American Lawyer and Courtroom Comedies
Summary and Keywords
A large amount of American law-related popular culture is comedic. Inexpensive literature, Hollywood movies, and prime-time series routinely include images of amusing lawyers and accounts of hilarious trials. These pop cultural works entertain readers and viewers and in some instances simultaneously speak to the public’s resentment of powerful legal institutions.
Much of American popular culture is law-related, and, somewhat surprisingly, many law-related pop cultural works are comedic. Inexpensive literature, Hollywood movies, and television series routinely entertain readers and viewers with amusing lawyer characters and funny courtroom proceedings.
Lawyer and courtroom comedies, as well as comedies in general, are narratives in which the characters’ dilemmas and complicated situations will work themselves out to readers’ and viewers’ satisfaction in the end. Comedies are in this sense “easy” to read or watch. “The characters and their discomfitures engage our pleasurable attention, and we are made to feel confident no great disaster will occur …” (Abrams, 1999, p. 38).
Within the realm of comedy, meanwhile, great variety exists. Comedy finds a home within many established genres, and it ranges from intellectual high comedy, which demands little emotional engagement from readers and viewers, to low comedy, which regales us with sight gags, bawdy humor, and clownish physical slapstick. The tone of lawyer and courtroom comedies might be dryly witty, comically humorous, or—increasingly in recent years—bitingly satiric.
Literature, film, and television are the most important media for lawyer and courtroom comedies, and this article offers capsule histories of comedic expression in those three media. The media touch and influence one another, but the histories are neither the same nor even parallel. After all, literature, film, and television became centerpieces in the culture industry’s production at various points in time. Furthermore, while the media do not dictate the messages, the media have different imperatives and proffer distinct types of comedic narratives.
Individual comedic works often appear first in one medium only to appear subsequently in another medium. American popular culture, it bears remembering, consists of commodities for sale in a market economy. Consumer engagement with a pop cultural commodity or even simple name recognition gives the commodity a marketing edge if it is transmogrified for one or more additional media. In the discussion that follows, specific works are referenced in the medium in which they found their greatest success.
Popular comedic novels and short stories about lawyers and trials are less common than comparable Hollywood films and prime time television series. However, throughout American history, novelists and writers of short stories have portrayed lawyers and courtroom proceedings in wry and humorous ways. It would overstate things to say lawyers and courtroom proceedings are great staples of American comedic literature, but prominent and engaging examples surely exist.
During the earliest decades of the republic, men who had studied and practiced law wrote many of the nation’s most popular novels, stories, and poems. Being a lawyer and being a writer were not necessarily perceived as separate and distinct callings. Yet the likes of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Washington Irving, and William Cullen Bryant abandoned careers in the law, especially after their careers as writers took sail. Some of their literary works convey a negativity about the profession they left behind.
For the most part, this negativity was not bitter and hostile but rather more lighthearted and comedic. In the words of Robert Ferguson, the leading scholar of law-related 19th-century American literature, the writers “realized before other republicans that the safest and best criticism of the new nation came with a smile” (Ferguson, 1984, p. 99). As the nation moved past the glories of the revolution, developed its market economy, and purchased or appropriated lands stretching across the continent, comedy was a way to consider the burgeoning legal profession, powerful legal system, and sometimes imbalanced socio-legal realities of the first half of the 19th century.
The life and work of Washington Irving illustrate, respectively, the career path of an early 19th-century lawyer/author and the tone of the era’s literary expression. The son of a hardware merchant, Irving practiced law in a small but prestigious New York City law firm, and his mentor Josiah Ogden Hoffman offered him both a full partnership and the hand of his daughter. However, at just the same time that Irving’s career as a lawyer was apparently taking off, he was at work on the stories and sketches that became the widely read The History of New York (1809). A sprawling burlesque of colonial New Amsterdam conveyed by the fictive Dutch rogue Diedrich Knickerbocker, The History of New York does not focus chiefly on lawyers and courts, but it does mock them.
Indeed, Irving links the Dutch colony’s decline not just to the incursions of the English in general but also to the English proclivity for suing in the courts. Speaking through his narrator Knickerbocker, Irving uses the circuit-riding Yankee lawyer as a symbol for combative English litigation. He casts these circuit-riders as conniving, duplicitous pettifoggers riding from one court to another in search of a lawsuit and concomitant financial gain (Ferguson, 1984, p. 156).
Over time, Irving’s treatment of lawyers and the courts lost its edge. He turned increasingly to charming stories and warmhearted Americana. In The Sketch Book (1819) and other works, he sought to delight more than deplore. But his negative attitude about his initial calling as a lawyer never completely disappeared. In Irving’s beloved “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” for example, a headless horseman chases the Yankee teacher and real estate speculator Ichabod Crane from what had been an idyllic rural village, but Irving provides a snide postscript to the effect that the disagreeable Crane landed on his feet: he became a lawyer and judge in New York City.
A variety of romanticism supplanted neoclassicism as the dominant mode of American literary expression during the decades immediately preceding the Civil War, the period in literary history that the groundbreaking American Studies scholar F. O. Matthiessen dubbed the “American Renaissance” (1941, p. vii). Excellent writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe crafted a large body of novels, stories, and poems. These romantics had never been lawyers and were for the most part disinclined to poke fun at the lawyers or courts—or much of anything for that matter.
Yet if one searches hard enough through this body of literature, amusing portrayals of lawyers do occasionally appear. For example, in Herman Melville’s novella “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853) the unnamed narrator is an accomplished but nevertheless somewhat lazy lawyer in lower Manhattan. The lawyer/narrator tells the sad, haunting tale of a scrivener named Bartleby, whose existential malaise ends with his death in the Tombs, New York City’s prison. But in the course of the tale, delightful sketches of workers in the lawyer/narrator’s law office appear, including those of Bartleby’s fellow scriveners charmingly nicknamed Turkey and Nippers. The lawyer/narrator himself is also comic in a dry way. He constantly rationalizes Bartleby’s proverbial preference for doing nothing, and late in the tale he goes so far as to relocate his entire practice because he cannot get Bartleby to stop sleeping in his offices on Wall Street.
After the Civil War, a bevy of American humorists, many of whom hailed from the South or the West, ridiculed aspects of the American life. Americans who attended the humorists’ performances or read their works took special delight in this skewering of legal institutions, perhaps sensing that the era’s paeans to lawfulness and the rule of law obscured the greed and inequality of what came to be known as the “Gilded Age.”
Ambrose Bierce, the misanthropic journalist, satirist, and writer of fables and short stories, was more hostile to lawyers and courts than other humorists (Hylton, 1991, p. 705). His short story “The Famous Gilson Bequest” (1878) suggests that the courts could be used to punish the greedy. In the story, a convicted and executed California thief with substantial assets uses a curious will to exact revenge on his town. The will stipulates that anyone who can prove that he stole gold dust from the area’s sluice boxes can claim his estate. Many try unsuccessfully to do so, fully displaying their avariciousness in the process. After years of litigation, the legal expenses consume the entire estate, and nobody in town gets much of anything.
The indefatigable Mark Twain also poked fun at lawyers and the courts in many of his works of the late 19th century. In fact, his novel Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894) features attorney David Wilson and an extended trial. Wilson moves to Dawson’s Landing, Missouri, at the beginning of the novel and quickly strikes the locals as a loser. They make fun of his fingerprint collection, decline his legal services, and stick him with the nickname “Pudd’nhead.” The trial, meanwhile, is for nothing less than murder, but it is absurdly nonsensical.
Twain’s attitude toward the law in general is clear from the start. The novel begins with “A Whisper to the Reader,” in which Twain, tongue firmly in cheek, says that William Hicks, an employee in a feed store, who studied law 35 years earlier, had carefully reviewed all of the book’s trial scenes for accuracy. This is not to say, of course, that the law has become a reliable social rudder. For Pudd’nhead Wilson and others, law is contradicted and undependable. Through one of the law’s fictions, for example, a child with blue eyes, flaxen curls, and 31 white parts out of 32 is legally black. When a character named Tom Driscoll turns to the law in an assault-and-battery matter, his uncle, who is a judge, severely upbraids him for not resorting to a duel instead. One critic, referring chiefly to Twain’s view of lawyers, courts, and the law, found the novel “wry and cute rather than insightful and moving” (Papke, 1988, p. 31).
Some of the stories and books by Bierce, Twain, and other humorists were published by the rapidly maturing culture industry, as were a wide range of dime novels, serials, detective stories, and early versions of “true crime” reports. At the turn of the 20th century, a lawyer/author named Melville Davisson Post published dozens of stories about the fictional attorney Randolph Mason. The stories were collected in such volumes as The Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason (1896) and The Man of Last Resorts (1897). However, the Randolph Mason stories, for better or worse, can best be described as curious and mysterious rather than as comedic or humorous.
Lawyer and courtroom humor was a much larger part of the stories by Arthur Train, who replaced Post as America’s most prominent lawyer/author in the 1920s. Many of Train’s stories featured the fictional lawyer Ephraim Tutt, and these stories appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, the nation’s most popular glossy magazine, and then in various short story collections, including the delightfully titled Tut, Tut! Mr. Tutt (1923). The popularity of the Tutt stories even led Train to write a mock autobiography titled Yankee Lawyer: The Autobiography of Ephraim Tutt (1943).
Tall and lanky with some resemblance to Abraham Lincoln, Ephraim Tutt headed a small Manhattan law firm. His partner is Samuel Tutt, a frenetic, short lawyer who shares Ephraim Tutt’s surname but is, somewhat remarkably, unrelated. When Ephraim Tutt asked Samuel Tutt why he wanted to join the former’s firm, the latter said he wanted to be associated with a good name. The two Tutts get along quite well as sort of Mutt-and-Jeff partners, assisted by an office staff with the likes of clerk Minerva Wiggin and office boy Willie Toothaker.
The Tutts’ cases involve giant fortunes, intra-family intrigue, and unfairly prosecuted defendants. As befits popular comedy, readers know in advance that everything will work out for the Tutts’ clients and, by extension, for the Tutts themselves. It helps that the clients either have meritorious claims or are innocent of the crimes with which they are charged, but, regardless, trouble eventually goes away in pop cultural comedy.
In the decades following World War II, the publication of glossy magazines and cheap paperbacks ground gradually to a halt, and as the glossy magazines and cheap paperbacks disappeared, so, too, did opportunities to publish comedic novels and short stories about lawyers and courts. John Barth’s The Floating Opera (1956, revised 1967) concerns Todd Andrews, a litigator on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Andrews enjoys pursuing various long and complicated lawsuits, largely because he considers the practice of law to be a game. He also fills seven peach baskets to the brim with notes about why he decided not to kill himself. The novel might be characterized as a “black comedy,” that is, a work in which a baleful, inept protagonist lumbers through life in ways that are simultaneously horrifying and comic (Abrams, 1999, p. 2). The vision of Barth’s contemporary Louis Auchincloss is not as bleak. A Wall Street lawyer as well as a writer, Auchincloss was well positioned to lightheartedly lambaste fictional lawyers in law firms, and he did just that in Powers of Attorney (1963), The Partners (1974), and Diary of a Yuppie (1986). Lawyer/author John Jay Osborne also used wit and sarcasm to pillory fictional lawyers in large law firms in his often-overlooked The Associates (1979).
The relative dearth of comedic literature about lawyers and courtroom proceedings in the last third of the 20th century is a bit surprising because the period also saw declining respect for lawyers and judges (Asimow, 2000, pp. 536–540; Papke, 2007, p. 149). One surveyor of public opinion and political discourse found that the percentage of Americans who thought lawyers were less honest than most people rose dramatically during the 1980s and that almost all Americans agreed that the nation had too many lawyers (Galanter, 1998, pp. 809–810). Books such as Jeff Rovin’s 500 Great Lawyer Jokes (1992) and Ellie Grossman’s Lawyers from Hell Joke Book (1993) circulated widely, and many of the jokes included in these books were downright nasty. One might have assumed that in a period of anti-lawyer sentiments lawyers would have been subjected to a larger number of comical literary portrayals.
At the very end of the 20th century, a group of lawyers/authors including but not limited to John Grisham, Lisa Scottolini, and Scott Turow published dozens of best-sellers that some praised as a new genre called “legal thrillers” (Grisham, 1992, p. 33). But the occasional wit and charm of these works are not enough to make them comedic. In general, they are tales of dark secrets and the abuse of power. If readers at the beginning of the 21st century are longing for comedic literature about lawyers and courts, they might be advised to consider instead the works of barrister/author John Mortimer and other British writers, in which bumbling lawyers and odd cases continue to abound. Speaking of this British fiction, prominent law and literature scholar Peter Robson says, “There are no villains, only rogues and scallywags. Crime is of a minor nature and never involves anything by way of murder, rape or even assault.” In the end, as one would expect in comedy, “things work out” (Robson, 2014, p. 233).
During World War I, the production of American films gradually shifted from New York City to Hollywood, and in the opinion of many, D. W. Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation (1915) was Hollywood’s first fully developed feature film. Forty years of distinctive filmmaking followed, complete with powerful studios, a star system, and established genres. Comedy was a major part of this “classical age” of American cinema (Cripps, 1996, p. 3).
Comedies involving lawyers and set in courtrooms, meanwhile, did not appear in significant numbers until the production of silent films ended in the late 1920s. Why was that? As film historian Francis M. Nevins has put it: “A silent lawyer is a contradiction in terms” (Nevins, 2005, p. 111). Once endowed with the gift of gab, meanwhile, lawyers became increasingly common in the comedies of the 1930s and ’40s.
The Night Court (1927) is perhaps the first comedy of the classical age to rely on lawyers and courtroom proceedings for laughs. The film begins with the round-up of a nightclub troupe, whose performances are supposedly obscene. But then the troupe performs a playful dance number in the courtroom itself. The jury serves as a small orchestra, and the fun-loving judge sways to the music. He then agrees to join the troupe for their midnight show at the club so as to judge whether their performances are truly obscene. When the uptight district attorney is not even allowed to come along, it seems certain that the troupe will be cleared of all charges.
Musical comedy was for the most part not their “shtick,” but the bawdy, irreverent comics of the 1930s and ’40s—W. C. Fields, Mae West, the Marx Brothers, and Laurel and Hardy—seemed never to miss a chance to ridicule lawyers and legal proceedings. The Three Stooges extended this type of humor the furthest. In 1936, they produced and starred in Disorder in the Court, a film in which a courthouse serves as the setting of the Three Stooges’ repartee, double entendres, sight gags, and physical slapstick. Yuck, yuck. The Three Stooges themselves play the roles of witnesses in a murder trial, and the film jokes about everything from witnesses’ oaths to the prosecutor’s toupee.
A decidedly more subtle comedy from the period was The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), a film based on the short story of the same name by Stephen Vincent Benet, which had itself been inspired by Washington Irving’s short story “The Devil and Tom Walker” (1824). In the film, a farmer sells his soul to the devil, known as Mr. Scratch, and when the devil comes to collect the goods, the 19th-century lawyer and statesman Daniel Webster intervenes on the farmer’s behalf. Webster then defends the farmer before a jury consisting of evil and notorious figures from American history. Unlikely to provoke guffaws, the film nevertheless prompts at least a smirk over the Faustian display of self-interest.
In the surprisingly charming Miracle on 34th Street (1934), a man named “Kris Kringle” replaces a drunk as Santa Claus in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and is so successful that Macy’s hires him to be Santa Claus at its main store on 34th Street in Manhattan. When it turns out that Kringle believes he is actually Old Saint Nick, a young lawyer has to defend him in a mental competency hearing before the New York Supreme Court. When bailiffs deposit 21 full mailbags of letters addressed to “Santa” in front of the bench, one and all conclude there actually is a Santa Claus.
Beyond individual gems such as Disorder in the House, The Devil and Daniel Webster, and Miracle on 34th Street, many of the early lawyer and courtroom comedies were standardized and generic, and the formal genre that was especially accommodating for goofy lawyers and bizarre trials was the romantic comedy. Frothy and often frivolous, romantic comedies feature seemingly mismatched lovers who bumble along, repeatedly misunderstanding one another until late in the film they find true love and an enduring relationship. The romantic comedy “established a new style whose theme became stereotyped in hundreds of romantic comedies of the thirties,” and the genre undeniably provided escape and emotional relief for Americans trying to survive the Great Depression (Dooley, 1981, p. 310).
Romantic comedies also had a soft political message. The ultimate marriage of the romantic comedy’s major characters suggests a peaceful world in which the differences between the quiet and the noisy, the established and the newly arrived, and the rich and the poor can be bridged. Social harmony can reign as people are united. The film historian Thomas Cripps, among others, is skeptical: Romantic comedies “have a sly, wry way of tweaking the status quo on the nose and holding out prospects for its change, but they rarely suggested ways to bring about the change” (Cripps, 1996, p. 177).
Lawyers, of course, have no monopoly on the lead roles in romantic comedies, but a certain type of obtuse lawyer proved an almost ideal character for the romantic comedy. Then, too, what better venue for screwball antics than the courtroom? The range of specific possibilities is almost limitless. In Naughty Flirt (1931), for example, a woman falls for an awkward lawyer who works, of all places, in her father’s law firm. In Misbehaving Husbands (1940), a married man disproves the allegations of a shady divorce lawyer by showing in court that the man’s putative lover was actually a department store mannequin. And in Remember the Night (1940), a New York district attorney, played by the always-predictable Fred McMurray, falls in love with a shoplifter, played by Barbara Stanwyck, whom he had just prosecuted.
The greatest law-related romantic comedy of the early period was director George Cukor’s superb Adam’s Rib (1949). The film portrays two lawyers: prosecutor Adam Bonner, played by Spencer Tracy, and his wife and private defense counsel Amanda Bonner, played by Katharine Hepburn. The idea of a woman being a lawyer was less curious in 1949 than it was in the 1930s, when, according to one scholar, no fewer than 12 films considered the difficulty of being a woman while also being a lawyer (Dooley, 1981, p. 317). However, gender in general is very much the central issue Adam’s Rib.
Childlike and childless, the Bonners have a bourgeois lifestyle, complete with a maid and an elegant two-story New York City apartment, in which they host dinner parties with live piano music. Trouble arrives in paradise when the Bonners find themselves on opposing sides in the trial of Doris Attinger for attempting to murder her adulterous husband. As prosecutor, Adam Bonner takes a hard line, arguing that Attinger’s violent act demands harsh punishment. As Attinger’s defense counsel, Amanda Bonner points out (1) a man who catches his wife having an affair will be excused for a violent response and (2) a woman such as Attinger who catches her husband in a compromised situation should also be excused. In the end, Amanda prevails in part due to a hilarious courtroom scene in which she calls three accomplished women to the stand—a chemist, a factory forewoman, and a tumbler/weightlifter—in order to underscore women’s equality. The tumbler/weightlifter entertains those in the courtroom with backflips and by hoisting Adam Bonner high in the air to demonstrate her strength.
Perhaps needless to add, the adversarial conduct spills over into the Bonners’ idyllic home. Adam Bonner considers his wife “causey” and finds her courtroom behavior an insult to the dignity of the law. Amanda Bonner thinks her husband is stuck in the mud of gender inequality and too rigid and humorless in his understanding of the law. The quarreling intensifies, and Adam Bonner moves out with an eye to a divorce. However, this development is surely not the way to conclude a romantic comedy. When Adam Bonner “rescues” Amanda Bonner from a lusty neighbor named Kip Laurie by brandishing and then eating a gun made of licorice, the couple reconcile and dream of retreating to their country home to play with their rusticated dogs. Any romantic comedy worth its salt ends in harmony, and that includes Adam’s Rib.
Film historians customarily take the so-called “classical period” of film production and consumption to have ended by the 1950s (Cripps, 1996, p. 222). Americans moved to the suburbs far from the downtown movie palaces, spent their disposable income on appliances and automobiles, and turned to the newly emergent network television for escape. However, film comedies hardly disappeared, and bumbling lawyers and chaotic courtrooms remained part of the mix. Many of these comedies were conventional and even a bit tedious, but eventually a handful wielded a sharper, more satiric edge.
The romantic comedy genre continued to be especially accommodating for humorous portrayals of lawyers and courtroom proceedings in the second half of the 20th century. The portrayals became more risqué and sexually explicit than they had been in the past, and it was increasingly the case that a seemingly mismatched couple struggled not to find love but rather to sustain their relationship or marriage. Yet viewers could still enjoy the hijinks and laughable miscommunication.
Each decade in the second half of the 20th century had at least one popular romantic comedy featuring a lawyer character and/or courtroom trial, and most had more than one. In the musical Athena (1954), a stuffy lawyer falls for a woman from a family of 1950s-style fitness fanatics. In Barefoot in the Park (1967), an uptight attorney, played by Robert Redford, learns to enjoy life in a tiny apartment with his effervescent wife, played by Jane Fonda. In Blume in Love (1973), a California divorce lawyer tries to win back the woman who divorced him. In Legal Eagles (1986), a New York City district attorney falls for a defense lawyer representing a client accused of stealing a painting, and by the end of the film the lawyers have gone into practice together. And in Liar Liar (1997), a lawyer played by Jim Carrey lapses into silly antics in the office and in the courtroom because, due to his son’s birthday wish, he is unable to lie. He also regains the love of his ex-wife by literally chasing her departing airliner down the runway.
Could the turn of the postmodern page once and for all stop the flood of romantic comedies? Hardly. The romantic comedy remained a balm for fractious times, and romantic comedies featuring lawyers and venturing into the courtroom seemed actually to increase. In Two Weeks Notice (2002), an activist lawyer, played by Sandra Bullock, learns to love her childish billionaire employer, played by Hugh Grant. In Laws of Attraction (2004), opposing divorce lawyers find love—with one another. In Intolerable Cruelty (2009), a high-powered divorce lawyer, played by George Clooney, falls for a client’s conniving ex-wife. And in the otherwise forgettable Serious Moonlight (2009), an elite lawyer, played by Meg Ryan, duct-tapes her adulterous husband to the toilet.
If the postmodern law-related cinema did not successfully abandon its fondness for the romantic comedy, it did at least become more aggressive. A number of comedies from the turn of the 21st century were to some extent satiric. Satire amuses us by making its subject look or sound ridiculous. Satire “differs from the comic in that comedy evokes laughter mainly as an end in itself, while satire derides, that is, it uses laughter as weapon, and against a butt that exists outside the work itself” (Abrams, 1999, p. 275). Lawyers and courts were vulnerable to being the butt of the satire.
The Fortune Cookie (1966) might be the first of the satiric films. It features a hustling personal injury lawyer known as “Whiplash Willie,” played by Walter Matthau. He wants a client to fake paralysis in order to scam an insurance company, but the purported victim’s conscience ultimately thwarts the plan. The film satirizes both the lawyers for the insurance company and the personal injury lawyers.
Other films also made lawyers the butt of the joke. The black comedy War of the Roses (1989) features a manic, narrow-minded lawyer represented by another inept lawyer in divorce proceedings. The outrageously funny My Cousin Vinny (1992) revolves around a brash, Italian-American lawyer from New York, who failed the bar exam five times and has no trial experience. Somehow, the one-and-only Vinny Gambino prevails in an Alabama murder trial. A satiric treatment not so much of the legal profession but rather the courts worth considering is Trial and Error (1997), in which a non-lawyer played by Michael Richards—Kramer of television’s Seinfeld—relies on advice conveyed through a baby monitor to argue for the defendant in a mail fraud case, simultaneously revealing how weak-willed a judge can be.
Indeed, not only the legal profession and the courts but also law schools and legal education could be satirized. Although it explores severe career angst and even an attempted suicide, the legendary Paper Chase (1973) has more than a few funny moments, including one in which the voluminous class notes of a particularly obnoxious law student are scattered to the wind. Soul Man (1986) awkwardly attempts to make fun of law school affirmative action programs. And Legally Blonde (2001) features the screwy but lovable Elle Woods, played by Reese Witherspoon, as the ultimate “fish out of water.” Harvard Law School is the setting for all of these films, and the satirizing of legal education is enhanced because of the school’s reputation as the nation’s premier institution of legal learning.
The satire hardly precludes enjoying and laughing at the films’ images and portrayals, but the satire does reflect skepticism about legal institutions among the lay public. University of Colorado law librarian and film archivist Alan Pannell insightfully suggests: “By poking fun at the powerful institution of the law, comedies not only helped make the law less scary, but also rendered lawyers and judges less intimidating by bringing them down a few notches. Depictions of the legal system as flawed, and often corrupt, gave average citizens a vicarious way to get back at the power elite of the day” (Pannell, 2013, p. 213).
After prime-time American television programming began in the late-1940s, lawyer characters and courtroom proceedings quickly found their niches, but few were comedic. Some of the very earliest series lurched back and forth between fact and fiction, simulating real cases and real courtrooms while enhancing the drama. Then, beginning in the mid-1950s, dramatic series featuring fictional criminal defense lawyers working on their own or in small partnerships took hold. The generic exemplar of this latter type of series was Perry Mason (CBS; 1957–1966), and dozens of series followed the Perry Mason formula during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.
Perry Mason and its generic progeny were not comedic, but the shows did include coy exchanges, double entendre, and no shortage of characters at whom one could laugh. In Perry Mason itself, for example, attorney Mason liked to banter with his loyal secretary Della Street and suave detective Paul Drake. When, in the end, Perry Mason prevails and his conveniently innocent client walks free, the frustration and chagrin of District Attorney Hamilton “Ham” Burger was, in a fleeting way, comedic.
In subsequent decades, individual comic lawyers would continue to surface in series that were not necessarily legal shows. In an ensemble of characters, one might very well be a lawyer. These characters include but surely are not limited to Lionel Hutz in The Simpsons (Fox; 1989–present); Jackie Childs in Seinfeld (NBC; 1989–1998); and Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad (AMC; 2008–2013). Most of the major characters in Breaking Bad ended up dead, but attorney Goodman survived, and, in a prequel revolving around him, he continued to tell potential clients they had “Better Call Saul.”
The sitcom, which had originated on the national radio networks of the 1920s and ’30s, was one of television’s most successful genres, and it became a special home for lawyer and courtroom comedies. In the traditional sitcom, a group of characters who share a residence or workplace stumble into various comical situations. Sometimes early sitcoms were performed before a live studio audience, but since studio audiences could not be counted upon to laugh at the right times or to laugh loudly enough, the use of laugh tracks became common.
Early and largely fleeting examples of sitcoms revolving around lawyers and/or courtroom proceedings date from the 1950s. In Willy (CBS; 1954–1955), for example, June Havoc played Wilma “Willy” Dodger, a lawyer from small-town New England who cannot find customers and therefore moves to New York City. With a group of “Big Apple” vaudevillians as clients, Willy found herself in no shortage of humorous situations.
Subsequent lawyer sitcoms were equally preposterous and even less successful. Glynis (CBS; 1963) featured a mystery writer and her lawyer husband, who lightheartedly track down assorted lawbreakers. In The Jean Arthur Show (CBS; 1966), well-established actress Jean Arthur played the maternal half of a mother–son team of lawyers with a chauffeur. Adam’s Rib (ABC; 1973) tried to transmogrify the immensely popular Hollywood film of the same name. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy showed no interest in reprising their cinematic portrayals of Amanda and Adam Bonner, but Blythe Danner and Ken Howard took their places. In The Associates (CBS; 1979–1980), Martin Short played Tucker Kerwin, one member of a group of inept young lawyers.
The first lawyer and courtroom comedy to find great popular success within the sitcom genre was Night Court (NBC; 1984–1992). “Unlike serious legal dramas that show lawyers as more-or-less noble characters, Night Court let its audience laugh at lawyers, who were shown as being just as goofy and fallible as anyone else” (Kirk, 1998, p. 18).
The setting of the series was a municipal court in New York City, presided over by an immature, unpredictable judge named Harry Stone, played by the established comedian Harry Anderson. The regular cast included lusty, narcissistic prosecutor Dan Fielding, played by John Larroquette; thick-skulled bailiff “Bull” Shannon, played by Richard Moll; and naïve public defender Christine Sullivan, played by Markie Post. When the latter was able to elude the lecherous advances of Dan Fielding, she tended to her sprawling Princess Diana memorabilia collection, which featured a full set of Princess Diana porcelain thimbles.
The complainants and criminals who appeared in Night Court were as wacky as the people who worked there, but the variety of comedy changed as the series evolved. Early on, the humor was wittier and often involved the court’s personnel’s attempts to deal with bizarre individuals and cases. In the final years of the series’ run, by contrast, Night Court included more slapstick and even occasionally flirted with the surreal, as in one episode in which a ventriloquist’s dummy testified under oath—but without the ventriloquist!
Additional comedies with amusing lawyers and courtroom hijinks continued in the wake of Night Court during the 1900s and 2000s, but the generic framework of these comedies changed. Instead of the standard sitcom, with episodes lasting only 20–25 minutes, longer series appeared with hour-long episodes. What’s more, comic character and plot developments sometimes stretched from week to week and supplemented the individual cases that played out within single episodes.
The best example of the new lawyer and courtroom comedy was Ally McBeal (Fox; 1997–2002), which won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Television Comedy Series in 1999. McBeal, played by Calista Flockhart, was a flaky attorney working in a Boston law firm named Cage & Fish. Her professional colleagues included Richard Fish, McBeal’s most avaricious Harvard Law School classmate and founder of the firm. He is consumed with making a profit, and one of his most famous “Fishisms” was “Res ipsa retainer.” The firm’s best litigator is John Cage, known in the firm as “The Biscuit.” He prepares for trial by listening to Barry White tapes and compulsively uses a remote toilet bowl flusher in the firm’s notorious unisex bathroom.
As odd and entertaining as the personnel at Cage & Fish are, the series centers on Ally McBeal herself. She is a surprisingly capable lawyer, but her emotions often get the best of her, as in one episode in which she trips a woman who has beaten her to the last canister of Pringles in the supermarket. Producers sometimes conveyed McBeal’s emotions with symbolic imagery, such as literal arrows to the heart when she is romantically spurned or lovemaking in a giant coffee cup when a relationship begins to smolder. Then, too, viewers were treated to McBeal’s humorous hallucinations, the most famous of which was a dancing baby. When McBeal tells her roommate about the baby’s unwillingness to vacate her imagination, the roommate tells McBeal she must be worried about the ticking of her biological clock. The symbolic imagery and humorous hallucinations, according to Australian scholar Cassandra Sharp, “blurred boundaries between inner and outer realities” and were crucial in the series’ appeal (Sharp, 2009, p. 223).
At the peak of its popularity, Ally McBeal engendered controversy as well as laughs. Some deplored McBeal’s mini-skirts, naughty sexual exploits, and flirtatious courtroom style. A picture of Ally McBeal even appeared on the cover of the June 29, 1998, issue of Time magazine with the caption “Is Feminism Dead?”
Boston Legal (ABC; 2004–2008) was in some sense the successor to Ally McBeal on prime time, although the show combined the dramatic exploration of important social issues with comic lawyer characters, leading some to call it a “dramedy.” The rise of the latter as a genre seemed proof that modern-day viewers could not really be serious for very long, but Stephen McPherson, president of ABC Entertainment, saw the popularity of dramedies as proof of viewers’ growing sophistication. “Viewers today,” he said, “expect more humor, which may explain some of the absurdities in Boston Legal” (Pendleton, 2006, p. 216).
As in the case of some films from the final decades of the 20th century, the humor in Boston Legal was frequently satirical. This was especially true with regard to the conduct of ethically challenged lawyer Alan Shore, played by James Spader, and in the pompous womanizing of his senior colleague Denny Crane, played by William Shatner. While Shore and Crane are just two characters, legalists might be troubled that the butt of Boston Legal’s satire was for the most part lawyers themselves.
Other turn-of-the-century lawyer and courtroom comedies lacked the staying power of Boston Legal, but they, too, eagerly satirized the legal profession, especially lawyers in private law firms. In the animated Harvey Birdman (Cartoon Network; Adult Swim; 2001–2007), a firm staffed mainly by superheroes litigates cases, with some part of the humor involving the depiction of cartoon figures with the characteristics of lawyers. In Franklin & Bash (TNT; 2011–2014), two debauched lawyers known for their courtroom antics agree to join a large firm but do not abandon their comic ways. In Harry’s Law (NBC; 2011–2012), attorney Harriet Korn, played by Kathy Bates, abandons a highly paid position in a snooty patent firm for a criminal defense practice based in a shoe store in Cincinnati. In Suits (USA; 2011–present), ace “lawyer” Mike Ross prospers in a prestigious New York City firm while hiding the fact he never attended law school. And in The Grinder (Fox; 2015–present), television actor Dan Sanderson, played by Rob Lowe, takes his experience portraying a lawyer in a prime-time television series to be enough to practice in a real law firm. The fact that he succeeds slyly suggests the absence of any bright line between pop cultural and actual lawyering.
A large part of American popular culture is law-related. Lawyers, legal proceedings, and the “justice under law” theme are familiar in literature film, television, and other media. Indeed, the claim that American culture in general is the most legalistic in the world is reinforced by the large amount and wide distribution of law-related popular culture.
Somewhat surprisingly given the elevated ideological standing of law in the United States, a large part of the nation’s law-related popular culture is comedic. Lawyer and courtroom comedies are entertaining and often escapist, and readers and viewers know no serious harm will befall the characters. In addition, some lawyer and courtroom comedies poke fun at important and much-valorized legal institutions. Throughout American history and across genres, lawyer and courtroom comedies provide entertaining distraction and relief while simultaneously speaking to the public’s resentment of the legal profession and the courts.
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