British comedian Stephen Grant is a guy who wants to wash his family’s laundry in public regardless of their wish. But he is not the only comedian who would do something like that. Just across the pond, American comedian Sundra Croonquist frequently pissed off family members by some of what she said onstage in her shtick. (And when they sued her to shut her up, they lost.) Grant separated from his ex-wife, Anneliese Holland, in 2007 and while they were going through a messy divorce in 2009, his ex-wife’s lawyers tried to have him sign an undertaking that he would not talk about his marriage onstage. It was claimed that for Grant to include such material in his routine could cause “professional embarrassment” to his ex-wife. Grant and his lawyers rejected the proposal and it flopped.
Grant remained defiant throughout, claiming that he had “been absolutely dying to talk about the whole divorce on stage for over two years.” As if to give her a taste of things to come, Grant said his ex-wife is “so two-faced it took ages to upload Facebook pictures of her because I had to tag her twice.”
And Grant sees nothing wrong with talking about family in his shtick: “I think people who go out with comedians are well aware that is where a lot of material can come from.” (As it happens, Grant is not the only comedian who holds this view. Comedian Tammy Pescatelli, the rising star and suburban mom from Meadville, Pennsylvania, who recently launched her TV show, “A Stand-Up Mother,” said in a recent interview that a lot of her material comes from her life with family members. )
What may seem striking in this situation is how the efforts by members of the Grant and Croonquist families to stop the comedians failed. Perhaps even more striking than the failure of their family folks to stop the comedians is the fact that the family situations in both cases were starkly different: in Grant’s case the parties were going through a nasty divorce whereas in Croonquist’s case, the parties were still happily married and still are. Yet the comedians are allowed to push their stuff. But when can or will the law stop them?
Given the kind of work they do, a defamation lawsuit is the most obvious way to go after a comedian if one is pissed off at their shtick. A defamation lawsuit is the kind where one person is suing another person for causing injury or damage to their reputation in the society. For a comedian onstage, we would be talking about a type of defamation called “slander” which concerns spoken words that can damage somebody else’s reputation.
But the catch here is that the statement that is said to cause the damage to reputation must be the kind that lawyers call a “false statement of fact” which means two things: first, the statement has to actually state “facts” not “opinion” and this is where a lot of comedians can totally beat the lawsuit and get off. Because they are comedians doing a shtick onstage, it is so much easier for folks out there to assume they are just kidding around to get a laugh by through doing a “parody” of life in society. Most people watching a comedian perform onstage would not take him as “seriously” as they would take a Congressman speaking during a debate on the budget deficit. Second, even if the comedian made a statement of fact, he still wins if the statement is actually true.
Yet, there is a way to get a comedian to shut about matters going on at the home front. For example, a future spouse can get him to sign an undertaking to keep private matters private in the event of a divorce; maybe also during the marriage. This could take the form of a pre-nup, a confidentiality agreement or something similar. It was a smart move for Grant’s ex-wife to attempt to get him to sign the undertaking to not talk about the marriage in his shtick. The only problem is, she made her move too late at a time when she had no leverage to make him sign such a deal. Grant already had enough “goods” on her for his shtick. What is to stop an ex-husband from advancing his career by perhaps embarrassing his ex-wife who he claims cheated on him?
Comedians are not exactly like most other people, especially when it comes to things that might cause embarrassment to them or to others. That makes it a darn good idea for people who get involved with them to know what they are getting into.
If one believes Grant (and of course, Pescatelli), then there is little doubt that those who marry them as well as their other family members already do “get it” and may be okay with it. But the bottom line is: the comedians themselves have a job to do and a living to earn. And they get a lot of help from the law when anyone fights them.