Vince August has made a name for himself on reality TV and in the comedy clubs of New York. He’s a member of the Screen Actors Guild. His real name, though, is Vince Sicari, a part-time municipal judge in South Hackensack, New Jersey. For years, he has pursued his legal career, which made his Sicilian immigrant parents happy, and his stage dreams, which made him happy. Thanks to a unanimous ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court, he has had to choose between the two. Comedy fought the law, and comedy won.
The fight has been going on for quite some time. He used to be on the hidden-camera show “What Would You Do?” that ABC broadcast some years ago. In that role, he occasionally played homophobes and racists to get a rise out of people who didn’t know it was just TV. In 2008, a New Jersey legal ethics board recommended that he quit the acting profession because the line between actor and character might not be understood by some of our dumber citizens. His Former Honor appealed this to the Supreme Court of New Jersey, and the rest is history.
Now, the court’s ruling puts as fine a face on things as it can, while still being completely wrong. “In the course of his routines, Sicari has demeaned certain people based on national origin and religion and has revealed his political leanings.” Offensive comedy is often in the eye of the beholder; Archie Bunker was a first-class bigot, and the humor arose because he was the butt of the jokes. And Carroll O’Connor who played Archie in “All in the Family” was about as left-wing as it gets without being a Stalinist. But let’s follow court through on this.
“The court cannot ignore the distinct possibility that a person who has heard a routine founded on humor disparaging certain ethnic groups and religions will not be able to readily accept that the judge before whom he or she appears can maintain the objectivity and impartiality that must govern all municipal court proceedings.”
Municipal court proceedings usually are confined to parking tickets and disorderly conduct. The New Jersey Supreme Court seems to think that we’re talking about Brown v. Board of Education, serial murder cases or sending money to Al Qaeda. Sicari got $13,000 a year for the part-time job. Just how much decorum does that buy? Just how much objectivity or impartiality is needed to rule on a case involving a car parked by a fire hydrant? If you’re up on a drunk and disorderly charge, the chances are that no judge is going to cut you any slack for singing Bon Jovi at the top of your lungs before vomiting up half a bottle of tequila. If you think the judge came down on you because of where your grandfather came from instead of the fact that you puked up your socks in public, you are probably going to be a repeat offender anyway. You’ll get a different judge next month, and still be found just as guilty.
What the judges appear to be worried about is what the business community calls protecting the brand. Lawyers and judges have a vested interest in making sure the public views the legal process with some solemnity and respect. Funny thing is, though, they don’t seem to realize that this decision makes them look petty and grim.
Remember this one?
“George Zimmerman who?”
“Ah good. You’re on the jury.” Maybe that’s the damn problem; some guys just can’t tell a joke.
I think the New Jersey legal profession ought to be a little less worried about a judge who does TV and stand up and a bit more worried about some of the others they have on the bench. For example, Carlia Brady of the Superior Court was suspended a couple of months ago accused of hindering the search for her boyfriend who was wanted in connection with an armed robbery. She faces 10 years if found guilty. Might not a sense of proportion be in order?
Frankly, I am a bit jealous of Mr. August. I had the acting and stand up bug when I was younger, and it was my lack of talent that made me go into journalism. I hope the choice works out. If not, I guess he could always run for public office; we laugh at those guys, too.