In 1981, avuncular Judge Joseph Wapner hosted a little show called “People’s Court,” where Wapner dropped the gavel on people’s small claims cases. This was an early example of “reality TV” featuring everyday people with everyday problems.
The show became a huge hit, spawning an entire sub-genre of TV that has since taken time slots away from game shows, soaps and talk shows during the day. Today, there a dozen judge shows trolling the airwaves, from “Judge Judy” to “Judge Mathis.” They all hew to the original “People’s Court” formula: an austere wood-lined faux courtroom featuring a judge behind a desk wearing a black robe and a stern bailiff by his or her side.
This past fall, “Street Court” arrived to break down those walls. Brooklyn Italian Michael Mazzariello, who goes by Judge Mazz, dispenses with the robe and takes the show on the road, going to the scene of the crime when necessary. Heck, he has never even been a judge. But he has legal cred as an assistant district attorney and high-profile plaintiffs’ and criminal defense lawyer.
“It’s justice making housecalls,” Mazzariello said in an interview at Palas Jewelers in Buckhead. He and his crew were shooting a series of cases in Atlanta earlier this month. “I’m using an atmosphere where everyone is more relaxed. And we have the go-see moment. I was on a roof yesterday in 20-degree weather checking out damage. What better way for a litigant to show a judge what the issue is!”
Not all his competitiors take a bright view of his concept. “It discredits the genre,” Judge Greg Mathis told me in December. “There’s no reality to what they’re doing.”
“Street Court” has already been given a second season but it isn’t causing leader Judge Judy Sheindlin to lose any any sleep.
“It’s doing okay,” said TV industry analyst Bill Carroll of Katz Television Group in New York. “In most cases, it’s part of overall court blocks and in that sense, it’s doing as well as that middle range of court shows.”
Locally, the show airs on CW 69 at 1 p.m. and 1:30 p.m weekdays, where it typically gets just under a one rating, which means one percent of household televisions.
From an economics standpoint, Mazzariello said “Street Court” costs about the same to make as regular judge shows. Judge Judy can stay in one place and tape eight to 10 shows in a single day. “Street Court” has fewer fixed costs and a smaller crew, but producers can only tape two or three cases a day traveling around the country.
This is far more work for Mazzariello. Not that he’s complaining. “Street Court” is his baby. “I am reared to work,” he said. “This is my dream. I’m going for it.” And he takes his work seriously, even if he’s in someone’s home, staring at a fridge crawling with cockroaches. “This is real. These are real issues, real money,” he said. “This is not a joke.”
“Mazz,” 50, grew up in what he calls the “homicide capital of the world” in Brooklyn. He got his TV break thanks to Atlantan Nancy Grace, the growling host on HLN. In the late 1990s. he ran into her at a breakfast and she was charmed. He became a regular legal analyst on her show. A couple of years ago, she suggested he try TV on a full-time basis. He was skeptical..
“I have this big nose and Brooklyn accent,” he said.
But that made him distinctive. By the time “Street Court” was launched last fall, he covered 92 percent of the country, impressive for a novice show.
Ironic note: Grace herself is going to start her own court show next fall.
Another compelling reason for him to go on TV. He blamed Lipitor for messing up his memory. He could no longer do homicide cases effectively. Small claims stuff? He can handle that. “I almost lost my house,” he said, because of medical bills and his inability to work full time. (He’s now married with a six-year old child.)
The case I watched featured Atlanta’s Vicki Young, who had sued Leon Lott for $1,500 in local small claims court. “Street Court” called a few weeks ago and offered to take the case in arbitration. Bonus: the TV show pays the damages so neither side loses on that front.
Mazzariello didn’t cut Lott much of a break. “Look at me when I’m talking to you,” he’d say a couple of times. And he’d call Lott a “huckalero” (his signature insult) for not paying back the loan. “Pay your debts,” he told Lott. “Be accountable!”
Yet afterwards, Lott liked the TV judge. “He’s extremely fair,” said Lott, a 44-year-old security guard from College Park. “He’’s very charismatic. I used to live in Queens. I didn’t live too far from the Italians.”
Lott said he’d be able to pay back the loan if he could get back the engagement ring he gave to Young’s sister in 2006. (That’s why the setting was at a jewelry store.).
“Mazz” ended the case with this catchphrase: “That’s my ruling. That’s it!”
“I’m looking forward to seeing it on TV,” Lott said. The case is set to air January 28.
If you have never seen the show before, here’s a sample: