At dinner a few nights ago, a member of my community asked, quite innocently, if I enjoyed watching various “Judge” shows on television. You know the type: small disputes resolved by individuals in various states of celebrity for the entertainment of all, shows like Judge Judy and The People’s Court. This being a family-friendly website I’ll omit my exact response, but suffice it to say I do not enjoy these shows.
All that being said, however, I have found a wonderful judge-y program recently. Only instead of a TV show, this one’s a podcast in which you might “have your pressing issues decided by Famous Minor Television Personality John Hodgman, Certified Judge.” While I’ve been aware of Hodgman for some time–you know him from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and the Get a Mac ad campaign–it was only recently that NPR introduced me to his little gem of a podcast. In over 130 weekly episodes and counting, Judge John Hodgman sits at his unseen bench to resolve real disputes between real people. What kind of disputes? Well, there aren’t a lot of divorces and stolen goods, and often they are seemingly simple and perhaps even trivial:
Should a mixed-faith couple put up a nativity scene to go with their Christmas tree? (And should it/could it include a menorah?)
And, like any good judge, he’s even written up a formal opinion rendering judgment.
What’s the real difference, though, between what’s going on here, and what goes on in most of television reality shows? For one, the tone is much more engaging and everyone involved demonstrates a respect for each other. And the humor is low-key and done in a playful way. Or, as the NPR report puts it:
The show is a vehicle for comedy, but Hodgman and [Jesse Thorn, who plays the bailiff on the show] both say the podcast has an earnest side, too. Jokes aside, they say, Hodgman really does take the job of fake internet judge seriously.
“The best Judge John Hodgman cases,” Thorn says, “are always about the relationship between the litigants.”
It is this relationship component that sets Hodgman’s show apart from the shriller shows on television. For example, the discussion of a nativity scene, “Away with the Manger,” becomes a discussion about why having a creche — or not — is important to a not-particularly devout or pious recent mother. Go ahead and listen to it here:
Apparently trivial matters can touch on deeper questions about what is important in our lives. Small disputes, played for laughs rather than to win, allow Hodgman and his guests to explore relationships and identities. These guests aren’t out to beat each other, to win over money or property or other tangible goods. They aren’t being goaded by a “judge” looking for conflict-fueled ratings. Rather, they’re able to talk openly and life and relationships.
Oh, and Famous Minor Television Personality John Hodgman solves life’s problems for them. Let’s not forget that.
John Hodgman caricature courtesy Flickr user DonkeyHotey