Last Sunday, Joseph A. Wapner, the famous Judge Wapner of “The People’s Court” passed away. His passing was noted as he was the face of the original recipe People’s Court. The Judge Judys and Browns and whoever else all came down the pike because of the success of that show. There will always be a television phenomenon that will grow out of this country’s insatiable desire to see “people just like us” that we can make fun of, or a profile of the lowest common denominator types that live amongst us, just so we can mock them and make fun of them, and “thank the lord” that isn’t us up on the screen. The People’s Court didn’t just begat the other trial shows, it begat reality TV and the sad parade of Honey Booboos, and Duck Dynastys and even, the President we currently have. Thanks, Wapner. That’s your legacy. I mean, what idiot was going to make the dumbass life decisions to land them on “The People’s Court”? How completely lame must you have had to be to reach that low point in your life, where you had no other choice but go before Judge Wapner with your pathetic legal dispute? How embarrassing, right?
“But let’s watch this case between these two sad sacks!” Amiright?! Can you imagine being one of those suckas?!
Me. I was one of those sad sacks. I was on “The People’s Court.” Yeah…
And now, for your entertainment:
While in L.A. and trying to start my acting career, I was paying the bills and making rent by working at a fitness club as a Manager, Salesperson, and Trainer. Typical responsibilities in that job, helping run the place, as well as sell memberships, etc. Another responsibility was to track down people that were delinquent on paying their memberships, make some kind of contact and see if we could convince them to actually pay us. So, you would be given a handful of these “cases,” call the phone numbers, hopefully talk to people to see what could be worked out to both the gym’s satisfaction as well as theirs.
Now, fitness clubs would routinely go through these periods where – to build up the membership, and make as much instant cash as you could – they would sell a membership for as low as $100 for a year. Of course, you were instructed to try to upsell people with deluxe add-ons (racquetball, massages, personal trainers, etc.), but in these binge periods, you just wanted to get people in the door, drop $100 and that would be that.
So, apparently, some guy had bought one of these $100 memberships, and then his check bounced. It happens. I had that happen to me a few times throughout my life. It happens and it happened to this guy. So, the gym did what it does in those cases and called the guy to see if he could/would come in and make good on the check, do a payment plan, etc.
Didn’t work out. He refused, didn’t have $100, whatever the explanation was, he wasn’t making good on the bounced check. So, the next step after months of this (and it literally would go months because the next step was just a pain-in-the-ass), the fitness club sends the guy’s case to collections. Let them deal with the $100.
So, one day all the managers are in a meeting with the gym’s general manager and he informs us that this bounced check case has gone to small claims and has been picked up by “The People’s Court.” While we were aware of what “The People’s Court” was, none of us knew what that really meant or how it worked. And basically, it worked like this: When “The People’s Court” picked up a case, they agreed to pay whatever the settlement turned out to be, up to $1500, to whichever side won the case. So, it was a great deal, right? No one has to pay any money, no one can lose actual dollars out of their wallet, no one loses…in that way.
What you could lose was the case and any dignity you might have had prior to walking down that little aisle between the staged extras on the tiny set and taking your place behind the podium. That was what you could lose.
Okay, with that established, the first question was, “How is this even a case for Small Claims Court?” And here is what happened: Mr. Bounced Check was taking the fitness club to court saying that the club had harassed him to the point of emotional duress or something of that nature by asking him to give us the $100 he wrote a check for. Having been one of the guys that had to make those calls, I knew how “hard core” we were, which was on the level of your older brother or sister calling you and being annoyed because you still owed them twenty bucks from that one time, that weekend, remember? You promised to pay them back. It was like that. We hadn’t reached the age of the really scary predatory and threatening collection agencies that Elizabeth Warren tries to protect us from. No, we were mostly college guys or just graduated that were doing this job as we tried to get other jobs. So, not all that invested, if you know what I mean. And seriously, all of this for $100? Wow.
So, the manager asks the group of us, like nine guys or so, who wants to go on the show and represent the club. Crickets. We’re all just shaking our heads, and muttering, “Not a chance.” “Don’t think so.” “Not interested.” The manager sighs, and says, “Well, I’m not doing it.” He looks up at me, “John, you’re an actor. You do it. You’ll be on TV.” He looks at another guy, “Robert, you’re a good-lookin’ guy, you were a model, right? You do it with John.”
“Thanks, guys. Here’s the info. Call this producer and they’ll tell you what to do.”
So Robert and I are now roped into doing this thing. They tell us when to show up at the studio, suggest how to dress, coach us on what to expect, etc. A week later, we’re there and as with any show like this, everything is kind of rushed, but it’s not, you’re a little unsure of your place within all of the production’s moving parts, and your ushered here, told to wait there, asked a question about this, told to wait there, given updates as to how things are moving along to get to your segment, told to wait there, wondering what you’re going to look like on TV, and…yeah, told to wait there. And then it’s time.
Robert and and I are moved into place, we hear the intro and we walk onto the set and take our spots behind our podium. I don’t think we ever even met Mr. Bounced Check. Before or after all of this, now that I think about it.
So, Judge Wapner goes over the basics of the case and asks Robert and I to confirm if his understanding was correct. I state the obvious and simple nature of it: Mr. Bounced Check wrote a check for a $100 yearly membership that bounced. So, the gym kinda wanted that $100. Wapner asks Robet about the attempts to collect on it, and he starts to explain, fumbles a bit because he’s nervous and Wapner jumps on him with a condescending bit about enunciation. “Uh oh,” I think. We’re the big dumb gym bullies. Now, if you know me now and if you knew me then, or anytime in between, I would never be cast as one of the frat jocks in REVENGE OF THE NERDS. Robert was a little more of the built fitness guy, but even then, Wapner was straining on the stereotyping. Anyway, Robert manages to get out an explanation and Wapner moves on to Mr. Bounced Check. And, as expected, there are claims of undue harassment, possibly some torture, character defamation, threats against his family name and pets, etc – and all in three phone calls over three months’ time. He was hurting. Then, there was some back-and-forth, and I tried to correct something he said, and the winning moment happened:
Wapner shuts me down, glares at me, and says, “You and your gym have no respect for humanity.”
No lie. On television. National television. Judge Wapner told me that I, John Wildman, had no respect for humanity.
Great. Mom is going to love this.
So he leaves to make his judgment. Robert and I look at each other. “Well, that could’ve gone better.” We look over at Mr. Bounced Check, and now, kinda wished we were what Wapner’s store-bought narrative was selling us as, because that moment just sucked. We wait and wait and wait, and then they tell us to get ready and we’re taping again, Wapner makes his entrance and hands down the judgment: He awards the guy $1500 and berates Robert and I for being company henchmen for this monolithic corporation…uh…gym…that clearly and obviously were shaking down this poor, unsuspecting victim on a dubious contract deal designed to swindle him and then when he rightly protested and tried to get out of it, we nearly destroyed his life. No kidding, it was that over the top.
Robert and I walked out of the studio and to the parking lot, stunned, glad it was over, laughing about the fact that the guy could actually afford one of the deluxe memberships now, though he’d likely welch on that deal as well, and now starting to dread the fact that this was actually going to air on TV across the entire country. When I get home, I call some friends and recount the experience and discover that Wapner’s judgment actually had no legal standing, as a check, legally, is the same as cash, it is not a contract as he was approaching the matter. If only I had that simple factoid at hand, I thought as I envisioned myself doing a poor man’s Al Pacino in …AND JUSTICE FOR ALL, “NO! YOU’RE OUT OF ORDER! YOU’RE OUT OF ORDER, THIS COURT IS OUT OF ORDER, WAPNER!”
A couple weeks later the show aired. I did not tell anyone about it. Purposely. If only there could have been a national blackout due to some tragedy that could have usurped my personal televised tragedy, I wished and hoped. But no such luck. I didn’t hear anything for most of the day and then I get a call from my mom. Of course she saw it. Of course. She was excited as she recounted how she almost missed it, but luckily, LUCKILY, some cousin in Indiana stumbled onto it that day and called her immediately to let her know. Thank God, right?! I mean, she might’ve missed it! So exciting!
My mom’s main takeaway from my Judge Wapner takedown:
“You looked very handsome up there, but you had your head down too much, I couldn’t see your face enough.”
“And you should smile more. You have such a nice smile.”
Because mom. Not even a disaster like being on “The People’s Court” and being told on national television that you have no respect for humanity can usurp the fact that your mom just wants to see your pretty smile.
Take that Wapner. Mom just overruled you.