By Matt Masich, LAW WEEK COLORADO
DENVER — Geri Bader’s career as a TV judge was getting off to an auspicious start. The camera crew was in place, the studio audience was trickling in, and Bader, owner of Bader & Co. legal recruiters, arrived resplendent in a purple robe. Everyone was ready for the taping of the pilot episode of “Judge Geri.”
Well, almost everyone.
With cameras set to roll in 30 minutes, the plaintiff and defendant who had agreed to let Judge Geri adjudicate their small claims case were nowhere to be found. She turned to a couple of her friends in the audience.
“If they don’t show up, could you two sue each other really quick?” the would-be TV judge asked.
As the 6 p.m. camera time drew nearer with no litigants in sight, it became clear she wasn’t kidding.
The audience was mostly composed of Bader’s friends, along with a few people who had read about the taping in Penny Parker’s Denver Post column, and one Law Week Colorado reporter — that would be me.
Bader disappeared around the corner to consult with her producer while her two friends sitting in front of me debated whether they were up to improvising a lawsuit in front of the TV cameras. Julie Gelfond was, but her pal wasn’t, and no amount of “c’mons” could persuade her otherwise.
With 10 minutes to showtime, Bader returned with a final appeal for litigants. She did a quick roll call of the people she knew, with no one but Gelfond volunteering. Finally, Bader turned to me. We had met just moments before when I introduced myself as a reporter, there to cover the event.
“Matt, how about you?”
Momentarily stunned, I said the first thing that popped into my head.“Yeah, sure!”
(This is about the same way I ended up playing Creon, king of Thebes, in a college production of “Antigone” — trying to get to my history seminar when I accidentally walked into the room where they were holding auditions. “What the heck?” I thought, and next thing you know, I’m Creon.)
Look shifty and mumble
Sitting in the folding chairs, Gelfond, Bader and I had a quick huddle to get our stories straight.
“So who’s suing who?” I asked.
It was quickly determined that I looked more disreputable than Gelfond, so Bader assigned me the role of the defendant, predetermined to lose the suit.
“OK, now why is she suing me?” I continued.
It seems that I hit Gelfond’s parked Mercedes with my Toyota while in the parking lot at King Soopers — “No, the Safeway at Cherry Creek,” Gelfond interjected — and then just drove off. Gelfond followed me down 1st Avenue, honking and tailgating me until I pulled over. After a heated exchange, I denied that I hit her car and subsequently refused to pay the $1,700 needed to fix the damage.
“How could you not notice you hit me?” Gelfond asked, already getting into character.
“I, uh… I thought I had bumped a shopping cart,” I replied.
Shortly before we went on, Bader told Gelfond to remove her expensive-looking jewelry.
“You don’t look like someone who would be in small claims court,” Bader said.
And, Gelfond suggested I tone down my enunciation — people who flee the scene of accidents tend to mumble. I decided to do a Bill Murray in “Caddyshack” impression.
Bader took her place at the onstage bench. Michael Howk, Bader’s bailiff who in real life is a bartender at The Palm, introduced our case. Gelfond and I walked to our respective podiums. When I took my spot, I noticed there was another camera, not visible from the audience, pointed right at me.
Bader had a novel way of introducing the case: “In one sentence, tell me what happened.”
Gelfond told the court that I just slammed headlong into her parked car and drove off. In my mind, I had bumped into her while backing up, so I had to make up a new story on the fly. Shifty-eyed and mumbly, I gave the court my one-sentence account. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I know I referred to the plaintiff as a “crazy lady.”
Don’t quit the day job
After some questioning from Bader, we litigants couldn’t agree on the most basic facts of the case. It was a classic “he said, she said,” and despite being the designated Washington Generals of the suit, I had a feeling I had cast enough doubt to get away scot-free.
But Gelfond had a witness, someone who had seen me hit the Mercedes and written down my license plate number. I did my best obfuscation routine, but that witness nailed me. Bader ruled in Gelfond’s favor and told me to pay her $1,700. In all, the case lasted about 10 minutes.
Gelfond and I apparently proved it’s not that hard to improvise a small claims case, and Bader successfully recruited a few more volunteers – this time over a dry-cleaning dispute. After shooting was over, the cast, crew and audience had a little wrap-party and debriefing. I skipped this, opting instead to call everyone I knew to tell them I was going to be star.
But after talking to Bader the next day, I was glad I hadn’t quit my day job.
“I realized last night when we were doing the two shows that no matter how unique my personality may be, if the cases are ordinary you become ordinary,” said Bader. “I think we’re going to take it to the next level, which is going to be dramatization based on cases.” In other words, she said, “Theres going to be a lot more yelling, screaming, crying, tantrums. We’re basically going to dramatize the hell out of it.”
Basically, Bader wants more crazy people, which were her bread-and-butter as host of the public access show “I’m OK, You’re Not” in the 1990s. Back then, an average show might feature a man who was convinced his toddler was a space alien, or a dominatrix and her submissive husband.
“The problem with that concept is that you can run out of crazy people in a very short amount of time,” Bader said.
Maybe funny, maybe angry
But by improvising her own interesting situations — based on, but not bound by actual cases — Bader hopes to develop a show with a unique spin on the “People’s Court” motif. The lay judge is still tinkering with what will work, and is interested in doing a show about a man who sues his friends for allegedly stealing his wallet while they bailed him out of jail.
There’s another idea about a couple who broke off their engagement only to be sued by the wedding hall for backing out of their contract.
“We could really make that into fun show — maybe a funny show, maybe an angry show — but the premise of the broken engagement could override the basic issues to the point that the lawsuit becomes secondary to the fact that these people hate each others guts now.”
Bader says she doesn’t yet have firm commitment from any station to actually air the show, but is shopping around for syndication (she’s in touch with some contacts in the business about that).
And should I want to play the role of a jilted fiancé, Bader said, it’s all mine.