by Ryan Meehan
Sunda Croonquist started out her career with a “Pageant Mom” who propelled her onto the stage at the age of 3 where she was a tap dancer with the Sandra Lee Dance Studio in New Jersey. After a chance meeting at a party, Jackie Mason suggested she head to the stage as a stand up comedian and she went from representing New Jersey as a runner up in the Miss America Pageant to being named NJ’s Funniest Female before landing roles on television and eventually getting her own talk show: “James and Sunda” which airs weekly on JLTV (Jewish Life Television) Hailed in the NY Daily News as being: “The only female comic that makes Jerry Lewis laugh”, Sunda still performs stand up in her weekly show “All Star Comedy” and hosts “Laugh Factory Moms” Podcast at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood. She is also the radio host of “Mother-tainment” on RadioTitans.com. Wife of an attorney and mother of two ‘tween aged daughters gives this talented mother more material than most when you take into consideration that: “When you’re Swedish and Black and you look like a Puerto Rican with an Italian step-father and a Jehovah’s Witness mom who loves Country Western music and sells Mary Kay while cheating on Amway sends you to an Irish Catholic School with a Hindu first name. You’re bound to be different!” Sunda’s experiences, from the housing projects of Paterson, NJ to the mansions of Beverly Hills has made her the story of America, truly making her stand out from other talk show hosts. She’s been featured on most stand up comedy shows and television’s top talk shows including: “The Today Show”, “Nick Moms”, Entertainment Tonight, Oprah’s “OWN” and “The Doctors” to name a few and was recently featured on “The View”. This “Jersey Girl” never forgets her roots and often returns to New Jersey where she is the Chairperson for “Laugh Off!”, an event that brings awareness to Gilda’s Club of Northern, NJ. In her own words, “Comedy was exciting and catapulted my career but now, being a mother and teaching my daughters to “give back” is what excites me most.” Sunda’s life is dripping with drama, and although she’s no desperate housewife she’s everybody’s friend. Once you watch her in action with her infectious laugh you can’t stop watching, and we’re delighted to have her as our guest today in 10 questions.
RM: How did you end up meeting comedy legend Jackie Mason? Was there something specific he said about your personality and sense of humor that led you to believe that you might be good at doing stand-up? How much time passed after that encounter before you began to write jokes of your own?
SC: I met Jackie Mason at a party in Manhattan hosted by a friend of mine, Jerry Martin. Everyone was coming over to Jackie and telling him how much they loved his TV show “Chicken Soup”. Note that the show had been cancelled at this point and his “fans” at this party said – in my opinion – the most hurtful and ridiculous things to him. “Why don’t you do another show?” “Do you know my rabbi? He knows you!” “I remember you on Ed Sullivan! You gave it to him! Too bad it hurt your career…” The list goes on and I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. I started my “snapping” on this crew and he cracked up! Then he said those words that changed my game: “Are you a stand-up?” I told him I was a “serious actress” and he told me I needed to go on stage. We met for lunch and talked about it and he totally won me over. My fiance – no husband – told me “If Jackie Mason says you’re funny, maybe you should do what he says!” I took a workshop with the American Comedy Institute and got my first paid gig within weeks. Still encouraging, Jackie came to one of my first “Femmes Fatales” shows on Broadway at the Double Tree Hotel, “Page Six” of the NY Post gave him a mention. I was honered that he came to the show. I owe it all to that crazy party that I ever got on a stage…Had I never met Jackie Mason, I would probably have never taken the jump.
RM: When did you first begin compiling the material that would eventually become your book “Kosher Soul Food”? Did that project turn out to be more or less labor intensive than you had originally expected?
SC: “Kosher Soul Food” represents the compilation of my life, giving the reader insight as to what led me down this road less traveled…along with culinary quips. My life experiences inspired me to do this cookbook. I had a development deal with Marc Cherry (of Desperate Housewives) working title “Kosher Soul” but entitled “The two Mrs. Goldsteins” based on my life and intense relationship with my mother-in-law Ruth Zafrin. This is where “Kosher Soul” began. Despite our differences, my mother in law was very inspirational when it came to Kosher cooking and helped me learn the rules of “Kashrut”.
RM: As a woman of mixed ethnicity, I’m guessing you’ve fallen victim to a fair share of prejudice throughout your life…What is the most important thing you’ve learned from all of the negative experiences you’ve had as a result of your ethnic background?
SC: As a mixed woman I’ve fallen victim to a fair share of prejudice throughout my life, but the most important thing I’ve learned is to never be ashamed of what you are. I have cousins that live in the panhandle of Florida who wave their Confederate flag with pride, and they are my blood. I love them. My other side is black and I was raised with an old-fashioned grandmother with her “ladylike Southern Belle” rules from Georgia. As a mixed race person I can tell you that when people feel comfortable with one side of me, they often make disparaging remarks without a level of sensitivity to my other side…That I may be offended. I’d have it no other way. I think mixed race people are going to cure racism. It’s pretty hard to hate someone when you can’t figure out what they are! Side note: On the East Coast I take a lot of hits on being Puerto Rican but in LA they totally think I’m Iranian. It’s a trip!
RM: You made headlines all over the world a few years back when you were sued by your sister-in-law as well as your mother-in-law for defamation in regards to jokes you made about that side of your family in your stand-up act…How much of that lawsuit do you think was a result of personal differences you had with those two individuals prior to them seeing the jokes in question, and how much of it do you think was due to them being genuinely offended by the stories that you told? At that point in time did they have any kind of understanding about how the world of stand-up comedy operates?
SC: My mother-in-law (may she rest in peace) was prompted by my sister-in-law to sue me. She could have left it alone when I said I’m drop them from my act, but they went further and wanted restitution to the tune of $9,000. That was $6,000 for my sister and brother-in-law and $3,000 for my mother-in-law, like they needed the money! It upset me so much that they “priced” my comedy! At that point I lost it completely and said “Take me to court” and they did and lost. I want the world to know I did love my mother-in-law or let’s just say we had our own relationship and we were okay until that lawsuit! But again, know that we made up before she passed on. There was always a strained relationship as there was an element of shame associated with the fact that my husband had brought home a Jewish woman with the wrong skin tone, so that’s the back story in a nutshell. Also never believe that all publicity is good publicity. It didn’t help my career in the least! That lawsuit was embarrassing and it’s historic. Isn’t that sad?
RM: I want to talk about that word “offended” for just a minute…These days there seems to be quite the rush to jump on anyone or anybody that uses certain buzzwords or street terminology in a manner that others may deem to be offensive…Do you think that
there are reasons other than the rise of the internet and social media that people seem to be much more sensitive to certain triggers than they were back in the eighties and nineties?
SC: I do believe that with the rise of the internet and social media. People are prone to be more sensitive about race, religion and politics because so many people can hide and spew racism without any ramification behind a computer screen. You don’t know what it does to people on the other end. Case in point is the tragedy with that news anchor. Such madness, but there has to be some decorum. I’m a little old school because I’m not okay with everyone saying the “N word”. I know, when you put an “A” at the end it means it’s not offensive, but I take offense. Especially when you’re a blonde haired blue eyed boy who will never know what that negative terminology meant and how psychologically crippling it was for black people for years. This social media thing – as good as it is – can be dangerous. I don’t want to be sued again! Look how long it took me to get back to you with my answers to your questions! It’s like walking on hot coals. You must watch what you say because it’s on the internet – somewhere – forever. I’ve had enough hi-jinks with some of my “followers”! I’m fortunate that the Laugh Factory in Hollywood has great security as I’m always looking over my shoulder during my Saturday Night show. That’s just who I am.
RM: You appeared on the cult Fox News Channel show “Red Eye with Tom Shillue” back in early August, and were seated next to self described “professional left wing chew-toy” John Devore…What was the most enjoyable aspect of getting the chance to do that program; and how would you best describe your own personal political beliefs when it comes to a majority of social and economic issues?
SC: It was enjoyable to be on “Red Eye with Tom Shillue” in August, and the most enjoyable aspect was to work with Tom as we started our careers at the same time on the New York City comedy circuit. I am so proud of him and also his intelligence. Regarding me being seated next to self-described “professional left wing chew-toy” John DeVore, now that was interesting! I received many emails from my female fans and not just because they enjoyed me or Tom, but wanted to know if John was married! So funny! It was enjoyable to be a part of a political show and still have fun with it. When it comes to my own personal political beliefs regarding the majority of social and economic issues it’s not pretty: I don’t understand why we don’t have a war on…cancer. I mean a real war. I personally have never heard one candidate talking about the war on cancer…but it’s here and it’s real and time for politicians to go head on and beat it down! People tell me cancer isn’t a political issue, but if abortion is and it is still being considered a “personal choice”, then cancer better damn well be up there on that political totem pole. America has forgotten what it means to be American and we have to take care of our own country. Youths are a hot mess who care more about their following on social media than their education. Their addiction with social media has taken over the ability to verbally communicate, cohesively! I experience this personally when I ask my daughters to answer my phone and they freeze when they have to “take a message”! Because of course that means talking and communicating with someone and we all know that it’s much easier to text than talk. We have to educate our America. With education there would be less room for the abortion debate because sexually active young adults would have a clue as to how they would protect themselves from not only pregnancy but STDs as well. It’s an epidemic! Teen pregnancies are ridiculous.
RM: For those who aren’t familiar with “James and Sunda”, what makes that program different from other talk shows with similar target demographics? What do we need to know about your co-host; and why do you think the two of you work so well together within that medium?
SC: James and Sunda is very unique…It’s a nice Jewish boy from Long Island sitting with and edgy black woman who hails from one of the toughest cities in the nation yet is able to relate to everyone. I’m not a typical talk show host: I’m a Swedish and black-rednecked Jew raised by an Italian who went to Catholic School from kindergarten through college…I know the world. My co-host is wonderful, he has a PSY.D in psychology and is a stand-up comedian…The best of both worlds. I’m all over the place and he’s my center. He speaks Yiddish, I speak Spanish and a little Italian, so I’m the comedic chameleon and he’s James Harris…Handsome, engaging, calm and patient. I’m none of the above and I dare to wear sequins…while he’s in a suit. I also play a myriad of characters that are way out of range. From Beyonce to Kim Kim the Korean Convert…We are way out of line, yet we seem to have a large demogrpahic of Christian viewers who love our material. Just because we are on a Jewish Network doesn’t mean we can’t satisfy everyone’s comic curiosity. We work well otgether for the above stated reasons: Opposites attract and that means a lot to our audience.
RM: You worked as a probation and parole review officer in Newark, and have a BA in Criminal Justice…Have there been any instances in your stand-up career where you’ve been able to apply any of the psychological tactics you’ve learned in that profession towards handling hecklers?
SC: Having a background in criminal justice, having done probation and parole review in Newark, New Jersey…It lets me have a clear read of an audience. Some people come to a comedy club to be heard and not to listen. These are the ones who have “living room balls” and could never go on stage.
RM: Which portion of the comedic writing process do you dread the most and why? Conversely, which step of the procedure would you consider to be your specialty? Why do you think you excel at that particular facet of your craft?
SC: The portion of the comedic writing process I dread the most is physically sitting and writing comedy. I’ve been told by professionals that I am a writer…one who writes while on stage and that describes my specialty. It’s just retaining all that information! One day I’d love to sit down and listen and write out all my tapes from “pop up” shows where I just riffed as opposed to my core act. Most people have joke books. I have joke walls. You will find jokes or ideas written in lipstick on my mirror or on a wall. I definitely write from my heart and experience and since it’s real, I don’t forget it.
RM: What “do you think is the key to maintaining a healthy balance of career and family? Has your strategy towards maintaining that balance changed over the course of the last fifteen years?
SC: I am the antithesis of the Hollywood housewife. I’m so behind in so many facets of my professional life but would never give up family for fame. My kids used to come on the road with me and yes, I had a nanny but she couldn’t breast feed and the show must go on so it did. Looking back I have no regrets to not embracing show business and motherhood simultaneously at 100%. I can’t see how I could have been funny wondering how my kids were doing or what they were doing. I couldn’t miss their first words, or their first steps.
RM: What’s up next for you in the remainder of 2015 and beyond? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
SC: Sunda Croonquist is growing up! This means I can leave my teenage kids at home with their dad when I’m on the road. He’s a lawyers so he’s better at homework, anyway. And I have to say that I am probably one of the luckiest women in show business to live such a wonderful life with this man who is allowing me to do what I do and encourages me. Probably because he wants my talk show syndicated so that he can retire but that’s my future. I see my talk show being totally unique next season. I also am going to do another book as only Sunda Croonquist can talk about everything from the Pope to Shabbos dinner.
Official Website: http://www.sundalive.com/
Sunda on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Sunda-Croonquist/132903614428
Sunda on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sundalynn
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