Confessions Of A Reality TV Producer
By Sharon Houston
I work in syndicated daytime court TV. Ever watched Judge Judy or The People's Court? I haven't worked on those shows specifically but they're the most popular so I thought I'd use those as examples. (Since I'm still earning a living working on shows like these, I won't name my employers.) My job is to find the people who are willing to have their cases heard on TV and get them to L.A. so they can get justice while making TV magic happen.
On Getting No Respect
I've learned a lot from working in this genre of television. First, I get no respect in Hollywood because we're at the bottom of the Hollywood food chain. There's feature films, one hour dramas, half hour comedies, late night talk shows, commercials music videos, reality TV, daytime talk shows, student films, porn, snuff films, Jersey Shore, and then Daytime Court TV.
Second, most of the population that's heading to small claims court to sue someone doesn't have a full set of teeth. If we book you on the show and you don't have teeth, we'll buy them for you. I've been held hostage by litigants who said they weren't going on and I've had to threaten to take their teeth back. I've had others who said they wouldn't put their teeth in until we paid them money just for showing up. Recently, I had a litigant forget her teeth and I got in a lot of trouble for not reminding the person more than fifteen times to bring her teeth to L.A. Telling someone fourteen times isn't enough, apparently. Tape days are interesting, to say the least. Sometimes the cases are simple but the relationships between the litigants are complicated. Think about it: how angry are you that you take a day to go downtown to your local small claims office to spend $76.50 to sue someone over $100? I'd say you're pretty angry.
And for me, that's TV gold and I will do my best to talk you into having your case heard in our "courtroom." I always use quotes because even though it's a binding arbitration and the judges are actual judges, it's really a set that looks like a courtroom.
Producers Are Your Friend, Until The Show Is Over
When things don't go the way a litigant thinks they should go, and one is always disappointed because there's only one winner in court, it gets ugly. There is crying, anger, rage, security is called. The producers who held the litigant's hands for weeks to get them to L.A., who became their best friend, their therapist, their confidante? We fade into the background, and we never see these people again. It's not because we're jerks, it's because legally, there's nothing we can do about it. They'd react the same way in their local court. The difference is they'd go to jail afterwards. We don't have a jail here, or even a jail set.
On The Sad Stories We Hear
While I'm searching for funny, interesting cases where the plaintiff and defendant have some kind of personal relationship, I hear a lot of sad stories. Like, really sad. The elderly are a population who really get taken advantage of and abused. I'm afraid to get old. Immigrants get taken advantage of by immigration lawyers who say they'll help the immigrant get a work Visa, but instead will leave them high and dry. Awful. I'm grateful that I'm not an immigrant.
I hear stories of girlfriends being betrayed by boyfriends. They're so angry they sue. That's never happened to me. Wait -- actually, it has. I just never sued over it. As a matter of fact, the more stories I hear, the more I realize that I'm just like the litigants I book on court shows. As one of my executive producers said, we're all one misstep away from being a litigant. Most of us are already there.
How We Find The Crazy Stories
You might be wondering where we find these people. Every show has researchers all over the country who pull claims from small claims court and send them our way. There's limited information on the claims, so sometimes you're basing your decision to reach out based on simple things.
For example, if you're from Detroit, Houston, Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Kansas City, New Orleans, Indianapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Gary, or Atlanta, I'm calling you no matter what the case is about. Why? Because that's where crazy lives. I'm also going to call you if you're suing for pain and suffering, mental distress, mental agony, nightmares, and my favorite, loss of enjoyment of life. I also love it when Plaintiff wants to sue Defendant for being "triflin'." That's good stuff!
Here's where the job gets really stressful: We have to make sure litigants get on their flight to L.A. A lot of great cases don't happen because the litigants are afraid to fly. Many times litigants have told me, "Jesus told me not to get on the plane." One lady I tried to book said, "If Jesus wanted me to fly he'd have made me a parakeet, a mosquito, a butterfly, a bat" and so on. I interrupted her list of things that can fly by noting the fact that Jesus rose from the dead so technically, he was the first to fly and would want her to fly, too. Didn't work.
Tape days are when all of the producing teams really come together. You do whatever it takes to make sure they are comfortable, open, and will put on their imaginary boxing gloves and get a TKO. All the teams come together to help prep litigants on tape days. I have some incredible people around me, colleagues that will go the distance for each other.
This world of daytime court TV is bizarre. At times it's a complete freak show, and when I say "at times," I mean most of the time. It's also colored my life in positive ways. My fellow producers on court shows are the greatest people I've ever met. Aside from one or two whom I had "personality problems" with, meaning I had a personality and they had a problem with it, I have made lifelong friends.
I've learned a lot about people -- good and bad. A lot can't be trusted. Sometimes even college-educated people don't care about basic dental care or having a full set of teeth. Very few people are faithful to their significant others (it isn't just men who cheat). People get irate over stupid stuff and want to sue for the maximum payout of five grand.
Even the most damaged person has room in their heart to receive love. Compassion is for everyone, even the most arrogant, seemingly soulless person.
When people get over their fear of flying, their confidence goes up and they feel like they can conquer the world.
And lastly, I learned how to make a gourmet treat out of crappy office coffee. If you put half of a sugar-free Swiss Miss in it with one Mini-Moo and a Sweet and Low, it's like you're drinking a Café Mocha in gay Pare-ee. I believe that act alone makes me a litigant.
Sharon Houston is a producer, comedian, and podcaster living in Los Angeles. You can hear her podcast, "Daytime Justice", on iTunes and Stitcher. She also told her story on an episode of the KCRW podcast, Strangers. Follow her on Twitter, or check out her website.
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