Thursday, September 11, 2003
Judge Wapner vs. Judge Judy: What A Match That Would Have Been
By ROGER M. GRACE
“Traffic Court” went on the air in 1976; a spate of courtroom simulation shows followed; and then there were none. “People’s Court” went into session in 1981; other courtroom shows ensued; and then, again, the TV courtrooms were “dark.” In 1996, there came “Judge Judy”; courtroom shows were back in vogue, and soon there were 10 of them on the air.
One of the 10 was “People’s Court.” Not re-runs from the 12-year series starring retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joseph A. Wapner, but new episodes. Episodes without Wapner.
When “People’s Court” returned to the air on Sept. 8, 1997, it was former New York Mayor Ed Koch who was perched on the bench. The show remains on the air, with the second of Koch’s successors. It has proved no threat to the ratings supremacy of “Judge Judy.”
Would Wapner have recaptured dominant ratings for “People’s Court” had he been restored to his TV judgeship? Or would Judge Judy Sheindlin, with her relative youth, vibrancy, brashness and big mouth, have pulled more viewers than the old master? (When “People’s Court” returned to the air, she was 55 and he was 77.)
The match did not take place, so the question of who would have been the victor is a matter for idle speculation. It does stand to reason, however, that a 1997 version of “People’s Court” with episodes virtually indistinguishable from 1981 episodes except for a few wrinkles on Wapner’s face would not have posed a challenge to “Judge Judy.”
But with freshening and hype—and even the creation of a “feud” between the two contrasting jurists, the loud, insult-slinging female and the sometimes biting but restrained, wise and older male—maybe, just maybe, “People’s Court” would have drawn higher ratings than ever.
It would not have taken much to ignite a feud between Wapner and Sheindlin—an actual one, not on the order of the staged conflict between Jack Benny and Fred Allen, or the bogus spat between Walter Winchell and Ben Bernie—but more akin to that between Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan or Jack Paar and Winchell.
Wapner truly has no use for Sheindlin. A Nov. 26, 2002 article in the New Post quoted Wapner as saying of her:
“She is not portraying a judge as I view a judge should act. She’s discourteous, and she’s abrasive. She’s not slightly insulting—she’s insulting in capital letters!”
Sheindlin was quoted as shooting back, in a prepared statement:
“I refuse to engage in similar mud slinging. I don’t know where or by whom Judge Wapner was raised. But my parents taught me when you don’t have something nice to say about someone, say nothing.
“Clearly, Judge Wapner was absent on the day that lesson was taught.”
His view of Sheindlin hasn’t changed. He told me:
“She’s a disgrace to the profession. She does things I don’t think a judge should do.”
“She tells people to shut up. She’s rude. She’s arrogant. She demeans people.”
The retired jurist said he’s been told “she does this on purpose,” commenting:
“If she does it on purpose, then that’s even worse.”
Judges need to observe certain standards of conduct, Wapner said, and “she just doesn’t do it,” adding: “and I resent that.”
The public is apt to gain the impression that this is how actual judges conduct themselves, Wapner opined, pointing out that “it says ‘Judge’” on the nameplate on the bench “and she’s wearing a robe.”
Pitting Wapner against Sheindlin could have resulted in friction and fireworks, boosting ratings for both shows.
A theory as to what would have been if this, or if that, can never be proven or disproven.
Wapner did return to television on Sept. 28, 1998, presiding on the Animal Planet cable network’s “Animal Court,” on which cases involving sundry critters were adjudicated. Given that no such courts exist, the format was contrived, though intriguing. Age proved no barrier to Wapner’s proficiency. If anything, he was better.
Wapner noted that the series “was on for two years with new shows,” and at that point, the cable network had “enough shows to do re-reruns.”
Clearly, “Animal Court” was no threat to “Judge Judy.” It was on an obscure cable channel. But at least it showed that Wapner still had it in him to preside over a TV courtroom, and do it masterfully.
Next week: a look at the courtroom show with ratings that surpassed those garnered by Wapner. Presiding over it was Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lance Ito.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company
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