The New Frontier: What if a Comedian is also a Judge?

vince_august_photo3Comedy can be pretty fascinating stuff, and it is especially so nowadays that comedy is such a big influence on the pop culture. Yet, it can also be pretty controversial. At the time of this writing the New Jersey Supreme Court was set to rule on whether a guy who serves as a judge can also work as a stand-up comic. The case reached New Jersey’s high court after the committee that oversees the work of judges in that state decided that Vince A Sicari, a municipal judge in South Hackensack, NJ, who also works as a comedian under the name of Vince August, cannot continue to work as a comedian.

The committee based its decision on the ground that for somebody to work as both a judge and a comedian would create a conflict with his duties as a judge. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have to state here that in addition to being a comedy industry reporter and blogger, I’m a lawyer and a friend of Vince August’s. But, to be clear, I am of the view that Vince August the comic should not have to resign his position as Judge Sicari just so he can continue working as a comedian.)

Despite his life in the path of the law, Vince August, even by his own admission, has had a long standing passion for comedy and so far he has come a long way in the game: Today, he not only performs regularly as one of the headline acts at Carolines on Broadway, one of the best known comedy clubs in New York City, he also works as a warm-up act on one of the most famous and influential comedy shows on TV, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central.

In their bid to force him off the comedy stages, the main worry of the ‘ethics committees’ who supervise the conduct of the judges in New Jersey is that Sicari’s work as a comic could cause folks who appear before him when he sits as a judge to worry that he might be biased against them. In addition, given the association of stand-up comedy with weird behavior and the act of just ‘joking around,’ the ethics committees also worry that a judge moonlighting as a comedian would lower the dignity of the office of ‘Your Honor,’ the judge.

Well, to be sure, being a judge at any level of the court system is pretty serious business and it is not surprising that the society sees it fit to put judges on a pedestal and to slap a whole bunch of restrictions on their conduct. Therefore, the concern of the ethics committees is a quite legitimate one and nobody should knock them for doing their job. For starters, there is some concern about the so-called ‘slippery slope,’ something lawyers are quite familiar with. In this particular case, the slippery slope logic will go something like this: If a judge could moonlight as a comedian, then why shouldn’t a female judge, for instance, be able to moonlight as a stripper, as long as she doesn’t tell her customers that she’s a judge during the day.

Plus, all talk about slippery slope aside, when a judge works as a comedian, there is an additional angle to the picture that, frankly, would not quite exist in the case of, say, a judge working as a stripper and maybe dancing quietly on a customer’s lap or even a judge simply moonlighting as a shill on a product commercial. It just so happens that comedians draw a lot of material from the events in their daily life and as a municipal judge in New Jersey, the folks who would often appear before Judge Sicari would be folks involved mostly in traffic violations and disorderly conduct charges, including folks who got drunk or got into barroom fights; played their music too loud; maybe smacked their wives around; urinated in public; menaced a wedding party; unduly threatened law abiding visitors to a public park; gambled illegally and other stuff like that. And anyone familiar with comedians can easily imagine how these situations could provide any comic with a huge treasure trove for comedy material, just the kind of stuff that the ethics committee would worry about. And they should. (In the example above, it is obvious that neither the judge moonlighting as a stripper nor the judge doing a product commercial on the side would enjoy this advantage of being able to use funny material from their courtroom work in their respective extracurricular activities. )

Yet, that’s not what we have in this case. Not even close! In situations such as this one, where things that people worry about may or may not happen, the devil is always in the details, as the saying goes. Long story short here, the situation with Vince August is completely different and the way he has handled matters in general should not provoke any worries from the ethics committees at all. As a result, this case deserves to be treated in a different way than other cases where judges are engaged in extra-curricular activities.

From all indications, Vince August has taken painstaking measures to keep his two lives separate and apart from one another. What exists between his life as a judge and his life as a comedian is nothing short of an airtight-Chinese wall. First, he goes by a different name onstage as a comedian than his real name as a judge. When he does his comedy routines, he never uses any materials from his life as a judge or makes any jokes that might even remotely suggest that he is a judge. Instead, he bases his comedy routines on his own personal experiences from other spheres of his life that have nothing to do with his being a judge ─ for instance, his family upbringing. Unlike many a comic and despite the almost irresistible temptation to do so, August appears to have scrupulously stayed away from using any material from his life as a judge who regularly deals with matters such as traffic violations and disorderly conduct cases. In so doing, he has given up a vast treasure of ‘source material’ that most comedians would kill to get their hands on.

So far, there is no record that anyone one who has attended any of his numerous comedy sessions over the years learned from anything he said onstage that he does have another life as a judge. In fact, there is an equivalent scenario that one can draw here: When Vince August works as a comedian, the odds of folks recognizing him as a judge are the same as their odds of recognizing him as a judge if he were riding a New York City subway train in civilian clothes.

So, as it turns out, this is not one of those extracurricular engagements in which a judge has brazenly ignored or blithely disregarded the decencies of his judicial office in the pursuit of an extra buck. Not at all! And to get more specific, this is not like the sort of situation where a judge tries to supplement his income with a paid outside gig by, for instance, shilling for Shredded Wheat or Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in some product ad. And speaking of judicial post, August’s work as a judge is so small that it is actually the short end of his long career stick: He only works part time as a judge and receives a paltry $13,000 per year for his trouble. August spends the vast bulk of his career time working as a comedian and getting paid as such.

In context, a work life that small ought not to create any real worries about setting a bad example for other career judges: And from the look of things, especially from his busy life as a comedian, it does not seem too much that August is in line for higher office in the New Jersey judiciary. Because of this, there is little chance that he will attain the kind of high profile as a judge that could make him a bad example for other judges or a ‘poster boy’ for judges behaving badly.

Long story short, this is a case that qualifies as an exception to the rule which requires judges to stay within their proper lanes of activity. And this exception should have been recognized from the very beginning. In the broader scheme of judges doing extra-curricular stuff, this case is more like a low-flying aircraft that should have been allowed to simply remain under the radar. Unfortunately, the sheer stubbornness of the ethics committees in refusing to allow this small stuff to slide has generated such publicity that the case has now attained a surprising high profile.

With the cat now out of the bag and considering his long standing desire to keep his comedy and judge careers separate and apart from each other, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that Vince August has been unfairly treated in all of the brouhaha surrounding this case. Yet, when it comes to doing the right thing, it is always better to do it late than never. In that spirit, it is strongly recommended that the New Jersey authorities simply give this one case the pass it deserves and just move on. It’s time to get over it!

Stay tuned for my upcoming book “Comedy Under Attack…” coming out soon!

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