This week, Donald Trump sued comedian Bill Maher over an offer that the Real Time host made to donate $5 million to charity if Trump released his birth certificate to prove he's not "the spawn of his mother having sex with an orangutan." Trump procured the document within a few days of Maher's fairly obvious joke on The Tonight Show, but Maher did not, much to Trump's dismay, hold up his end of the "deal." Of course, Maher isn't the first comedian whose punchline inspired litigiousness. A look at other funny people who were hit with lawsuits:
1. George Carlin
The celebrated humorist and stand-up comedian became an official comedy legend when he joined that small group of comics to be detained for performing their material. Police in Wisconsin arrested Carlin in 1972 for allegedly violating obscenity laws when he did his signature "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television" act at Summerfest, a music festival. A judge later dropped the case against Carlin. The following year, WBAI in New York aired the uncensored bit and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) hit the broadcaster with a fine that was upheld by the Supreme Court. The case established the "safe harbor" time zone (10 p.m. to 6 a.m.) in which indecent material could be broadcast without fear of young children being exposed to it.
2. Sunda Croonquist
Mothers-in-law are prime targets in stand-up, but Sunda Croonquist's mother-in-law, Ruth Zafrin, did not appreciate the attention. In 2009, Zafrin filed a lawsuit against her daughter-in-law for making false and "highly offensive" comments about Zafrin and members of her family. Zafrin's daughter and son-in-law were also co-defendants in the lawsuit. Croonquist did have one member of the family she married into on her side: Her husband's New York law firm represented her in court. Croonquist, who is half Swedish and half black, told the Today Show that her bit included a description of the first time she met her future mother-in-law, who is white. The comedian says in her act that Zafrin welcomed her into her home, and then said to a family member "Harriet, put my pocketbook away." Croonquist said the lawsuit came as quite a surprise to her and her husband since Zafrin "enjoyed" the jokes in the beginning. A U.S. District court judge later dismissed the lawsuit. See the bit below:
3. Katt Williams
The star of comedy specials such as The Pimp Chronicles and It's Pimpin' Pimpin' was never sued for something he performed on stage. It's what he didn't do on stage that got him served. After Williams had an on-stage meltdown during a 2012 performance in Oakland, Calif., an audience member sued Willams for his "non-performance." According to the lawsuit, Williams spent a total of 10 minutes on the stage in which he "confronted a heckler, took his clothes off and attempted to fight at least three audience members." The suit not only sought reimbursements for tickets, parking, and transportation fees, but also punitive damages caused by Williams' "acts herein alleged with malice or reckless indifference." See part of the performance in question below. (WARNING: It's full of explicit material.)
4. Choi Hyo-jong
The South Korean comedy star earned the legal ire of disgraced policymaker Kang Yong-suk, who didn't find one of Choi's politically charged jokes very funny, even though the bit wasn't specifically about him. The Former Grand National Party member sued Choi, the host of South Korea's Gag Concert, on behalf of all politicians over a sketch in which the jokester explained to children how they could achieve a career in politics: By bribing election committees, "shak[ing] hands with old ladies" at "the local market place you hardly ever visit," and making grand campaign promises. "Say you will build a bridge or a subway station. Oh, you think that is too hard? No worries, you just need to say that without actually doing it."
5. Jay Leno
The host of NBC's Tonight Show regularly picks on politicians, but the joke that landed him and his network in court was one of many that ridiculed former presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. Amusingly enough, Romney's team had nothing to do with the lawsuit. Instead, the suit was brought by a Bakersfield, Calif., resident. The segment in question includes a clip from the entertainment news show The Insider, which featured footage of Romney's houses. The problem with the Insider clip that The Tonight Show aired was that instead of featuring one of Romney's summer homes, a picture of the Sikh's holy Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, mistakenly appeared on the screen. The California man sued Leno and NBC on behalf of himself and the Bol Punjabi All Regions Community Organization, charging them with libel. The suit seeks general, special and punitive damages for "[hurting] the sentiments of all Sikh people in addition to those of the plaintiff."
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 10 things you need to know today: October 24, 2014
- 3 horrific inaccuracies in Homeland's depiction of Islamabad
- What the Middle Ages can tell us about the GOP's big charity myth
- Why is the Pentagon stuffing caves in Norway full of tanks?
- The U.S. is about to sell weapons to Vietnam. That's bad news for China.
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- Let us now praise Billy Joel
- Why the government should pay every American child an allowance
- Did the media get Ferguson wrong?
Subscribe to the Week