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The People's Court
Format Judicial
Created by John Masterson
Presented by Doug Llewelyn (1981–1993)
Carol Martin (1997–1998)
Harvey Levin (1997-Present)
Starring Judges
Joseph Wapner (1981–1993)
Ed Koch (1997–1999)
Jerry Sheindlin (1999–2001)
Marilyn Milian (2001-Present)
Rusty Burrell (1981–1993)
Josephine Ann Longobardi (1997–2001)
Davy Jones (2001)
Douglas MacIntosh (2001-Present)
Narrated by Jack Harrell (1981–1993)
Curt Chaplin (1997-present)
Country of origin  United States
Executive producer(s) Ralph Edwards
Stu Billett
Running time 30 min per episode (1981–1993)
1 hour per episode (1997-Present)
Production company(s) Ralph Edwards-Stu Billett Productions
Distributor Telepictures Corporation (1981–1986)
Lorimar-Telepictures (1986–1989)
Warner Bros. Television Distribution (1989-1993; 1997-Present)
Original channel Syndicated
Original run September 14, 1981 – present

The People's Court is an American television court show in which small claims court cases are heard, though what is shown is actually a binding arbitration. The People's Court (1981) was the first reality court show that did not use actors, but showed the actual cases with the actual parties involved. Prior to The People's Court, popular TV courtroom shows such as Traffic Court (1957)[1] and People's Court of Small Claims (1959)[2] only presented recreated or fictional cases (as did radio before that).

Originally taped in Los Angeles, it first ran in syndication from September 14, 1981 to July 2, 1993 for 2,484 ½-hour episodes, with reruns airing until September 9, 1994.[3] Reruns later aired on the USA Network from October 16, 1995[4] to June 6, 1997.[5] Currently taped in New York City, it has run in its present 1-hour format since September 8, 1997.

When John Masterson devised the original camera-in-court concept in 1975, he first pitched it to Monty Hall, the producer and host of the game show, Let's Make a Deal, and his partner, producer-writer Stefan Hatos, but the networks did not buy it. It was then pitched for the first run syndication market, and did sell. John Masterson, who many consider a pioneer and originator of "reality TV" also created "Bride and Groom" and "Breakfast In Hollywood". The series was executive produced by Ralph Edwards, who also created and hosted the documentary show This Is Your Life, and Stu Billett, who later went on to create Moral Court.


Original version

The judge from the show's original twelve years was Joseph Wapner. Rusty Burrell was his bailiff,[6] Jack Harrell was the announcer, and Doug Llewelyn was the host and court reporter, who would announce the matter of the dispute at the beginning of each "trial". He would also interview the plaintiff and the defendant after the court ruling, to gauge their responses to the verdict. Llewelyn would often end each episode with a jaunty "Don't take the law into your own hands: you take 'em to court." which became something of a 1980s catch phrase. If a case ended with a verdict for the defendant, however, Llewelyn would end the episode by saying, "If someone files a lawsuit against you and you're convinced you've done nothing wrong, don't be intimidated. The best policy is to go to court and stand up for your rights."

The cases often had pun-related names, such as "The Case of the Overdone Underthings" and "A Head with a Beer on It."

Judge Wapner would greet his litigants by saying, "I know you've been sworn. I've read your complaint..."

Occasionally, if an episode wrapped up a few minutes early, Judge Wapner would field questions from the courtroom observers, or there would be commentary from legal consultant Harvey Levin, in which Levin would explain the legal reasons behind Judge Wapner's decisions.

The People's Court deals in small claims matters. When the show premiered in 1981, litigants could not sue for more than $1,500, which was the limit for small claims court at the time in California. As the laws in California changed, so did this amount. By the end of the original run in 1993, litigants could sue for up to $5,000, which is now the law in most states.

Researchers for the show would examine small claims filings in Southern California and approach the plaintiff and defendant in interesting cases. The producers would offer to have Judge Wapner arbitrate the dispute if they would agree to dismiss their action and be bound by Judge Wapner's decision. Through this approach, the show could get real people with real cases. However, even though the show is decorated and run like a real courtroom, it is not a real court or part of any judicial system, but instead a form of binding arbitration.

The losing party does not actually need to pay the judgment, as such. Instead (as is stated in the disclaimer at the end of each show), both parties are paid from a fund (set up by Ralph Edwards-Stu Billett Productions). This fund was based on the amount of the lawsuit claim, but an exact formula was not stated. The fund was to be first divided equally, then any monetary judgment ordered was subtracted from the loser's half (and presumably both halves in the case of cross judgments). Each litigant received at least what remained of their half in shows concluding with that disclaimer.

The disclaimer did not call this fund an "appearance fee", a term which appeared later in connection with The People's Court and other court shows. There may have been a later period when The People's Court paid the judgment, plus expenses and only a modest appearance fee to each litigant.[7]

This version of the show was referenced repeatedly in the 1988 film Rain Man. In the movie, autistic savant Raymond Babbit (Dustin Hoffman) compulsively watches the show, recites the entire opening monologue and frequently refers to the show as "Wapner", in reference to the show's presiding judge.

Opening monologue

When the original People's Court first hit the air, The monologue was as follows:

"What you are about to witness is real. The participants are not actors. They are the actual people who have already either filed suit or been served a summons to appear in a California municipal court. Both parties in the suit have agreed to dismiss their court cases and have their disputes settled here, in our forum: The People's Court."

Later, the show opened with:

"What you are witnessing is real. The participants are not actors. They are actual litigants with a case pending in a California municipal court. Both parties have agreed to dismiss their court cases and have their disputes settled here, in our forum: The People's Court."

In the 1997 revival the line was:

"What you are witnessing is real. The participants are not actors. They are actual litigants with a case pending in a New York metropolitan area court (later it was "in civil court"). Both parties (later it was "both sides") have agreed to drop their claims and have their disputes settled here, in our forum (from 1999–2001 it was "Judge Jerry Sheindlin's forum"): The People's Court."

Then the opening was changed to:

"Everybody's talking about the honorable Marilyn Milian, the hottest judge on television. Real cases, real litigants. Here, in our forum: The People's Court."

In September 2009, the new opening was revealed when the new season premiered:

"What you are about to witness is real. The participants are not actors. They are actual litigants with a case pending in civil court. Both parties have agreed to drop their claims and have their cases settled here before Judge Marilyn Milian, in our forum: The People's Court."

New version

Today, the small claims court deals with matters up to $7,500 (depending on the statutory maximum in the claimant's state), although the show did have a case where all four plaintiffs each sued the defendant for $5,000 each; this case was dismissed. Another case during the Koch run (the second-season premiere) featured a $15,000 lawsuit based upon the laws of the state of Florida. One case on Marilyn Milian version featured a case where the plaintiff had four separate lawsuits against the defendant for a total of $20,000.

When the new People's Court premiered in 1997 former New York newscaster Carol Martin of WCBS-TV hosted from a studio with Harvey Levin, who was involved with the prior edition of the series as a legal consultant, serving as a co-host in the field taking questions and opinions from people at the Manhattan Mall, then returning to the studio at the end of the show for a wrap-up. Curt Chaplin became the court reporter, replacing Doug Llewelyn, and has done so for the series' entire run.

Several months into the run Martin departed the series for reasons that were never explained and Levin became the series' sole host. The studio segments were done away with and Levin hosted the entire episodes from the viewing area, which eventually moved from the Manhattan Mall to the Times Square visitors' center where it currently resides.

The new version of the show has been headed by three judges since its premiere.

Ed Koch and Jerry Sheindlin

Former New York City mayor Ed Koch presided over the court from 1997 to 1999[8]. Judge Jerry Sheindlin (husband of Judith Sheindlin, the presiding "judge" over the court show Judge Judy[9][10]) sat on the bench from September 13, 1999[8] to March 9, 2001. Less stern than his wife, Jerry Sheindlin displayed more humor and was straightforward.

Marilyn Milian

On March 12, 2001, Marilyn Milian replaced Sheindlin as the judge.[11] Marilyn Milian's bailiff on the show is Douglas MacIntosh. A staple feature of the show includes Milian stating at the beginning of every case "Thank you Douglas", and drawing out the words "thank you" in a long, exaggerated manner.

In 2008, The People's Court, presided by Judge Milian, was nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award under a new Courtroom/Legal Show category created by the academy. In 2009, the show was nominated again for the Daytime Emmy Award under the same category, but did not win.

In 2009, Marilyn Milian relinquished the bench to former judge, Judge Joseph A. Wapner for one case only.

British version

A British version of the show was produced by STV Productions (then known as "SMG TV Productions") to replace Trisha Goddard's talk show on ITV in 2005. The court reporter was Carol Smillie, the male judge was Jerome Lynch and the female judge was Rhonda Anderson.[12] The show failed and was not re-commissioned.


The 1981-93 version was initially taped at Golden West Broadcasters and, later, Metromedia in Los Angeles, before moving to The Production Group. In New York City, The People's Court first taped episodes at the NEP/Image studios in the former Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Pennsylvania, which was also the studio for the talk show Maury. Since 1998, the show has taped at the MTI Studios on the 8th Floor at 401 Fifth Avenue, where the courtroom received a makeover. In 2006, the MTI Studios was sold to NEP/Image. At the end credits of some episodes, it says the show is taped at the NEP/Image studios. The studios are officially part of NEP Broadcasting's NEP Penn Studios[13]

The aired episodes are sometimes spliced together in a different order from which they are taped. This is why the judge's blouse color may change and why there may be fewer courtroom observers during the second half of the show than there are during the first half.

The People's Court is "A Ralph Edwards-Stu Billett Production". Telepictures Corporation was the original distributor of the series. Through the later acquisition of Lorimar-Telepictures, the distribution rights to The People's Court now rest with Warner Bros. Television Distribution.

Litigant compensation

At the end of each show, the following disclaimer appears:

"Both the plaintiff and the defendant have been paid from a fund for their appearance. The amount, if any, awarded in the case, is deducted from this fund, and the remainder is divided equally between both litigants. The amount of the fund is dependent on the size of the judgement." No information is given as to what relation the amount of the fund bears to the size of the judgment, nor the amount of the fund if a verdict for the defense is rendered.

In 1989, a litigant sued the producers, claiming, "I was only willing to appear because they guaranteed me $1,500. I never would have appeared on that show and made a fool out of myself for a chintzy $250." (In response, an associate producer said that before going on the show, participants are given a packet of information "where everything is clearly outlined to the nth degree.")[7]

Theme music

The theme music, "The Big One (People's Court Theme)", was composed by Alan Stanley Tew (British PRS, affil. BMI). Rapper Nelly sampled it for his song "Iz U", from the film The Haunted Mansion, and also featured on his album Da Derrty Versions. The tune was also used in two episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants and "Blue Harvest", the sixth season premiere episode of Family Guy. This theme was also used on an episode of WWE Raw in "The Trial of Eric Bischoff" and first featured in 'Barbara Broadcast'. The song was used in the 1980 film The Satisfiers of Alpha Blue. Jay-Z also recorded a song called "People's Court" which sampled the theme. The theme music also appears in the movie "Malibu High" (1979). It is played during the chase scene near the end of the film. It is also used as the theme music for the Balls of Steel segment 'Big Gay Following'.


In 1995, Judge Wapner appeared on the FOX network's science fiction show Sliders as himself in the parallel world version of this program where, as a Soviet judge, he sentences Rembrandt Brown to 15 years in the Alaskan gulag for being a subversive. The parody show's logo uses a faux Cyrillic "Я" in place of the "R" in "Court".

The show's opening, where the announcer introduces the litigants in a dramatic fashion, is commonly imitated. Judge Milian's mannerisms and catchphrases have also been the subjects of comedy sketches on shows such as MADtv.

The December 21, 2009 edition of WWE Raw featured a parody skit called the "Little People's Court", in which Degeneration X members Triple H and Shawn Michaels had to appear before a mock makeshift court of dwarves to testify about their continued mistreating of Hornswoggle. The videos that were shown during the "trial" even used the litigant introduction music of the original People's Court theme.

Notes and references

  1. ^ Courtroom Simulations Were Featured on Early Television - Metropolitan News-Enterprise; March 27, 2003
  2. ^ TV Courtroom Shows Proliferate in the Late 1950s - Metropolitan News-Enterprise; May 8, 2003
  3. ^ The Intelligencer - September 9, 1994
  4. ^ The Intelligencer - October 16, 1995
  5. ^ The Post Standard - June 6, 1997
  6. ^ Rusty Burrell (1925–2002) was a sheriff's department court bailiff in several famous Los Angeles trials, the Manson murders, The Onion Field murder, the Patty Hearst/SLA bank robbery, and the Caryl Chessman "Red Light Bandit". Burrell had previously appeared on TV in the 1950s Divorce Court, and it was also his job at that show to find real attorneys to appear on camera. One of those regular Divorce Court attorneys was Judge Joseph Wapner's father. 'People's Court' Bailiff Dies 2002-04-21,; Inside Judge Wapner's wallet by Ken Kurson, 2000-08-04, Green magazine at
  7. ^ a b 'People's Court' Finds Itself Before the Dock - NYT June 15, 1989
  8. ^ a b The People's Court: His Honor JERRY SHEINDLIN (Judge)
  9. ^ Jerry and Judy Sheindlin Discuss Laying Down the Law on TV "KING: ... she's tough." - CNN Larry King Live transcript, aired September 12, 2000
  10. ^ NYT 2008-01-31 " 'Judge Judy,' the longest-running and highest-rated courtroom show in syndication..."
  11. ^ New Judge For 'People's Court' - 2000-12-21,
  12. ^ The People's Court UK, 2006
  13. ^

See also

External links

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