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The verdict, delivered in September 1996, was swift and decisive: “Judge Judy” was a winner.
The daytime court show, presided over by a former Manhattan prosecutor and family court judge named Judith Sheindlin, struck an immediate chord with viewers, who dug Sheindlin’s tart-tongued admonishments and no-nonsense attitude, sharpened by her years in New York City’s tough judicial system.
And they’re still hooked. “Judge Judy” enters the twilight of its 25th and final season as one of the most remarkable success stories in syndicated TV history — No. 1 in its genre for 11 consecutive seasons and immune to the vanishing daytime audience migrating to multiple viewing platforms in the digital age.
The show still averages a staggering 9 million viewers a day — even in repeats.
“A silver anniversary is a big deal,” Sheindlin, 78, told The Post. “Very few shows have made it this far — not only made it, but made it and stayed on top. I’m saying this to you without ego: I never wanted to ride this show down, to be on top and [then] people sort of get tired of you … and [to] lose that feeling of being terrific and on top of your game.
“So 25 years was a great time to go.”
She’s not retiring, though. After “Judge Judy” settles its final case this spring, Sheindlin will segue to Amazon with the first-ever streaming court show. And her presence will continue to be felt via “Hot Bench,” the three-judge show she created that’s now in its seventh season — second in viewers only to “Judge Judy” on the daytime court docket.
“I still think most people — most — like order,” she said of what the show brings to fans. “They like people who follow rules, are good citizens and who act responsibly: how they discard their trash, how they put shopping carts in assigned spaces so they don’t fly away.
“When you blur the rules, when you say, ‘OK, curfew is at 10,’ and they come in at 11 and nothing happens to them, then the next day it’s midnight … then they know nobody is watching the store and there are no consequences,” she said. “And if there are no consequences, very few people have that innate clock that says, ‘I know this is wrong.’”
Sheindlin holds people accountable off the air, too.
She recently went to her hair salon, fully masked for COVID, and saw a man in the salon sans mask.
“I walked up to him and he looked at me and smiled,” she said. “I was wearing my mask with my smock on and my hair was dripping wet. I said to him, ‘Do you like ‘Judge Judy’? He said, ‘Oh yes,’ and I said, ‘Not after today,’ and I proceeded to lace into him about respecting other people and how other people are minding you by wearing a mask. I said to him, ‘You must be some kind of narcissist or there’s something that I don’t see that makes you unique and special.’
I did my own ‘Judge Judy’ on him,” she said, “and he came back to where I was putting my hat on, with his mask on, and apologized.”
That public scolding is a rarity for Sheindlin, who keeps a relatively low profile, splitting her time between Greenwich, Connecticut, and Florida, with trips to LA to film the show. She’s been married for nearly 43 years to Jerry Sheindlin, a former New York Supreme Court trial judge who, in a twist of TV fate, replaced Ed Koch as host of “The People’s Court” from 1999-2001 — three years into “Judge Judy’s” run. It’s a second marriage for both, resulting in a large, closely knit extended family (including Judy’s children Adam and Jamie and Jerry’s children Greg, Jonathan and Nicole).
“I think that people who enjoy life and leave the greatest legacies are people who understand … you need other things,” she said. “Even uber-celebrities … Sophia Loren’s two greatest joys were her husband of 40 years [Carlo Ponti] and her two sons. She’s iconic but I could see her making a bed and tidying up a bathroom.”
Sheindlin added, “If you have a life other than being a celebrity you don’t dwell on it. But if that’s the only thing that’s important to you — and you lose it — then you’ve lost your life.”
Although she calls work her “anchor,” she knows when to set boundaries.
“I’ve worked less this year and delivered less shows than I did years before at my request,” she said, noting that she did 42 weeks of shows instead of 52 weeks worth this year. “I’m getting older [and] making the trip back and forth to LA is debilitating.”
Sheindlin’s deal with Amazon requires her to deliver 120 episodes by December 2021 (instead of the 260 episodes per season for “Judge Judy”); she anticipates production on the new series will start in LA in May or June.
“It’s a new adventure,” she said. “It will not have the same look as our broadcast program, I can tell you that. I think people want something different; it can’t be just changing the robe color.
“I hope [the streaming show] will be as successful [as ‘Judge Judy’] and will start a new way of living in the afternoon,” she said. “If not, will I be disappointed? A little bit — but you can’t be a jerk if you’ve had three successful careers.”
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