Judge Judy doesn’t quite make $1 million for every day she works, but she is nosing in mighty close on that figure.
Judy Sheindlin famously works 52 days a year. On Monday, she extended her contract with CBS through 2020. Her previous contract netted her $47 million per year, making her the highest-paid person on television. The latest one guarantees that CBS gets a first look at any projects Sheindlin funds through her production company, like the show “Hot Bench,” which she created with Randy Douthit.
For years, Sheindlin, 72, has enjoyed cult status among a huge audience. She doesn’t accept back talk, and she’s got an arsenal of insults ready for launch if she doesn’t like your attitude.
Recently, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer name-checked Sheindlin in an episode of “Broad City” right before they got sucked into an Internet wormhole.
“Holy f—, dude! Judge Judy ran for 18 seasons,” Abbi says.
“Jesus Christ!” Ilana shoots back. “Judge Judy’s net worth is — ” A censor bar appears over Ilana’s mouth and the number, lengthened for dramatic effect, is bleeped out — because truly, Sheindlin makes an obscene amount of cash being a judgy lady who yells at people in fake court for their bad grammar and life choices.
Abbi tells Ilana to freeze so she can Instagram Ilana’s incredulity at Judge Judy’s take-home pay, no filter necessary.
To be fair, she has helmed the top-rated show in daytime television for the past five years. More than 10 million people watch “Judge Judy.” The next-highest-rated show is “Dr. Phil,” and he commands less than half that number.
It’s interesting to observe Sheindlin’s sustained success since she began taping “Judge Judy” in 1996, especially since her presence as an Internet darling has been leapfrogged by another slight Jewish woman from Brooklyn rocking judicial robes. That would be the “Notorious RBG,” or Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, as she’s known to the less irony-inclined portions of the populace.
Everything about Ginsberg and her lifetime position on the nation’s highest court, where she is surrounded by eight Ivy League-educated cohorts, suggests distance and delayed gratification. Her opinions or dissents are publicized months after the date the court actually hears a case, while Sheindlin’s small claims set on a California sound stage works more like a legal boxing ring. Sheindlin, a former New York family law judge, bangs a gavel, issues a ruling and both parties who come before her get paid for contributing to America’s entertainment through televised binding arbitration. In Sheindlin’s world, justice gets meted out swiftly and without challenge. Wham, bam, objective truth, as determined by Judge Judy, in 30 minutes.
Sheindlin knows this, and makes no pretenses about it. She’s amassed a huge fortune appealing to a populist attitudes. What all of those court shows have in common is accessibility — the first show of the genre, which Sheindlin eventually dusted in the ratings, was literally called “The People’s Court.” Justice as populist entertainment has far-reaching roots.
Sheindlin’s retained that Brooklyn accent that’s so effective for calling people idiots, and she’s kept the same teased coiffure for nearly 20 years. She’s an institution — one that grew from a studio apartment with a Murphy bed she and her husband, Jerry, shared on Fifth Avenue in New York. She’s a graduate of New York Law School who goes on the “Wendy Williams Show” and tells people she prefers “House of Cards” over reality television. “I don’t like to watch train wrecks,” she said. “I mean, [“House of Cards"] is brilliant,” she said. “If you’re going to spend your time, spend your time getting smarter.”
More than anything, Sheindlin possesses a level of self-awareness that allows her to be happy doing her job as a “judge” on television. She wrote about it in her free book, “What Would Judy Say: Be the Hero of Your Own Story“:
Long before I was Judge Judy, when I was an unknown worker bee, I usually got what I wanted. I set realistic goals consistent with my talents. I never, for instance, wanted to sit on an appellate court. I’m not an academic. Truth be told, I hate to do research. I have a practical mind, and I was well suited for the trial court bench, not the appellate. Stay with your strong suit. Concentrate on what you are naturally adept at.
She splits her time between her 13-acre Greenwich, Conn., estate — which features a sprawling jardin à la française — Florida, and California, where the show tapes.
Sheindlin dispenses the sort of pragmatic, commonsense wisdom you expect from a really sharp grandmother: Women should always have their own money and they shouldn’t be afraid to use all their assets to get ahead in the world. Have a plan and backup plan, she counsels. Don’t define yourself based on what you are to the people around you. She is continually exasperated by women who fight each other over some unemployed loser as though he’s a “prize bull” when they both deserve better. But Sheindlin insists she’s not a feminist.
In an interview with Katie Couric, Sheindlin seemed to equate being a feminist with being a member of an organization, something she said she never felt compelled to do.
When it comes to compensation, she, like former Sony studio head Amy Pascal, advocates knowing your own worth and not being afraid to walk away if you don’t get what you deserve. The proceedings over Sheindlin’s contract can hardly be characterized as negotiations. As she described in “What Would Judy Say,” she goes to dinner with the network executives, she hands over an envelope with her desired salary and the length of the contract, which doesn’t get opened until after dinner. They have the option to say yes or no. They’ve always said yes.
“I never felt the need to have a feminine organization behind me, though I’m sure in some way, they were assistance to me along the way,” Sheindlin said. “I don’t think a movement, actually Katie, helped me. I can understand that a movement is necessary to get something off the ground, perhaps. I think we needed a movement in order to get the right to vote. But I certainly don’t want pay parity with most men!” Here, Sheindlin cackled at her own good fortune.
“You don’t need it,” Couric said.
“I think you define your own world,” Sheindlin said. “And being part of an organization never defined me.”