Are TV judges qualified?

Rich Heldenfels answers your TV questions.

Q: I wonder about all those “judge” shows on TV — Judge Judy, Faith and so on. Are they really judges? What degrees do they have? What qualifies them to make judicial decisions? Or are these just entertainment shows?

A: Sure, courtroom shows want to be entertaining. But they also want to convey a sense that their legal judgments are real, more than some did in years past. “Divorce Court’s” Lynn Toler served on municipal court in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, while the version of the show in the ’50s and ’60s had an actor as the judge.

Websites for other shows note their stars’ courtroom backgrounds. For example: “Judge Judy” Sheindlin was a family court judge in Manhattan. Greg “Judge Mathis” was a district court judge in the Detroit area. Marilyn Milian of “The People’s Court” has served in county and circuit courts in Florida. (Lest we forget, “People’s Court” legend Joseph Wapner was a retired judge in real life.) “America’s Court” jurist Kevin Ross was a judge in Los Angeles Superior Court.

Some have not been judges but have legal training: “Judge Faith” Perkins has experience as a prosecutor, in private practice and as a legal commentator on TV. Similarly, Lauren Lake of “Paternity Court” has been “a member of the New York, New Jersey and Michigan bars with a concentration in family, criminal and entertainment law.”

Q: Why must we be victims of hearing the same laugh track (canned laughter) over and over when the show we are watching would be much better without that constant interruption? Lately the only shows I enjoy this season, “Young Sheldon” and “Life in Pieces,” are such a relief from that old-fashioned method that is trying to tell us “this is funny!” when it might be humorous, but hardly anything in the script should draw laughter like that … pitiful substitute for a live audience!

A: This issue has popped up in some recent questions, as it does from time to time. I last addressed it about a year ago, so let’s recap. The laughter may be prerecorded, or from the show’s studio audience, or a combination of audience reaction and electronic effects “sweetening” the reaction. As Jennifer Keishin Armstrong wrote on a while back, producers often want “some sort of audience reaction to make the viewing experience more communal,” as could be had in a theater.

And just the right reaction, too. Armstrong noted that Charley Douglass, the sound engineer credited with the first use of prerecorded laughs, “hated that the studio audiences on the U.S. TV channels’ shows laughed at the wrong moments, didn’t laugh at the right moments or laughed too loudly or for too long.” Thus an electronic companion was born. Many producers, writers and actors have thought their work generated laughs just fine without help. “M-A-S-H” did regular battle over laugh tracks, and its DVDs have offered each episode with and without laughs. Still, some shows believe that if you laugh electronically, the world laughs with you.


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