine about a black nail salon. I said that, you know, after going to the Asian nail salons and being talked about in their language, I refused to go back and I'm going to black nail salons. And now, I said, ladies and gentlemen, I'm going right back to the Asian nail salons.

KEYES: Because, I ask?

Ms. CROONQUIST: They talked about me in English.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: You talk a lot about being a mom, and we're going to hear a little of that.

(Soundbite of Comedy Routine)

Ms. CROONQUIST: It's really awful when you have kids sometimes. I had two kids within two years, and there's a term for that, suicidal.

KEYES: I don't have kids, but I have friends that do. So I was thinking wow, that is hilarious. But your daughters are eight and nine now, right?

Ms. CROONQUIST: Oh, my God, yes. She just turned - the baby turned eight and the other one's nine, and I can't believe that - I can't believe I did that.

KEYES: How do they feel about this being your job?

Ms. CROONQUIST: They love it. As a matter of fact, this morning - it's Aviva and Tovah, and Tovah said to me, you know, mama, when you die, and I don't want you to die - she said, when you die, I will keep doing your comedy act. I said thank you. And my other daughter said, and I will bury you in Disneyland. So it's really difficult dealing with the kids. They're pretty funny themselves, I have to tell you that.

KEYES: I wonder whether you are trying to teach them anything with your jokes. I mean, I've read that you've said that you wanted them to be comfortable with all races and ethnicities, you know, and we've already talked about how that is a lot of your act. Are you hoping that they learn something from you?

Ms. CROONQUIST: Oh, they know a lot. They go back to Patterson, New Jersey, dodging bullets, visiting relatives, and they know that the world is not the Beverly Hills bubble that they got to school in. So I insist upon diversity.

They go to Debbie Allen Dance Academy. They go to gymnastics where there's all Russians. They know diversity. I insist they know diversity.

KEYES: I grew up on Chicago's South Side. So there were, shall we say, ethnic things that were said back and forth between people then. Your kids are everything. What do you teach them to say when people say something racial to them?

Ms. CROONQUIST: Oh my God, they haven't - they don't know it yet.

KEYES: They haven't run into that at all?

Ms. CROONQUIST: Not yet. You know what? I was at my cousin's birthday party in Patterson, and they were using the word, and I was like come on, you all, chill for a minute. You know what I mean? I was like my kids don't know. They're going to hear it - they're going to hear it because someone's going to say -they're going to - it's just going to happen. That's it. You know it and I know it. You're from Chicago, I'm from Patterson, you know they're going to hear it.

KEYES: Right.

Ms. CROONQUIST: But they haven't heard it yet.

KEYES: So do you have to prep them in any special way?

Ms. CROONQUIST: I don't prep them. They're just very proud to be African-American and I tell them they don't have to just side with one thing. You're also Jewish, you go to Jewish day school. But they know what they are. They don't have issues. There will be no imitation of life here.

KEYES: Before comedy you had a life...

Ms. CROONQUIST: I did.

KEYES: ...and it involved being a private detective. How on Earth did you get from there to here?

Ms. CROONQUIST: Well, my degree is in criminal justice. I have a degree from Seton Hall University, and I worked doing probation and parole review. That was part of the baccalaureate program then. And so then I met Vinnie Parco of Parco P.I. - got a TV show. Everybody's Hollywood, this is crazy. I can't even believe I was on these cases with him. And so we did covert and overt surveillance.

KEYES: So how'd you get from the sleuth thing to the giggling?

Ms. CROONQUIST: You know, it's the craziest thing. I was at a party and I met Jackie Mason. And I don't know, I was cracking jokes in his ear about people who were just coming up to him saying the most random things that weren't true. Oh, I loved you in this, I loved you in that. I said, Jackie, this guy hates you, you could tell. And he's laughing.

To make a long story short, you know, we go out to lunch, we talk about - he talks to me seriously about it. My husband, who I was still dating him at the time, he says, hon, if Jackie Mason tells you you're funny, maybe you're funny. I took a workshop in New York, Stand-Up Comedy Experience, went on stage three weeks later, first gig paid.

KEYES: That's like a miracle.

Ms. CROONQUIST: Yeah. In stand-up comedy, you better believe it.

KEYES: All righty. Sunda Croonquist is a comedienne. She is the co-host of "James and Sunda," a comedy program on Jewish Life Television and she joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Thanks so much, and happy Thanksgiving.

Ms. CROONQUIST: And you're welcome. Thank you for having me on.

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