14 Non-Judgmental Facts About The People's Court
By Jake Rossen
Though it continues to air new episodes five days a week in syndication, most everyone nostalgic for The People’s Court remembers its glory days in the 1980s. Presenting real small claims cases with binding rulings, former Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joseph Wapner, his trusty bailiff Rusty, and court reporter Doug Llewelyn became daytime television celebrities.
Premiering in 1981, The People's Court effectively launched the on-air reality trial genre that gave us Judge Judy, Judge Mathis, and Judge Mills Lane. (The latter was previously a boxing referee.) If you still have the show’s theme stuck in your head, you’ll probably enjoy some trivia about Wapner’s history, Rusty’s ties to Charles Manson, and why one Mr. America decided to sue the show.
1. NO ONE WANTED TO AIR IT.
In the 1970s, it was not yet common practice to see cameras installed in real courtrooms. That didn’t stop producer John Masterson from approaching Let’s Make a Deal host Monty Hall in 1975 with the idea to record legal proceedings and air them on television. While the idea was well-received by Hall, networks weren’t interested. It wasn’t until a Masterson associate named Stu Billett thought to tweak the idea by replicating a courtroom and staging a kind of mock trial that the format began to show promise.
2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY A COMEDY.
Billett’s notion to take a portion of small claims cases in Los Angeles and offer the parties arbitration in exchange for television coverage found a receptive audience at NBC. But the network didn’t want a real judge to preside: They preferred a comic—Nipsey Russell was one name floated—that would listen to the cases and make jokes while being coached off-screen by a legal expert. When Billett got television station KTLA interested, they asked him to make two pilots: one played straight and one played for laughs. Billett refused, taping only the “straight” version with retired LA County judge Joseph Wapner. After being passed up by networks—again—Billett took it directly to syndication in 1981, where it became an immediate hit.
3. WAPNER NEVER USED THE GAVEL.
Wapner had gotten a call from Billett and partner Ralph Edwards about appearing on the series as the judge. When he arrived to their offices for an audition with a real case, he found it amusing that it had been set up with a gavel—the prop was something he had never used in 20 years of law and never once picked up on the show.
4. WAPNER AND RUSTY THE BAILIFF HAD HISTORY.
An aspiring professional baseball player, Rusty Burrell came to Los Angeles in the 1950s and wound up working in the sheriff’s department. After becoming a bailiff, producers spotted him and invited him to appear on Divorce Court, a series that staged mock trials using a mix of actors and real legal professionals. (Burrell also moonlit as an actor, appearing on General Hospital.) One of the attorneys who made frequent appearances on the show was Joe Wapner, Sr.—Joe Wapner’s father. Later, when Billett began insisting they use a “sexy” female bailiff on the air, Wapner refused and told him to hire Burrell instead.
5. RUSTY WAS A BUTTERFINGERS.
In one moment from the series that got a lot of repeated play on blooper specials, Rusty was asked to show Wapner a clock that was at the center of a repair dispute between the plaintiff and defendant. When he got to Wapner’s bench, Burrell dropped the clock, damaging it. Wapner joked that it was a “cheap clock” anyway.
6. SOME CASES WERE OVER PEANUTS.
Bill Perron via YouTube
The show’s producers culled from real small claims filings in Los Angeles, enticing parties to drop out of the judicial system to come on the air and have Wapner settle their dispute in what amounted to arbitration. The appeal: The show would pay the damages, which at the time was limited to $1500 (and eventually $2000) in Los Angeles court. While that was the maximum, producers frequently got away with spending far less: Wapner once ruled on a moldy cake, awarding the plaintiff $9 for having her daughter’s birthday ruined.
7. WAPNER ONLY WORKED ONE DAY A WEEK.
Good work if you can get it. Owing to the shooting schedule of People’s Court, Judge Wapner was only needed on the bench for one day out of the work week. The production would shoot 10 cases—making for five episodes—in a single shift, leaving the rest of the week free and clear for the on-camera talent. In 2000, Wapner told Salon.com that despite his condensed schedule, he made far more as a television judge than he did while on the bench in Los Angeles County.
8. WAPNER MEDIATED A CONFLICT BETWEEN JOHNNY CARSON AND DAVID LETTERMAN.
At one point, it was reputed that Wapner was recognized by more people than Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist. In acknowledgment of his popularity, The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson invited Wapner to mediate a “dispute” between Carson and Late Night host David Letterman in 1986 for Carson’s show: Carson once hauled away an old truck of Letterman’s, causing damage. While the hosts wanted to play it as a comedy sketch, Wapner refused to appear unless his ruling was binding. He awarded Letterman $24.95 for a new headlight.
9. RUSTY ONCE GUARDED CHARLES MANSON.
After the “Helter Skelter” murders of 1969, cult leader Charles Manson became one of the most infamous figures in American culture. During his trial in Los Angeles, Burrell was charged with guarding him on a daily basis. Burrell recalled that Manson, who sat right beside him, would say, “You know, I could get up and walk out of here any time I want.” Burrell advised him that it wouldn't be a good idea.
10. IT ENCOURAGED MORE LAWSUITS.
With 7.5 million viewers tuning in every week during its heyday, The People’s Court offered more than just entertainment: It acted as an educational tool for people who had never before considered small claims litigation. According to a 1989 New York Times report, the series led to an increase in the number of cases filed and even had some plaintiffs citing the television cases as if they were a proper precedent. And although the show offered an immediate financial reward, “real” litigants were often surprised to discover that many defendants preferred not to pay judgments. “If Judge Wapner were here,” one was heard to lament, “he’d see that I was paid.”
11. THE SHOW'S PRODUCERS WERE SUED BY MR. AMERICA.
Not all resolutions were respected by the litigating parties. In 1988, former Mr. America Rex Ravelle sued the show’s producers for $1 million owing to Wapner’s ruling. Ravelle alleged Wapner had made him look like a “bully and a buffoon” during the proceedings, which saw him attempt to reclaim back rent owed by an evicted tenant. Wapner ruled in the defendant’s favor, prompting Ravelle to file the substantial lawsuit after the show ignored his request for his episode to not be broadcast. He settled for $2500.
12. WAPNER WASN’T TOLD HE WAS FIRED.
After 12 years and more than 2400 episodes, producers decided that The People’s Court had run its course in 1993. According to Wapner, he was the last to know: His brother-in-law had read of the show’s cancelation in a local San Francisco newspaper. “It irritated me to no end for a long time,” he said. “I don’t know if it was my age. I think I had all my marbles.” (The show returned in 1997, with former New York City mayor Ed Koch presiding.)
13. WAPNER WAS NO FAN OF JUDGE JUDY.
In 2002, after 20 years on the bench and 13 on television, the then-82-year-old Wapner ruled on Judge Judy Sheindlin, his heir apparent and a presiding television judge who acted in sharp contrast to Wapner’s own even temperament. “She’s discourteous and she’s abrasive,” he told the New York Post. “She’s not slightly insulting. She’s insulting in capital letters.” Sheindlin retorted she wouldn’t engage in “mudslinging.”
14. WAPNER WENT ON TO ADJUDICATE ANIMAL TRIALS.
Animal cases were a staple of the original People’s Court, which once had Wapner ruling on whether a cat that was supposed to be dyed blue and came out pink was worthy of financial restitution. (It was.) In 1998, Animal Planet enlisted the semi-retired judge to oversee Judge Wapner’s Animal Court, a series that pitted pet owners in disputes over grooming, vet bills, and furry custody issues. The show, which lasted two seasons, featured Rusty Burrell but not court reporter Doug Llewelyn; during the original Court, he was bitten in the knee by a plaintiff’s dog. Llewelyn got a tetanus shot.
An earlier version of this post ran in 2016.