In a perfect world, all legal issues would be settled by TV judges-who don't take shit from anyone! But do these shows actually help anyone by resolving the problems of regular Joes? Or are they feeding off of Jerry Springer rejects for the benefit of viewers who enjoy laughing with smug, ironic detachment? In my ongoing journalistic pursuit of truth, I decided to go undercover to infiltrate the dark, seamy world of"court TV.
We've all watched one of these shows at one time or another. Take your pick: The People's Court, Judge Judy, Divorce Court, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Lopez. There's a fake court show for almost everyone. And they've all got things in common: black robes, yelling and fake (yet solemn) wood grain paneling.
How do these TV jurists pick their cases? There was only one way to find out. I decide to submit a completely over-the-top claim as bait to several shows to see what would happen. As it turns out, all of the major courtroom shows conveniently allow you to submit a case over the Web.
I make my case a little risqu-something that'd make a housewife momentarily stop vacuuming. Would sensationalism win out over jurisprudence? The case I submit:
"It was my roommate's bachelor party in Vegas. I gave my friend $700 to hire some strippers for the party. When it came time for the strippers to take it all off, they weren't chicks"THEY WERE DUDES!!"
A few days later, I get a reply from Judge Joe Brown ("Defender of Womanhood, Promoter of Manhood"). He's a TV judge who hasn't taken shit for over eight years. I call the producer.
"I don't think I've ever seen anything like this come across my desk before," the producer excitedly professes. "If you're serious, I'll totally see if we can help you out with this."
Help indeed. I confirm my seriousness, and we roll up our sleeves to examine the sordid details of my case. And showing the legal acumen of, well, maybe a court stenographer, the producer grasps the essential elements of my case within seconds.
"From his point of view, he thinks it was a funny joke," he says. "But meanwhile, you got no strippers."
"Well, we got strippers," I clarify. "But they weren't chicks."
He continues. "They must have been thinking, 'Oh my God! Am I gay now because I just got a lap dance from this guy?'"
This producer is so excited that he sounds like he might wet himself. I dutifully agree that, yes, many of us at the bachelor party are now worried we might have turned gay. As he continues to probe me for details, I make up names for my jilted roommate bachelor ("Hal") and the jokester transvestite-rental guy ("Mike").
"Mike was all, 'Screw you, this was funny!'" I spew, adding that Hal's wedding has since been postponed. "I think your show would be the best way to resolve this," I conclude, wondering who on Earth would go on national TV to dispute lady-boy lap dancing.
I agree to fax him some proof that my bachelor party actually took place-"I got to protect the sanctity of our show," he explains. Yes, yes you do.
As it turns out, the Judge Joe Brown producer was right to stake his claim.
Over the next two days, I'm bombarded with offers and counteroffers from some of TV's finest legal issue-resolvers. Could it be that this was just such an interesting and compelling legal case of first impression that any judge would love to try? Or do these shows just sense a ratings bonanza from a tale of transvestites?
A producer from The People's Court calls me in an attempt to derail Judge Joe Brown's inside track. She pleads with me, "Please don't sign anything with the Judge Joe Brown show!" I tell her that I'm still fielding offers. Justice can't be rushed.
Next, a producer from the Judge Maria Lopez show e-mails me: "I'd like to strike a deal with you today, considering that other shows are calling you.... I promise I'll make it worth your while."
Worth my while? Well, butter me sideways! I'm hot shit in the TV courtroom world. Who would have thought that TV judges fight this hard for jurisdiction? As I engage in some forum shopping, one thing's for certain: it becomes increasingly clear that they could care less about me and the faux psychological trauma inflicted on yours truly by transvestite strippers, and that they only care about landing the most outrageous, outlandish cases. It was time to give one of these shows exactly what they've been asking for.
I phone the Lopez producer, ready to play court TV hardball. "Are you guys willing to wheel and deal?" I ask.
She sweetens the deal offered by the Brown people, enticing me with more cash. Yes, cash. The dark underbelly of TV justice involves payments of cold, hard greenbacks to entice plaintiffs like myself to have their disputes settled on camera. I decide to make her work harder-just for fun-by stating my undying loyalty to Judge Joe, a man who I have never met.
"He told me not to talk to any other shows," I inform her.
The producer then begins begging, even pressuring, me to drop Judge Joe. This is officially getting scary.
After much deliberation, I decide to go with Judge Joe. His strong, firm courtroom demeanor makes me feel like this is a place where a man wronged by transvestite strippers can truly have his day in court.
I assemble a cast of misfits to play the appropriate bachelor party roles. With two improv-acting friends recruited to portray defendant Mike and disgraced groomsman Hal, I send them notes on the entire backstory-and set in to create some evidence.
Using Hotels.com, I book a room at Circus Circus, the Las Vegas hotel and casino. With a little bit of retouching, I've suddenly got a receipt for the ill-fated bachelor party. And since I happen to live in San Francisco, let's just say that pictures of lady-boy strippers aren't a problem.
I fax everything over to the Judge Joe producer and wait-but not for long. The next morning, I get an e-mail saying that the evidence looks "great." They make plans to fly Mike and me down to LA and to put us up in hotels.
The producer stresses that I shouldn't wear hats or sportswear, since this would make it seem like I didn't care about the case. No, the audience had better know that this was the case of a lifetime, and that I wanted justice.