Springer in a robe

Culture | Except for Hammy the Hamster, nearly all daytime TV imitates Jerry Springer

Issue: "Life of a warrior," June 12, 1999

I'm the boss, applesauce!" declares Judge Judy-and she's right. Ratings are out, and for the first time, Judge Judy (Dr. Laura in a black robe) has beaten out both Jerry Springer and Oprah. She attracts nearly 9 million viewers a day with her syndicated moralizing. And her popularity has led to a crowd of court shows, with even ex-New York City mayor Ed Koch dispensing justice on TV.

But are the court shows any better than the talk shows? The jury is still out.

To her credit, Judge Judy (retired New York City family court judge Judy Sheindlin) does offer something the talk shows don't: a moral perspective.

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"Seven dollars and 49 cents is an outrage," Judge Judy barked at a defendant who had paid that amount as the most recent month's child support. "You can't just have children if you can't pay for them. What do you think this is? Are we supposed to pay for your kids? Listen, right is right, wrong is wrong. I'm sorry."

While that's refreshing-particularly among daytime programs, which seem to specialize in bed-hopping and bar-fighting-Judge Judy can't be called edifying. She deals with paltry cases with pathetic litigants. Here are a couple of typical cases:

A 31-year-old man sued his ex-girlfriend, 29, over a $500 car loan. He said she got him fired from his job. She countersued, alleging harassment. Most of the 30-minute program was the man telling Judge Judy what a tramp the woman was, and the woman countering with what a psycho the man was.

In another case, two sisters battled over a $3,000 car loan one made to the other. The defendant's argument was, essentially, that she was poor, while her sister was rich. Oh, and everyone else in the family called the rich sister "Hitler."

Despite the scary "shhushhh!" Judge Judy issues during each episode, the shows abound in arguments and name-calling-and this is by design. Larry Lyttle, president of Big Ticket Television, which produces the program, admits he picks cases in which the people have a history together, "in order to fire up more passion."

But the combatants are minor characters, serving as a vehicle for Judge Judy's pronouncements, which have included such gems as, "You are one lying sucker," "Beauty fades, dumb is forever," and "You, sir, do not have character, you are a character!"

Predictably, Judge Judy's success has spawned a resurgence in courtroom television programs. Her competition now includes Judges Mills Lane and Joe Brown, and will soon include her own husband: Mr. Judge Judy, Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Jerry Sheindlin, will take over Ed Koch's gavel on the revived program that invented the genre, The People's Court.

Judge Mills Lane is best known as the fight referee who caught Mike Tyson's ear-biting. But he's also a real-live judge, having served in Reno, Nev., as a state district judge. He sees his role now as an educational one-kinda. "People seem to like to sit and watch conflict," says Judge Lane. "You can have fun along the way, and actually deal with the substance of the law."

Judge Joe Brown, a black man who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, is the mildest of the bunch. He comes across as a kindly grandfather, offering advice along the way. But that doesn't mean his show is a step above the others. An episode last week, for example, aired the case of a young couple in a dispute over an engagement ring. The exes spent their time trashing each other. The 19-year-old boy stood by, mortified, while his former girlfriend detailed his suicide attempts and his temper tantrums. The girl, for her part, had to endure her infidelities being listed for public consumption. They used valuable air time arguing whether the board she hit him with was vinyl siding or actual lumber.

And let's not forget Judge Wapner-who started it all with The People's Court in the 1980s. He's back on the bench, but this time on the Animal Planet cable channel, in Judge Wapner's Animal Court. Even here, however, the genre is true to form. The cases (typically dog bites and vet bill disputes) are every bit as acrimonious as the cases on Judge Judy. And they share the hallway scene, the contrived confrontation after the judgment is rendered, outside the courtroom. Here's an actual transcript from an episode last week. The case was about whether Muffin, a fierce corgi, drew blood when she bit a neighbor:

"You're a liar."

"No, I'm not, you're the liar."


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