What Goes On Behind The Scenes Of Courtroom TV Shows
Reality-based courtroom shows have been a source of dirt-cheap TV programming since the 1950s, and they'll probably never go away. Right now, "Judge Judy" Sheindlin makes almost $50 million a year from her show. Hell, there was even a court show for kids on Nickelodeon. So how in the world do they find people willing to do this? And if the rulings are as binding as the shows insist they are, why in the hell is the legal system OK with any of this?
Suspecting that the answers were even dumber than we would otherwise guess, we talked to "Jack," who worked on several of these shows (including Judge Maria Lopez, Judge David Young, and others). He says ...
The Judge Is Real -- The Courtroom, Not So Much
First off, the cases are indeed totally real. They may be carefully selected to get the absolute most ridiculous ones (with classics such as "My overweight friend broke my toilet!"), but we'll get to that. What you're seeing are all cases that went to a low-level civil court, and then both sides agreed to settle in neutral arbitration on a TV set that happens to look like a courtroom. But that stuff they say before each episode of these shows is true; the rulings are final and binding.
"Yes there is a judge and bailiff and everything," says Jack, "but officially it's taking it out of court, with the added bonus of the judge not needing an arbitrator license." That's because they are all real, usually retired, judges. But otherwise no, an arbitration isn't quite the lofty, high-stakes affair that a "courtroom" setting would imply.
"[T]hey can't enforce (non-monetary) rewards," says Jack. "They cannot send out warrants, and they cannot hold people in contempt." So basically, it's less of a court and more like a few hours of getting roasted in front of millions of people.
They Scout Cities For The "Best" Cases (And The Craziest Participants)
OK, so they're real cases, but it's not a coincidence that they keep winding up with shit like someone hitting a deer with a stolen car and admitting to eating the evidence. If you're not going to script your reality show, you've got to do all of the work on the "casting" end. It's much harder than it sounds:
"We had scouts in major cities go to small claims courts and pore over cases," says Jack. The staff would dig for whatever would work best to tear viewers away from Maury Povich doing paternity tests. "If a producer likes one (ideally you'll have a good story, where someone wronged someone else egregiously and there are ridiculous characters on both sides of the aisle), the scouts fax over all the information on the case and the producers call both parties." And as with all reality TV, that means there's a kind of self-filtering process at play. "Many normal people don't want to do this," says Jack.
Then again, there is also that unique category of person who is mired in a truly ridiculous beef but doesn't feel like parlaying that into daytime TV fame. "[The] best one we missed out on was for Judge David Young. We found two fighting ventriloquists suing each other for using the same name and same puppet ... We did everything we could to get them. We offered triple what we usually paid, and offered them one of the best hotels and limo service. Everything. They said no, because they didn't want to be on TV. And you know, I respect that."
Nothing Is Scripted ... But Situations Are Definitely "Set Up"
Where other reality TV shows can craft entire storylines out of out-of-context clips in the editing room, a courtroom reality show is more like a game show, in the sense that there would be legal ramifications for outright trickery. Still, these shows have producers whose job it is to make sure great moments occur, even if it's just giving the participants some clever lines to say.
"If there was ever a funny litigant, that could've been one of two things -- either it was their own thought, or during the discussions with the producer about what'd happened, they came across a joke and a producer could conceivably have said, 'Oh, that's funny, make sure to say that on the show.'"
Also, if the plaintiff and defendant really hate each other, part of the challenge is to make sure the screaming and insults are saved for the camera. "To keep anger levels high for entertainment, the shows always kept the two sides separate until the cameras rolled, down to the ridiculous extremes of two green screens and separate hotels across town. If you have million-dollar camera equipment on the set, you don't want the fight to happen backstage."
The bailiffs are often real, but they're rarely needed to break up actual physical fights. Jack recalls one situation in which a pair of separated parents happened to run into each other backstage and security had to intervene before things got violent. "For those guys, we had also been giving them a lot of caffeine. Lots of coffee and sodas, so they'd have a lot of energy. I can't say it was energy for fighting. But let's say it was energy to keep them 'alert.'"
Scammers Were Common
So here's a question: Why in the hell would anyone agree to take their private case to a TV show, where they know they'll wind up coming off like an asshole? What is this weird gravity that daytime TV exerts on people who are undergoing some kind of personal turmoil?
"Most people did it to be on TV, embarrass the other party on a national audience, get their story out, or to not have to pay anything in real life," says Jack. That bit about not having to pay in real life is important -- we have more on that below. Then there are all of the people who manufactured cases specifically in the hopes of getting "discovered" by a TV court. "Some people would make up fake fights, go to court, and sue for a low amount, but act crazy and then get noticed in hopes of a free trip and a split of the money."
If you're thinking that it takes a special type of person to try to pull off a scam like that, you're right. "There were two sets of brothers arguing over renovation costs to an apartment. I think this was in Philadelphia. We were thinking of having them on, because 'Brother vs. brother in the city of brotherly love' is one hell of a commercial. But when we saw them briefly fight, the two of them obviously pulled their punches, because as we found out, they knew we were there ... They probably could have gotten away with it and earned a free trip, but one brother fought worse than William Shatner ..."
The Judge Has Total Power ... But Nobody Actually Has To Pay
So what transpires during the commercial break when the judge is formulating their verdict?
"The judge would consult with our lawyers working the law department and the producers," says Jack. "The judge would give their input on the case, the lawyers would show precedent and give info on how a normal courtroom would decide this, and the producer was there to say which side winning would be better for the show (although they didn't have much input)."
Sometimes, though, the judge could still go rogue, which is their right under the actual law, if not the law of reality TV. "And since it was legally binding, there were no second takes -- whatever they decided, they decided," says Jack.
"Judge Maria Lopez would do that. We had a good ending planned for the end of an episode, with a voiceover saying, 'Sometimes we have to wonder if tearing a family apart is worth a little money,' because it was believed she would rule in favor of this son over his father over some sort of money issue. She ruled in favor of the father without telling anyone, blindsiding legal. For the next five minutes, there were people up there going, 'DID YOU KNOW ABOUT THIS?' 'FUCK, GET [voiceover guy] ON THE PHONE,' 'GET [lawyer].' It also meant more work for us, because now we had to stay later and make a new ending."
OK, but when the judge does drop the hammer on some dickhead, they get nailed with the bill, right? Nope! The show pays the "winner" on behalf of the "loser." So that's the other way they get people to sign up: There's no risk, as long as you don't mind looking like an asshole on television. "No matter how angry the judge got, the loser never would pay. In fact, they always got a free trip to New York out of the deal -- both sides."
Some people even got an appearance fee if the producers wanted them badly enough, up to a few hundred dollars. A few minutes of being harassed by a snarky judge in exchange for a free trip to New York and maybe a modest payday? If we didn't know any better, we'd say that's the new American dream.
Evan V. Symon is an interviewer, journalist and interview finder guy at Cracked. Have an awesome job/experience you'd like to see? Hit us up on the forums today!
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