One of TV’s most enduring stars, Judge Judy Sheindlin had
no idea that TV was her future when she was grinding
through 40 to 50 cases a day as a family court judge in
New York during the 1980s and ‘90s. But the host of ‘Judge Judy’,
syndication’s top-rated show, has certainly made the most of life after her retirement from family court. The irrepressible Sheindlin offers swift justice
and routinely beats such power performers as Wheel of Fortune and The
Big Bang Theory. And after 16 years on the air, Sheindlin shows absolutely
no signs of slowing down (and woe unto those who step before her bench
thinking they will somehow outsmart her).
Now in its 17th season, Judge Judy is
defying traditional television logic and still
growing its ratings; it has actually increased
its viewership a whopping 27% from the
2010-11 TV season and often ranks as the
top show in all of syndicated television.
“Over the last few decades, there have
been very few shows that have achieved
the remarkable success that she has,” says
Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of
CBS. “Not only has Judy sustained that
success year after year, how many shows
grow in their 15th or 16th year in syndication?
She started as a fresh voice and she’s
been a remarkable presence in daytime
television ever since.”
After passing the bar in 1965 and a brief
detour in corporate law, Sheindlin began
prosecuting juvenile delinquent cases for
the state of New York in 1972.
In 1982, New York Mayor Ed Koch appointed
Sheindlin to the bench in the city’s
family court. In 1986, she was named Manhattan
’s Supervising Judge, and over the next
decade she heard more than 20,000 cases, all
while raising five children with her second
husband, Judge Gerald Sheindlin, who himself served as a justice on the New
York State Supreme Court from 1986 to 1999. (Judy and Jerry, as he’s known,
share another career milestone: They have both served as television judges. Jerry
hosted People’s Court from 1999 to 2001 and is currently shopping a pilot.)
It’s likely that the fast pace of family court molded Sheindlin into the TV
professional she is today.
“We never reshoot anything, we don’t do any pick-ups, and she doesn’t
make any mistakes,” says Tim Regler, a Judge Judy executive producer. “I’ve
been at this for 42 years now and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Sheindlin’s quick wit and ease in front of the camera seem to be second nature.
“Here was a lady who had spent most of her career as a civil servant,” says
Randy Douthit, another executive producer and a director on the show. “Never
having been on television before, she comes in and has a hit show. She didn’t
come to this show as a star; she came in as a civil servant and judge.”
At the outset, Sheindlin recalls, she was hoping to do the show for three
years. Happily, however, her run has gone on much
longer and much more successfully than anyone could
have expected. “The last 17 years seem like three,”
she says. “When you are doing something that’s interesting
and fun and so not like work, it goes very fast.”
Evidence that Sheindlin might be that rare commodity
—someone who could revive a genre and
perhaps achieve Judge Wapner-like success on a TV
court show—first came to national light in 1993, when CBS’ 60 Minutes did
a piece on the petite, attractive and tough-talking family court judge. While
she was receiving appreciative reviews for her first book, Don’t Pee on My
Leg and Tell Me It’s Raining, agents started shopping Sheindlin around to
producers, one of whom was Larry Lyttle of Big Ticket Television.
“[An agent] rolled the [60 Minutes] tape before we started the meeting,”
Lyttle says. “It was immediately clear that there was a unique personality
there. I’ve been asked in hundreds of interviews if I knew what I had when
I met her. Honestly, nobody knew, but I knew I would rather fail by taking a
chance on her than not taking a shot at all.”
And that hunch had Lyttle ready to put all his chips in and produce what
became Judge Judy. “Court shows are just talk shows with resolution—that’s
the secret sauce. And Judy had this uncanny ability to facilitate conversations.
She was decisive and clear, coupled with a distinct personality. All of that
made it a slam dunk.”
In fact, Lyttle was so sure of himself, he immediately called his good friend
Moonves and said, “I have the next syndicated hit show.” After watching the
tape, Moonves had to agree: “I remember I was mesmerized by her, how appealing
she was and how funny she was. She really was a breath of fresh air.”
Paramount Domestic Television, now part of CBS Television Distribution,
launched Judge Judy on Sept. 16, 1996, when Sheindlin was 52.
“Heading into TV was a giant leap of faith,” says Sheindlin, who turned 70
on Oct. 21. “I had virtually no name recognition. Big Ticket and Paramount
were restarting a genre that was for all intents and purposes dead with a person
that nobody knew. That was really gutsy for the TV stations.”
Today, starting the 2012-13 season, “The show has really changed very little,”
Douthit says. “For the most part, she’s always herself. She basically does the same
thing every single day, yet people are always stunned and entertained by it. She
always tells the truth but she does it with a little twinkle in her eye. I always say
this, but if she wasn’t a judge, she would be a great stand-up comedian.”
The esteemed justice—who makes an art out of put-downs such as, “Either
you’re playing dumb, or it’s not an act”—agrees. “I don’t think the show has
changed at all in 17 years,” she says. “It’s all the same kinds of issues, it’s just
that with the Internet, cell phones and social media, the modality of irritation
has changed.” (The savvy Sheindlin recently met the Web head-on with her
typically opinionated advice-sharing site whatwouldjudysay.com.)
Daytime TV has seen a lot of change recently—with Oprah Winfrey departing
and Katie Couric returning—and the court genre is thriving. But Sheindlin
remains its queen, and viewers are glad to know she plans to stick around for
a while. She recently re-upped her contract through 2015.
“Right now the show is still on its stride, which is very gratifying, and I’m
not tired, which is a good thing,” she says. “You never know what’s going to
happen, so I’m just enjoying every day.”
Which is more than we can say for the countless litigants who’ve stood
before her bench when she happily reminds them all, “I eat liars for breakfast.
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