In this era of sensitivity training, repressed memories and the "abuse excuse," the formula for creating a successful daytime television series usually includes a stream of maladjusted adults, a ready supply of double-talking psychological "experts" and a smarmy, hyperkinetic host prepared to treat his or her guests' every quirk and prevarication as a gemlike insight into the human condition.
This has not, however, been the formula adopted by the producers and the star of "Judge Judy," this season's most successful new series in the treacherous arena of daytime syndication. (In Utah, the show is broadcast by KUTV-Ch. 2 weekdays at 2:30 p.m.)"Look up here," the star, Judge Judith B. Sheindlin, said recently. "Do you see `stupid' written on my forehead?"
Far below her, in the well of her new courtroom, the stage set for her show, a young man bowed his head and shivered. A few seconds earlier, the young man, a smooth-talking Angeleno, had confidently declared that the $1,500 his ex-fiancee had lent him to buy her an engagement ring was, in fact, a "gift." Judge Sheindlin quickly disabused him of that notion.
Shorn of a bit of expertly dispensed legalese, Judge Sheindlin's opinion was this: if it walks like a loan and talks like a loan, it is a loan. The man's ex-fiancee, who was standing, hands on hips, on the other side of the courtroom, would have to be repaid.
The unfortunate litigant tried to raise a feeble protest. Judge Sheindlin, a short, small-boned 54-year-old woman, smacked her hand on the table in front of her. "Quiet!" she said. "I am ruling now." Afterward, contemplating a valid court order to repay the money forthwith, the defendant could produce only a kind of squeamish smirk.
Indeed, quite a few laid-back West Coast types - both in and out of the television industry - have had their preconceptions altered by the pronouncements of Judge Sheindlin, a recently retired supervising judge of Manhattan Family Court and the author of the improbably titled book "Don't Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It's Raining."
She has ridden her no-nonsense style and obvious intelligence - plus New Yorkish attributes like naked ambition, impatience and the sincere belief that the world is a better place for receiving all of her opinions - to a considerable measure of television fame.
"Everybody has their strong suits," Judge Sheindlin said here recently in an empty room at her show's musty studio off Sunset Boulevard. "Mine is that people have a hard time lying to me."
"I can tell they're lying just by the way their body English flows," she continued. "Also, when they're lying, they can't look at you. They look away. When they are lying there is a moment of looking down, of saying, `Can I do this?' So when I put a witness on the stand, a child or an adult, I lean over and I look at them and say: `Look right here. Right at me.' That's one of my skills."
Judge Sheindlin's judicial style and philosophy can be summed up in a word. "It's about structure," she said. "You start out by giving children structure from the day they are born. They are born from a womb. As soon as they are born, we swaddle them, tightly wrapped. Then when we take these babies home, you put them in a small bassinet. There is a physiological reason for that. And the physiological reason for that is, people like structure."
The structure of "Judge Judy" is familiar to anyone who has seen "The People's Court," a successful syndicated show that ran from 1981 to 1993.
Like "The People's Court," "Judge Judy" gleans its cases from small-claims courts around the country. The show's producers persuade prospective litigants to transfer their cases to Judge Sheindlin's television jurisdiction and to agree to abide by her order. Because the maximum dollar limit on such disputes is $5,000, most of the legal fights involve personal loans, small-business contracts and landlord-tenant disputes.
What sets "Judge Judy" apart from its predecessor is the stark contrast between Judge Sheindlin and Judge Joseph Wapner of "The People's Court," a genial, silver-haired retired California jurist who rarely swung his gavel in anger.
"She's very direct, very opinionated," said Lawrence Lyttle, the president of Big Ticket Television, the company that produces "Judge Judy." "She has an unbelievable way of getting people to listen to her without getting preachy. When I first met Judy, I told her: `You remind me of my mother. I think you're sensational.' "
Like much of America, Lyttle first heard of Judge Sheindlin in 1993, when a Los Angeles Times reporter wrote about her as a bare-knuckles rebel in a New York City court system that was drowning in red tape, expediency, self-pity and irresponsibility disguised as psychology and sociology.
"Don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining," she was famously quoted as telling a teen-age drug dealer who claimed in her court that he was driven to crime by the death of his grandmother.
That article led to a segment about her on CBS's "60 Minutes" and to her book, in which she summed up her career and her criticism of the criminal justice system.
Lyttle was one of a number of television producers who contacted Judge Sheindlin shortly thereafter. After some minimal instruction for Judge Sheindlin in the requirements of television production - her disquisitions were sharpened to fit into the half-hour format - a pilot episode was shot last year and the show had its premiere in September.
Although it has nowhere near the number of viewers as "Oprah," which in most of the country appears at 4 p.m. or 3, "Judge Judy" regularly outperforms other shows on the air before "Oprah," and will almost certainly return next season.
The show seems to have caused minimal changes in Judge Sheindlin's life style and outlook on life. She was born in Brooklyn, graduated from American University and received a law degree from New York Law School in 1965. While in law school she married her first husband and began rearing their two children.
In 1972 she went to work for New York City as a prosecutor in family court. In 1982, she received her judicial appointment from Mayor Edward I. Koch. (In a made-for-television twist, Koch was recently hired for a new version of "The People's Court." His show will compete with "Judge Judy" in the fall.)
Judge Sheindlin's second husband is Gerald Sheindlin, a justice of the New York State Supreme Court. They live in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; Judge Sheindlin spends three days every two weeks in Los Angeles taping her show.
Her city pension, she mentioned pointedly, means that she can walk away from "Judge Judy" if she becomes bored with it. As for her goals, she is, not surprisingly, completely frank.
"I want - let me tell you what I want," she said. "I want a two-bedroom, two-bath stone cottage on a lake about an hour outside of New York where my husband and I can go and drive and meet Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn and spend our four or five months of summer seeing our children on the East Coast.
"And for the other six months, I want to be like Auntie Mame and take one of my grandchildren on safari-type trips and see things that I have never seen."