PROVIDENCE — It’s just before 8 a.m. on a Monday morning in the Internet’s favorite courtroom and “Uncle Joe” is working the crowd like a warm-up comic, trying to get the three dozen defendants loosened up before the judge appears and the cameras roll.
“Anybody sing and dance?” asks Uncle Joe (his real name is Joe Caprio), who will be behind the camera filming everything when they appear before his big brother, Judge Frank Caprio, in Providence Municipal Court.
“I don’t sing or dance, but if it’s going to get me out of my ticket I will,” a woman replies.
“She’s good for a million views,” Uncle Joe declares, to a nervous laugh from the crowd. A million views is barely a ripple compared to what’s been happening in this courtroom lately.
In recent months, video clips from the show, “Caught In Providence,” have tapped into some sort of nerve on the Internet and Judge Caprio has become a viral superstar. To date, clips from his courtroom have gotten more than a billion views.
That’s billion. With a B.
Twenty-five years ago, Uncle Joe began filming Judge Caprio’s regularly hilarious and often touching interactions with people fighting things like parking violations and speeding tickets. The show initially aired on public access television in the wee hours of the morning and built up a strangely loyal following that grew again when the show moved to the local ABC affiliate a few years ago.
But in the last year everything has gone wild.
“All rise,” a court officer declares on this day, and the man at the center of it all, 80-year-old Frank Caprio, enters and takes the bench. He is a small man, exuding grandfatherly warmth and folksiness — the anti-Judge Judy — and maybe this is the secret of his rocketing popularity: In an era of savage rhetoric and gaping political division, he’s just friendly and compassionate.
As the defendants shift in their seats nervously, he smiles and tells them to all take a deep breath. “And if you don’t want to become a national TV star, just let us know,” he says.
To his right is his sidekick and straight man, Inspector Ziggy Quinn, a big, jovial guy with a wry smile who is the city’s prosecutor.
They begin making their way through the cases, and immediately you see some of the aspects of Judge Caprio’s personality that have made him an Internet darling.
A woman appears with a bunch of unpaid parking tickets, which she blames on her sister, who had been borrowing her car before getting her own. He waives the late fees, and tells her “Now go borrow her car and park it anywhere.”
And then a man appears and says he didn’t come to a full stop before making a right on red.
‘It’s not rocket science; it’s just basic human values.’
“You ever hear of Mario Andretti? He could take some lessons from you,” he tells the man as they watch a clip from a traffic camera. The man barely tapped the brakes. But it is in the next instant when the judge really flourishes.
Caprio begins questioning the man about why he was in such a rush, and the man explains that he was on his way to a pharmacy to pick up pain medication for his ex-wife, who has ovarian cancer. The defendant is clearly asking for compassion and understanding, and for that he has come to the right place. Compassion and understanding are the simple ingredients behind Judge Caprio’s fame.
The judge begins asking the man about his ex-wife, about their relationship, her pain, showing great care and concern. He then instructs Inspector Quinn to waive the ticket and only charge the man for court costs.
“Thank you,” the defendant says, sincerely.
Despite his Internet persona, Caprio is not a pushover on the bench; bad excuses get bad results. “We all recall things in the best light,” he tells a woman who is failing to convince him that she blew a red light because a truck in front of her was blocking her view.
But if you look at his most-watched clips (clips that usually end with Caprio cutting the person a break), they fall into a few categories: people suffering horrible hardships; veterans in need of a break; victims of over-zealous enforcement (like the woman who received a ticket at 9:59:58 when she pulled into a spot where parking was prohibited until 10); and anything involving children.
Caprio loves children, and if they come to court with their parents, they almost always end up being called to the bench. One of his most popular clips involves a boy who is asked whether his father is guilty or not guilty of doing 35 miles per hour in a 25 mile per hour zone.
“Guilty!” the little boy declares without hesitation. (For raising an honest child, the judge let the father slide.)
Caprio argues that his treatment of children is perhaps his most important act. “I want them to see me treat their parents with decency and respect,” he says. “If I berate their parents, they would leave here thinking government is unfair.”
Caprio’s method in a lot of cases is pretty simple.
“I give them the eyeball test,” he says. “I’m looking to find out what their circumstances are, because I can look into their eyes and see that if they pay the fine, their children don’t eat tonight. I’m not here to add to their misery.”
His newfound fame is taking some getting used to, he admits. When court wraps up on this Monday, he heads to his chambers to open some of his daily fan mail. One is from Louisiana asking for his autograph; another is from the Netherlands, thanking him for his “kind heart;” it arrives despite being addressed only to “Judge Caprio. Providence, Rhode Island.”
He kind of shakes his head as he reads the heartfelt letter.
“They’re connecting with how I treat people, at a time when there’s such a disenchantment throughout the world with the institutions of government,” Caprio says. “I’m not doing anything different than I’ve been doing for 25 years, which is to give people a fair shake.”
He is the son of an immigrant fruit peddler from Italy, and he worked his way through Providence College before becoming a teacher while he commuted to Boston to attend Suffolk Law School at night. He says he never forgets where he came from, and the lessons he learned from growing up poor.
“I’m only doing what my father taught me,” he says as he folds the letter back up. “My goal is to balance the equities and treat people regardless of their station in life with decency and respect.
“It’s not rocket science; it’s just basic human values,” he adds. “It’s a sad commentary on today’s society that the norm is not to be decent and respectful.”Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.