5 Bizarre Legal Aftermaths of Popular Sitcoms
While they’re usually just goofy half-hour distractions from the real world, full of canned laughter and commercials for fast food and boner pills, sitcoms can also present a legal minefield.
Yes, the same format that introduced us to Steve Urkel, Lucy Ricardo and (briefly) Hitler has also generated a lot of behind-the-scenes litigation. Sometimes, even when sitcoms have seemingly run their course, dramatic legal ordeals stemming from the shows are far from over, like how…
The Real Kramer Ran for Mayor, Ended Up on ‘Judge Judy’
The controversial (arguably underrated) Seinfeld finale found Jerry, Elaine and the gang being hauled in front of Judge Art Vandelay to be tried for the crime of being total garbage people. Interestingly, the same day the finale was viewed by 76.3 million people, the real Kramer (as in Kenny, not Cosmo) also appeared in a court. On TV. In front of a Judge named “Judy.”
Back in the ’90s, the inspiration for Jerry’s wacky neighbor, Kenny Kramer, famously took advantage of his name’s newfound fame by selling merchandise and conducting “reality” bus tours (which really took a hit after the show ended, thanks to Michael Richards).
Kramer also ran for New York City Mayor in 2001, and before that, had an “aborted campaign” in 1997. The ’97 effort led to Kramer landing in legal hot water after one of his employees claimed that he was owed $1,000 for working to collect signatures supporting Kramer’s mayoral run.
When the ex-campaign worker attempted to file a “breach of promise” suit, scouts for Judge Judy, who were hanging around the courthouse looking for juicy cases for the show, pounced. This is how Kenny Kramer ended up on TV pleading his case before Judge Judith Sheindlin, not coincidentally, on May 14, 1998, just before Seinfeld’s last episode.
Judge Judy ordered Kramer to “make a long-promised charitable appearance” for the plaintiff’s “nonprofit organizations.” While it was too late for this incident to make its way onto the finale, it’s possible that an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm was inspired by this incident…
‘The Big Bang Theory’ Was Sued for Using the Lyrics to a Children’s Song
There are endless reasons for people to be annoyed at The Big Bang Theory, ranging from the show’s broad stereotypes to the fact that it unleashed the plague that is Young Sheldon upon the world. But what landed the show in legal hot water was… a children’s lullaby?
In one episode, Sheldon recalled how his mom used to sing him the song “Soft Kitty” when he wasn’t feeling well, and the song quickly became a merchandising bonanza for the network. There were Soft Kitty “shirts, sweatshirts, pajamas and more products featuring the lyrics.”
However, the lyrics shared a lot of similarities to a poem written by a New Hampshire school teacher, published in the 1930s. The teacher’s heirs sued, claiming that the show had used the lyrics “without permission.” A judge ultimately dismissed the case — not because the song wasn’t similar to the poem, but because the plaintiffs “failed to show they held a copyright on their mother’s lyrics and deserved damages.”
Robots Resembling Norm and Cliff From ‘Cheers’ Were the Subject of a Supreme Court Case
While the U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t typically spend its time considering robotic doppelgangers of fictional barflies, that’s exactly what happened back in 2000. Years earlier, the popularity of Cheers spawned a tie-in franchise of officially-licensed bars — except they were in airports, and presumably, no one working there gave two shits what your name was.
To make the bars seem (slightly) more like the TV show, they added robotic versions of those classic characters, er, Hank and Bob. Yeah, presumably to avoid forking over any more money, the bars created off-brand versions of Norm and Cliff, but with glasses and no mustache, respectively. Oh, and they also looked like bloated animatronic corpses.
Actors George Wendt and John Ratzenberger understandably weren’t thrilled about the whole thing and sued, claiming that the company behind the bars “was exploiting their identities without their permission.” Paramount, who licensed the characters, fought an appeal that undid a judge’s prior dismissal, eventually prompting the Supreme Court to weigh in — they sided with Norm and Cliff (the real ones) and backed the appeal.
Rival ‘Golden Girls’ Parodies Sparked an $11 Million Lawsuit
There have also been puppet-based parodies, naturally. But That Golden Girls Show! — A Puppet Parody was sued in 2016, not by the rights holders of the show as one might expect, but by a man claiming to be the co-creator of the parody. He alleged that his former “long-time collaborator… stole the show,” which is no way to thank someone for being a friend.
While the show’s producer denied the claims, the disgruntled playwright filed an $11 million lawsuit, presumably because he mistakenly thought that puppet theater is the most popular form of entertainment in America.
NBC Sued a Company for Trademarking’ Dunder Mifflin’
While there is no actual Pennsylvanian paper seller called Dunder Mifflin, one might assume that the rights to the name of the company that employed Jim, Pam and the gang from The Office would be owned by NBCUniversal or their parent company Comcast (or their parent company the Sheinhardt Wig Company).
But apparently, that wasn’t the case. When NBC belatedly tried to register the name “Dunder Mifflin” with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2020 (presumably because much of the world was locked down and devouring Office reruns 24/7) they couldn’t. Why? Because some rando had beaten them to the punch.
Yes, a company called Jay Kennette Media had already trademarked “Dunder Mifflin” years earlier, prompting NBC to file a lawsuit claiming that they were the rightful owners of this 100 percent fictional brand. The suit accused the company of being a “trademark squatter” since they also owned the rights to “Dillon Football” from Friday Night Lights, as well as “Nostromo,” the doomed spaceship from Alien.
Instead of just trademarking “The Michael Scott Paper Company” and attempting to drive “Dunder Mifflin” out of business, NBC reached a settlement agreement with the “squatters” earlier this year.
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