The past decade and a half have seen the television airwaves so inundated with reality TV shows, that it’s hard to remember a time when they were the exception to the rule. Even harder still is to recall a time when the proceedings of reality TV were actually real enough to be called Reality. While we all know that Honey Boo Boo’s family is being amped up behind the scenes the same way Jerry Springer dysfunctional guests were, those Storage Wars guys aren’t blindly finding billion dollar valuables, and there are no real housewives on any show that says Real Housewives in the title… if there’s one reality format we should be able to boldly award the Real Seal to, it’s the judge shows.
You know what we’re talking about…. there’s about 42389933 of them currently on daytime TV. If we had the number of judges in our actual courtrooms that we had on TV, court dockets wouldn’t be so backed up as they are now…
While Judge Judy is currently the gold standard of the TV courtroom format, and the one who inspired so many other TV judge wannabes in the 21st century, for my generation there was and still is only one TV magistrate that made sure the scales of justice were being fairly balanced in small claims court….
Judge Joseph A. Wapner presided over The People’s Court during its entire 12 year original run from 1981-1993. The People’s Court was one of the first and definitely most popular television courtroom shows to “try” actual cases involving actual litigants. I put the word “try” in quotes because Judge Wapner’s domain was not actually a courtroom with any authority to rule on a motion for anything other than taking a lunch break. It was actually a televised case of binding arbitration, where both parties agreed to waive their right to a real trial to appear on TV and have Judge Wapner decide their fates. It was a win/win situation for both parties since they split a pool of appearance money from which any judgment was also taken from… something that does not happen when you get your ass sued off in real small claims court…
You can take all of the daytime judge shows on TV right now and put them all together and not approach the amount of 80’s awesomeness that was the original People’s Court. Judge Wapner ran a tight ship that rarely led to outbursts, insults, or any of the other cheesy dramatics that pervade the current shows of the genre. I’ll admit it, the show would probably be considered boring by today’s entertainment standards… but since when is a courtroom supposed to be entertaining?
One of the most kickass features about The People’s Court was the theme song. It struck up as soon as the plaintiff walked through the doors. We’d hear announcer Jack Harrell give the reason they were seeking justice while “Ba Boom-Boom Boom Boom” was playing in the background. Then the vitals of the complaint would appear on the screen in teletype fashion. Repeat for the defendant. Then, while 108 year old Rusty the Bailiff swears the two parties in, we hear Harrell get very serious about how what we are witnessing is REAL. The cases are REAL. The litigants are NOT ACTORS. They’ve agreed to settle their dispute in our forum…… THE PEOPLE’S COURT! OK, maybe there was a little cheesy dramatization in the show. But damned, if that didn’t get you fired up for Judge Wapner’s appearance!
And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the show’s crack reporter Doug Llewelyn, who got the fun job of interviewing the two litigants as they exited the courtroom after Judge Wapner decided whether or not their appearance money was going to get raided or not. He managed to handle the job very professionally without displacing a single hair on that horrific 80’s do he was sporting, and still had it in him to advise us before the credits rolled that if we had a dispute with someone we couldn’t work out, we should take it to court!
Let’s put it all together, and watch this real People’s Court case from 1986 in which a man who thought a stun gun would be a cool thing to have and nearly zapped his own balls off when he broke it decided to sue the store he bought it from when they wouldn’t offer him a refund for it:
I was so waiting for Rusty to turn to Judge Wapner and scream, “Don’t tase me, bro!!!”
After a short hiatus, The People’s Court was rebooted back in the late 90’s and has aired in syndication ever since with such honorable judges as former New York mayor Ed Koch, Judge Judy’s less popular husband, and some chick named Marilyn Milian who has now presided over the show for the same length of time as Judge Wapner, 12 seasons. While I have never seen a single episode of the new People’s Court, I have to ask the question any keeper of nostalgia would ask in such a situation… regardless of whether I’ve been exposed to the new show, can it really top the well-celebrated original? We don’t need Judge Wapner to rule on that for us, now do we?
Judgment for the original People’s Court in the amount of one million awesome 80’s points.