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 risqué-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.
I arrive early to find a line of people waiting for a chance to be part of the Judge Joe Brown studio audience. Wearing a suit, I'm in character and trying out a facial expression I call "I Like to Eat Babies." Faux-jilted groomsman Hal walks by my side.
Hal and I are scrutinized at a security checkpoint. Our picture phones are confiscated-no unauthorized photography on set-and put next to a seized bottle of vodka. Gesturing to the bottle, the guard explains, "It happens more often than you'd think!" We're then herded into the green room, where we await our 15 minutes of fame (and justice) alongside other plaintiffs-a group that includes an exotic dancer from Virginia and other assorted characters whom you wouldn't want to be alone with under normal circumstances. The room's got complimentary donuts.
"It's not your fault that the dog was running in the street!" one of the many producers bellows, as she coaches and fires up a rotund woman about her TV court case. Pep talk? Impassioned advocacy? Or just good TV?
"It's an arbitration, but it's also television. So you can be animated!" the show's bubbly head producer coaches us. "Work with the judge, okay?"
She hands me a copy of my TV court statement for my approval as the lanky producer-the one I had first spoken to on the phone-comes up to work with me one-on-one.
"Do I have to use the words male genitalia?" I ask, pointing to the words male genitalia.
"Here's the thing with this case. It's a light case, in the sense that no one got killed. You can say, 'In hindsight, it's a little bit funny, but on the day it happened, it wasn't funny.'"
I make my "I Like to Eat Babies" face again and loudly freak out. "It wasn't funny then, and it's not funny now!"
"You see, I was testing you," the lanky producer explains, visibly horrified. "I wanted to see where you were at with this whole thing."
Hmmm...maybe they really do want to resolve this matter and see that justice is carried out rather than merely exploit our story.
We're led through a maze of hallways to a bustling set, past a courtroom audience paid $60 a day to sit and watch cases. My goal: to see how many times I can get them to say "Ooooh!" in unison. A sort-of-hot TV bailiff, Miss Sonia, calls our case to the stand. Defendant Mike, who has decided to dress like he rides the special bus to school, appears. We walk through waist-high swinging doors and take our respective stands.
Judge Joe sets up our feud by giving it the gravity it deserves. "Every now and then, there's some levity that comes into the courtroom!" he vamps.
Some people are already chuckling, and I realize we've been duped-lured to the show with the promise of justice, but set up to be the courtroom comic relief. We're the lighthearted counterpoint to cases like "The Freeloading Roommate That Borrowed Something He Didn't Return." I make my "I Eat Babies" face again. Weren't we assured that we wouldn't be exploited for laughs?
I start describing the bachelor party scenario: "So I gave the defendant $700 to hire two strippers"¦." Defendant Mike loudly pipes in with, "WRONG! WRONG!"
Judge Joe interrupts. "What was so different about these strippers?" he asks, knowingly setting me up for the big courtroom zinger.
Pausing for dramatic effect, I lean forward. "They weren't chicks, Your Honor"¦they were DUDES!"
"Ooooh!" erupts the courtroom audience.
The supposedly impartial, entirely fake TV courtroom becomes a free-for-all. Judge Joe fights to get a word in edgewise, while Mike and I constantly interrupt him. He doesn't bother telling us to shut up, happy to just talk over us while we, in turn, talk over him. For no reason at all, Mike starts repeating, "I object!" yelling into his stand's microphone, even though we were told they're just props. "You said 'Get some strippers!'" he barks. "That's all you said!"
"I asked for strippers. I didn't ask for The Crying Game!" I retort. Another moan of "Ooooh!" erupts.
Defendant Mike starts objecting again. "LIAR! LIAR! LIAR!" he keeps yelling. "Like you asked, I went and got some strippers. Hot, Asian strippers!"
"I didn't say that!" I sneer. Throwing a little subtle racist undertone to the whole story, I add, "You know how I feel about them."
"You were the one that went into the bathroom with one of the lady boys," defendant Mike turns the tables.
"Ooooh!" the audience coos.
With classic Jerry Springer talk-to-the-hand timing, I come back with, "I only went into the bathroom because I wanted to throw up!"
This ignites Mike to go off on another round of ranting "LIAR!" and "I OBJECT!"
"Can I see the photographs you brought?" Judge Joe finally commands.
I hand Miss Sonia copies of my photos of the Vegas lady-boy strippers so they can be projected on the large courtroom screen. Another big rumble erupts at the authenticity of the San Francisco trannies posed with me and my wide smiling face.
Comforted that I've got the crowd on my side, I slam-dunk my final argument, delivering, "It's like I told him to go buy oranges"¦and he came back with A BANANA!" The courtroom loses it. Since the crowd seems to eat up analogies, I add, "It's like I told him to buy pillows"¦and he came back with A BANANA!"
On Judge Joe Brown, I discover, the audience gets to vote on who should win (just like in real courtrooms).
The tabulated votes appear on a large screen: 86 percent to 14 percent in my favor.
"If you hired these people, obviously you might like what they have to offer," Judge Joe bellows, apparently trying to make defendant Mike admit that he's gay, which is weird. "If there was a time for you to come out of the closet, this is the time for you to do it."
Mike declines to take the bait and jump out of the closet, and a visibly disappointed Judge Joe slams his gavel.
"I award the judgment to the plaintiff!" It's a bit of an anti-climax; I was half expecting him to pronounce Mike gay as part of the judgment.
As defendant Mike pretends to wipe away a tear as he's led from the courtroom, I swagger out, yelling, "Lady Liberty must be smiling!"
A bachelor party ruined. A wedding disrupted. Psychological scarring and trauma. At least I was made economically whole for strippers that weren't. But while justice was ultimately served, court TV-as one might expect-strives more for shock and awe than it does for truth and justice.