Cashing in on Schadenfreude
Frank and I Meet Judge Judy


When I was a child, afternoons at the Callahan house were filled with the unfortunately televised presence of soap operas.  The bad acting, the poor production and the sadass storylines were depressing reminders that my family was middle brow and middle class.  I was condemned to a world that looked to someone else’s misery as a form of entertainment… on TV.  All My Children, Days of Our Lives, The Young and the Restless, General Hospital — I despised these mind numbing presentations served up to the median class as, how you say,  Schadenfreude.  And soap opera Schadenfreude was especially pitiable.  It was Schadenfreude ala drama queen dream — a form of play acting stripped of all nuance consumed with bringing pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others (as played by the soap opera star).  As you may have guessed, I’ve been a happier human since the year 2000, when soap opera ratings began falling.  2009 was a year of great personal joicing and rejoicing. That’s when the longest-running soap in television and radio history, Guiding Light, went dark… ended. Soon after, As the World Turns turned off and turned over its final episode after a 54 year spin. 

But unfortunately, soap opera’s fall was reality programming’s gain. The druids who television programmers track when deciding what I want to watch, went channel surfing and discovered reality TV.  The delivery system may have changed, but the drug of dismal entertainment prevailed.

Post-soap opera, afternoons at the Callahan house are now were filled with the unfortunately televised presence of court TV and their TV judges.  This offshoot of reality programming —captured and held captive in TV studios — requires only an in-house cast of a make believe judge who will preside and entertain over small-claims court cases. The rest of the cast — the litigants— are just normal folk like you and me (viewers) who have agreed to drop their lawsuits in order to appear on TV. The judges decision is no more than a binding arbitration television contract.  The litigants are, simply put, members of the viewing audience — the druids who television programmers track when deciding what I want to watch.    Only difference is, now they get their millisecond of fame.

You promised me a cut of the business but where’s my money?  Roommates collide…did their pets survive? Former friends fight over damages to a 1995 Toyota Tercel after it is borrowed and returned with damages.  Who will win?  Who will hurt?  These are the questions that are posed by court TV to my 83-year old father Frank everyday.    Stationed in front of the Sony widescreen, soaking in all forms of judges and small claims courtroom drama, Frank keeps the Callahan family legacy of daytime TV mindlessness alive.

And what of the courtroom’s legacy?  Judge Judy, Judge Alex, Judge Larry Joe Doherty, and the entire court TV industry all owe their careers to OJ Simpson whose courtroom murder trial drama in 1995 was seen live on television by more than half of the U.S. population, making it one of the most watched events in American TV history.   Ahhhh, sweet Schadenfreude. 

But what to do?  As my therapist used to say, when you can’t beat em, take advantage of ‘em.  So here’s my plan:

Unbeknownst to me, Frank has recorded a video on my iPhone of the consummation of his phantasmagorical love affair with our teenage house cleaning service maid.   The affair ends and she makes off with his oxycotin prescription never to be seen again.  Then, months later, the video shows up on YouTube titled “old man sex general hospital.”  It’s bad quality.  He’s partially obscured by the date palm and she’s using his walker.  The video deeply effects my father.  The next day my iPhone is gone.  Frank has stolen it, because — I can only presume — there’s another video in the works.  Bottom line:  I’m suing my father $1500 for defamation of character and replacement of my old iPhone with a new 4s 64 gigabyte.   Sex, love, videotape, father, son, jealously, technology.  We submit our case to Judge Judy.

Next thing we know, we’re at CBS studios filming our segment.  I dress the part — kind of academic so the audience hates me.  Frank uses a wheel chair, looks red-eyed and disoriented.  He’s going for pity.  Judy’s a grump.  We play our parts well.  In the end, I get a replacement iPhone, but it’s only 16 gigs (and used).  Frank gets a written apology from me, but is warned to keep it in his pants.  There’s no defamation award.

Frank and I get home and guess what’s on TV?  We are.  Now, Frank can watch us as part of his TV family.  We are the Schadenfreude.  And, we are Frank’s favorite new soap opera.

— Nathan Callahan

First Broadcast December 9, 2011

© / Nathan Callahan / all rights reserved


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