Judge Wapner Returns to the Tube

Thursday, November 2nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) — All rise! Judge Joseph Wapner's ``People's Court'' is back in session, if only for one day.

The 81-year-old jurist returned to the set this week, a sweetly nostalgic exercise to celebrate his old show's 3,000th episode and maybe grab some attention in what has become one of television's most crowded genres.

``You may be seated,'' Wapner murmured, his low-key, affable demeanor a stark contrast to the loud judges who wisecrack or crack down on plaintiffs and defendants who come before the camera.

Wapner was television's only judge when he started ``The People's Court'' in 1981 after leaving the California bench.

Now there are 10 court shows on the air. There's ``Judge Judy'' Sheindlin and her husband, Jerry, who now presides over ``The People's Court.'' There's Judge Brown, Judge Hatchett, Judge Mathis and Judge Lane. There's ``Divorce Court,'' ``Moral Court,'' ``Curtis Court'' and ``Power of Attorney.''

It's all a viewer can do to avoid getting lost in legal mumbo jumbo.

There's really only one thing to remember: ``It's Judy and everyone else,'' said Stu Billett, executive producer of ``The People's Court.''

The tart-tongued ``Judge Judy'' has an audience roughly twice the size of any other, and she's the reason there are so many court shows. The genre had virtually disappeared when Wapner left in 1993, but ``Judge Judy'' revived it four years later.

Her husband, Jerry Sheindlin, believes the O.J. Simpson case and other televised trials fueled a hunger for justice among viewers, which the court shows satisfied succinctly.

``People saw efficiency, they saw a problem and they saw it resolved within 30 minutes,'' Sheindlin said.

Each of the non-Judy court shows are basically interchangeable with viewers, said Garnett Losak, an expert on the syndication market for Petry Media Corp. How well they do is dependent on the time slots they negotiate with local stations, she said.

``It probably is at its apex,'' Losak said. ``I don't know if we can absorb any more.''

``The People's Court'' is in the middle of the pack, doing well enough to survive but not giving Jerry Sheindlin much to brag about over the dinner table. His wife's audience is more than three times bigger than his.

Wapner has seen snippets of Judge Judy's work, but wouldn't know a Judge Lane from a Judge Curtis. He never watches the shows.

``I never watched myself,'' he said. ``Why should I watch them?''

He and his wife live in Century City, Calif., and stay busy with charity work. Wapner makes sure to play tennis four days a week.

``I would say occasionally I miss it,'' he said.

He slipped easily into the robes Monday evening to tape the 3,000th show with Doug Llewelyn and Rusty Burrell, the court reporter and court officer on the original ``People's Court.'' It is scheduled to air on Nov. 16.

Wapner judged the case of a man suing a sports dealer for a refund because he believed a hockey jersey he bought supposedly worn by former Boston Bruins goalie Andy Moog was a fake.

Wapner methodically questioned the customer, the dealer and Moog, who said he didn't believe he wore it.

Judgment for the plaintiff: $448.47.

Wapner, a non-hockey fan who briefly flubbed Moog's name, told the former goaltender that he heard Moog was a very good player.

``I had some good days,'' Moog said.

``So did I!'' Wapner replied.


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