We went behind the scenes of Comedy Central's 'The High Court' to find out how stoners are redefining reality court shows.
All photos by Mark Davis/courtesy of Comedy Central
Doug Benson is a weed activist, a longtime fixture of the Los Angeles comedy scene, a major player in the world of podcasting, and a dude who is high a lot. The last thing he'd be qualified to do is oversee oral arguments in small-claims court and issue binding judgements. But well, here he is doing just that.
"These are real people who are really upset," Daniel Kellison, executive producer of Comedy Central's new show The High Court, told me in a phone interview. "They're coming into this courtroom situation, and they're legitimately pissed at each other. Then they've suddenly got to navigate this super stoned judge and bailiff, who are laughing." That pretty much sums up the very simple joke at the heart of The High Court.
"I want to show that when someone's high, that doesn't change their morals."
"It was the easiest pitch and sell of my life," Benson recently told me, during a set visit. "It was like 'It's Judge Judy, but me!' And [the Comedy Central executives] were like, 'OK! Let's do that!'"
But The High Court is a better show than it has any right to be, because the moral struggle at its heart isn't the one between the litigants; it's Benson's. "I want to show that when someone's high, that doesn't change their morals. The decision process may be slower, or there may be details that get foggy, but I'd still like to think that I'd make the same decision if I weren't," Benson explained.
And even if the litigants do ham it up for the cameras, it's important to note that the guests on the show did actually try to take their cases to real small-claims court before anyone ever approached them about being on TV. "They're real-ish," Benson told me. "So you have to care about who's gonna win or lose. You can come to it for laughs, or you can come to it wanting to see a case argued and see what decision is made, or hopefully both."
Since the genre was created in 1981, courtroom shows featuring real cases have tried variations on the formula, like making them about kids or making the judges ostensibly "hot," but the winningest formula so far has been "make the judge a huge jerk." I'd rather watch nothing at all than look at Judge Mathis, Judge Judy, Judge Mills Lane, or Judge Joe Brown bark at two people with real problems for being stupid liars. The whole thing gives me a headache.
In contrast, watching a stoned comedian fill that role instead of someone who thinks he's King fucking Solomon is surprisingly rewarding.
For instance, in one case that will air during the first season, two women have a dispute over a car. I'll try and give you the play-by-play: (Deep breath) One borrowed a Lexus from the other while the plates were already expired, but she parked it in front of a police station, so it got towed, but then there's also the issue of how it stayed in impound for too long, so in the end, the car got lost forever, after which the friend who borrowed the car actually paid for part of it, but not all of it. As the litigants' emotions heightened, and as the layers of fault kept peeling back like an onion, I kinda lost track.
I know what would happen if this were Judge Mills Lane or Judge Judy. The judge would yell at them, pry apart their stupid, illogical arguments, and try to teach someone a valuable life lesson. But stoners—thank God—don't tend to be so, well, judgmental. "'These people are both full of shit! What do I do?'" Benson recalls thinking in many cases. "The answer is: Get high and just arbitrarily award someone [something], or just go, 'Case dismissed!' and bang my gavel, and just walk out."
And then, yes, the participants on the show have to do the thing the stoned judge just said before banging his gavel. "They sign something that says, 'We'll go with whatever the court decides,'" Benson explained.
"Everyone said, 'Why doesn't Doug pretend to smoke on the stage? Then we could just get these shows done.' Doug, to his credit, said he didn't want to."
But the system prevents his rulings from making anyone broke—or broker—Benson told me. "When one person owes another person $300, in my head, I know they're not paying it because they can't," he said. "When I decide in favor of a plaintiff for an amount of money, I know that to a certain point, our show is going to cover it. In the process, neither person gets mad, because at least the person who lost isn't really paying the money."
But if the fact that the show compensates its losing defendants strains your enjoyment because you hold your TV shows to a high standard for authenticity or something, Benson's integrity in one area is utterly uncompromising: When you see him smoke on the screen, he's really getting high.
Granted, the fact that a comedian smokes weed on a Hollywood TV set is probably the least shocking news you'll read today. What's surprising, then, is that Benson and Kellison had to dig in their heels about the issue to make sure it worked out that way. As production was gearing up, a fire marshall categorically forbade weed smoking on The High Court soundstage, they told me. "Then everyone said, 'Why doesn't Doug pretend to smoke on the stage? Then we could just get these shows done.' Doug, to his credit, said he didn't want to."
"We literally shut down rather than pretend," Kellison told me.
"We pushed back pretty hard," Benson said, "especially in light of [California's] legalization [as of November 8, 2016], but some basic parameters were set up by people at Comedy Central where if anyone on set felt like they got a contact high, we would give them a ride home, and everyone participating signed waivers."
On a December visit to the set, I smelled weed when Benson hit a bong—so I can personally vouch for its authenticity—but I couldn't smell it very well, because the crew had used fans and PVC pipe to create an insanely elaborate apparatus for drawing smoke away from the active set, channeling it across the soundstage and blowing it out an exhaust port that led to the outside. I didn't need one of the free rides home.
Technically, according to Benson, "only me and the bailiff can smoke on the set, and I think there's a parameter where we only each do two hits during each deliberation." During the deliberation I watched, he and bailiff Beth Stelling tear that rule to shreds with a series of formidable rips from a camera-friendly—if somewhat goofy—bong.
When the smoke cleared, Stelling looked high, as in: high-school-junior-at-a-planetarium high. The funniest part of the show is when the too-stoned bailiffs have to stand next to the arguing plaintiff and defendant and try to keep it together without getting the giggles. Benson says it's one of the tougher jobs on the entire set. "Most of the bailiffs we got can't just sit there and smoke weed all day like I ended up having to do," he said.
"In all courts, at any level, it feels like there's a lot that a judge can get away with."
But Benson can handle his weed. To make his 2008 documentary Super High Me, he got high every waking second of the day for 30 days, and in no way did it stop him from doing his job—which at the time was telling weed jokes. Being a TV judge is a bit different, he admits, but it's given him insight into the jobs of actual judges. "In all courts, at any level, it feels like there's a lot that a judge can get away with," he said "They can just decide, 'Well, this person has a terrible personality, so I'm gonna teach them a lesson.'"
Consequently, Benson said, the participants on the show do sometimes seem annoyed when things don't work out their way, and even though the money's not an issue, he told me, "People still want to be right." At the end of each segment, the plaintiff and defendant talk about how the proceedings just went, and Benson notes that "more often than not, one of them says, 'That was bullshit!'"
If the ratings are any good, perhaps there could eventually be some kind of appeals process for returning guests. "Maybe we can go Supreme High Court, and I can get together with a bunch of other people, and we can all smoke up and make decisions," he suggested with a laugh.
But until then, Benson mostly wishes these people would just cool it and stop arguing. "It's people who are friends, and people who are relatives. In most of these cases, it's relationships," he told me. "What I'm basically doing is saying, 'We're gonna pay for you to let this go.'
"They probably never will," Benson lamented. "It's probably gonna eat at them for the rest of their lives."
The High Court premieres February 27, 2017, on Comedy Central.
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