ATLANTA — Steve Harvey has never been to law school. He has no legal degree.
But millions have listened to the comic’s advice on his multiple talk shows and purchased his many bestselling self-help books. So it only seems natural for the man to star in his own prime-time show on ABC dubbed “Judge Steve Harvey.”
The series, which debuted Jan. 4 and is now available on Hulu, was shot at Trilith Studios last fall in Fayetteville.
And while the small-claims cases are similar to those seen on the likes of “People’s Court,” the secret sauce is Harvey’s knack for interacting with people and entertaining the audience.
The cases could be two neighbors squabbling over a damaged fence, a son who won’t pay rent or a woman who used money her sister set aside for their brother’s funeral for plastic surgery.
Myeshia Mizuno, one of the show’s executive producers who previously oversaw Atlanta-based judge shows like “Lauren Lake’s Paternity Court” and “Couples Court With the Cutlers,” said the basic concept came from the fertile mind of Harvey himself. (Harvey was unavailable for an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)
“He has a wealth of knowledge,” said Mizuno, who splits time between Decatur and Los Angeles. “He has such a unique history himself. He went from rags to riches. He relates to people. He can sometimes be unpolished and people appreciate that.”
Mizuno said she just had to find entertaining people who could tell their stories succinctly.
(On a more serious note, only 28 states require a law degree for judges to preside over misdemeanor cases, according to a 2019 ProPublica investigation. That’s not the case in 22 other states, including Georgia. In Georgia, magistrates aren’t allowed to preside over trial juries and municipal court judges must have a law license to handle criminal cases. In South Carolina, three quarters of magistrate judges that oversee misdemeanor crimes and civil disputes don’t possess law degrees and are political appointees, a system “that often places connections over qualifications,” the story noted.)
Harvey, 64, during the first episode doesn’t even pretend he is personifying an actual judge. When an evasive defendant who had just admitted using funeral money for liposuction utters, “I plead the fifth,” Harvey cracks, “You must think this is real court!” He then bangs his gavel several times while laughing.
“That’s funny,” he adds “It’s too late to plead the fifth!”
He then leaves the bench area and summarizes the situation while pacing in front of the plaintiff and defendant like an attorney.
During another case, Harvey watches amusingly while the two sides go at each other and takes a sip out of a glass. “If this was scotch,” he says, “I’d be set!”
Unlike a real courtroom, the audience is free to stand, cheer, whoop and boo. And Harvey even uses a catchphrase after he makes his verdict: “That’s the way I see it!” Indeed, his verdicts are from the gut, based on his own internal logic as opposed to particular case law.
And the always well-dressed comic decided to ditch the traditional robe. Instead, he dons a custom-made black Dolce & Gabbana suit over a crisp black shirt.
The producers did opt for authenticity in one area: a genuine bailiff in 52-year-old Nancy Price, who works at the Douglas County sheriff’s office part-time.
The show initially had hired a comic to play a bailiff but that wasn’t working so co-executive producer Deborah Raptis made a quick search on the web and found Price’s LinkedIn page. She found Price’s cellphone number and tried to call her. Price wouldn’t answer a number she didn’t recognize. Raptis began texting her.
The producers eventually convinced her they were the real deal. They drove to her job on a Friday in Douglasville to meet her in person because they needed her on set Monday. She ultimately said yes. It didn’t hurt that Price’s husband Scott is a detective who happened to know the bailiff on Mizuno’s “Couples Court” show.
Price, who has worked in the legal system since 2015, doesn’t say anything in the first episode but the cameras occasionally cut to her for a reaction shot. She said she was there to present evidence and verbally inform plaintiffs or defendants if they were getting out of line.
“I just kept it professional,” Price said in an interview. “I didn’t interrupt or do anything I wasn’t supposed to. I had to tell myself that this is just a show. I try to be tough in my regular job. But I had to say to myself, ‘Don’t be that Puerto Rican girl! Don’t get all hot. It’s all good!’”
She said she learned a lot just listening to Harvey talk about his own life experiences.
“I appreciated when he put God first,” Price said. “It resonated with me in a Christian home. He would bring all these examples up and it would hit me the stuff he was saying.”
While she tried her best to ignore the cameras and pretend it was a real courtroom, some standard judicial protocols were thrown out the window. It was odd, she said, that plaintiffs and defendants would simply address Harvey as Steve. “You don’t call a real judge by their first name in a courtroom,” she said.
And she held back when plaintiffs and defendants talked to each other, a basic no-no during her regular bailiff job. “I’d only step in if someone in my earpiece told me to,” she said.
Price said she was amazed how cogently he could grasp a case’s nuances, calling him a “quick study.”
In fact, she thinks if Harvey had gone to law school, he would have made an excellent real judge. “He’s got common sense and he cares about people,” she said. “In real court, the judges don’t care if the plaintiff and defendant were best friends or brother and sister. He makes this personal connection that’s heartfelt.”
During the final case of the night Tuesday, two siblings tearfully hug it out. Harvey joins them in a three-way hug. That’s TV judge protocol.
“Judge Steve Harvey” airs at 8 p.m. ET Tuesdays on ABC