All good battles have a fictional parallel in Hollywood — and the legal battle royal between Todd Schnitt, aka MJ Kelli, and Bubba the Love Sponge, aka Bubba Clem aka Todd Clem, is no different. Following the storyline of the Shock Jock Trial of the Century, I’m reminded of the laughable beef between two well-known assassins on The Sopranos — New York underboss John “Johnny Sack” Sacramoni and bloodthirsty Soprano capo Ralph “Ralphie” Cifaretto.
In Season 4: Episode 4, Johnny Sack asks his boss for permission to kill Ralphie, well aware that a successful hit on Cifaretto could trigger an all-out war that could bring down both families.
And what was so important that Sack was willing to risk the future of La Cosa Nostra? Was Ralphie skimming where he shouldn’t have? Probably, but that wasn’t the problem. No, the paramount reason Ralphie had to die (drum roll): he called Johnny Sack’s wife Ginny FAT. (She was.)
After Tony Soprano and the boys stopped belly-laughing, they were able to convince Johnny Sack that risking their whole way of life over a fat joke was ill-advised.
Unfortunately, it appears that no one in the Schnitt family had the cojones to convince their boss that risking the whole shock radio genre over Bubba Clem’s less then flattering descriptions of Mr & Mrs. Schnitt is not a great idea. (No, Bubba did not call her fat.)
Fast forward to last week, and you see two less than imposing radio djs — sans their usual wack packs — a few feet apart, sitting silenced in a nondescript courtroom, looking like a pair of forlorn tenth graders. Not surprising when you read the charges leveled by Team Schnitt, which someone could confuse for an alternative script for The Breakfast Club. A complaint that includes earth-shattering claims that Bubba, among other things, called Schnitt bald (he is not) and a stool pigeon. (For those born after 1960, a stool pigeon is gangster-speak for a police informer or spy.)
All humor aside, this case is no laughing matter. Besides potentially laying the groundwork for the total destruction of their particular brand of entertainment, it potentially could send aftershocks throughout the entire entertainment industry. From Stern to Savage, performers of all stripes could be forced to work under a very different set of rules if the six-person jury finds in favor of Team Schnitt.
In the 17-page complaint originally filed way back in 2008, the Schnitts are asking the court for a number of things, including that the jury find that Bubba’s nasty and untrue words about Todd and the Mrs. severely damaged their reputations, which, among other things, caused Schnitt’s listeners to think less of him and turn off his morning show, sending it to a premature grave. Because of this, Schnitt wants Bubba to cut him a check to make up for his lost MJ income. Fine — let the jury decide if Bubba’s barbs or Todd Schnitt’s lack of talent led to the death of MJ in the Morning.
One case that may shed some light on the jury’s decision is the 1987 face-off between the High Priest of Hardcore, Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, and the Prince of Porn, Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione. In a 1983 article in Hustler, Flynt accused Guccione of adultery. (Insert your own joke here.) Guccione, who at the time had more money than sense, sued Flynt for defamation. In that case, the court found that the public’s opinion of Guccione was so low as to make him “libel proof.” In other words, nothing anyone could say about him could lower his reputation. Hmmm. While it is unlikely that the jury will find Schnitt’s reputation to be in Guccione terrority, any judgment he might win would most likely be reduced due to his history as a shock jock.
The more troubling claim involves Mrs. Schnitt. The Schnitts are asking a jury to find that Mrs. Schnitt, a frequent guest on MJ in the Morning, was not a public figure and is thus entitled to enhanced protection from Bubba’s tasteless invective.
Why is this important? Today the courts generally hold that people who put themselves out as public figures are fair game for about anything — unless they can prove the person saying the nasty stuff was acting maliciously.
On the flip side, private citizens who don’t put themselves out as public figures are afforded greater protection from nasty words spoken about them. According to University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications Professor Clay Calvert, director of UF’s Brechner Center First Amendment Project, it is unlikely that Mrs. Schnitt would be able to persuade a jury she is a private person, due to her voluntary participation on her husband’s radio show. Calvert pointed to a similar case where a court found that just 11 radio/tv interviews made former Olympic bombing suspect Richard Jewell a public figure.
But if the jury were to decide that Mrs. Schnitt has the ability to unilaterally declare that she is not a public figure, others in the public eye could do the same, and Jay, Dave and Jimmy’s monologues would become a lot shorter and less funny. On the talk radio front, notorious baiters like Limbaugh and Coulter and Schnitt himself, when he returns to his AM gabfest, would be looking over their shoulders.
The genre of entertainment/comedy that Schnitt and Bubba swim in on a daily basis is, at its best, funny in a cringe-worthy sense, and at its worst mean-spirited hyperbole. But it is the business they chose. Comedic entertainers live by a code — one, if you’re going to lift my jokes verbatim, then pay me (see Robin Williams), and two, everything is fair game (see Comedy Central Roasts). Schnitt violated rule two of the code, and now all comedians may be forced to pay.
As for Mrs. Schnitt, she should have taken a page from Carmela Soprano and stayed out of the family business.
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