Standing Tall for Low Life | Essay | Chicago Reader

Standing Tall for Low Life 

Jerry Springer says some dirty laundry ain't pretty but it deserves equal time.

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Why do television news directors air throngs of anonymous Americans hopping and hollering behind a reporter as he delivers a live dispatch from a crime scene or other news site? In contrast to nonprofit Channel 11--which airs prerecorded station IDs from calm, smiling citizens--Chicago's commercial stations open a less quiescent window on the world beyond the news anchors' sets. Does leaping into the frame of a live shot for a moment of airtime nourish attention-starved Americans, those who'd otherwise never be seen on TV? Or does the ritual appearance of these rowdy human moths console viewers--and advertisers--with nightly evidence of their own superiority?

The Jerry Springer Show operates as an extended live shot that illuminates hopping and hollering Americans with bad teeth. (The show even retains a dentist's services.) Identified by first names only, they upstage the only guy wearing a suit, the eponymous host, who elicits continual chants of "Jer-ry! Jer-ry! Jer-ry!" from his studio audience. Born Gerald Springer in London in 1944, Springer was elected mayor of Cincinnati in 1977 and worked as a news anchor in the same city from 1984 to 1993, but on his own show he has no news to report, so he stands off to the side as his guests discourse on topics like "Is There a God?," "I Hate Going Outside to Smoke," "Mom, Will You Marry Me?," "I'm a Breeder for the Klan," "My Sister Slept With My Three Husbands," "I Married a Horse," and "My Parrot Runs My Life." By standing aside Springer gives viewers at home a clear shot at his guests, most of whom are viewers too. By calling the 800 number Springer airs during commercial breaks, viewers can invite themselves onto the show as future guests and take their turns on camera. His Chicago-based show, now in its eighth year, is broadcast in more than 190 U.S. markets and over 40 countries.

Springer defends his much-maligned show in Ringmaster! (St. Martin's Press), a large-print, photo-heavy book he wrote with Laura Morton, coauthor of Marilu Henner's Total Health Makeover, Joan Lunden's Healthy Cooking, and Joan Lunden's Healthy Living. More than a peephole, The Jerry Springer Show provides a platform for "a slice of contemporary life that heretofore [has] never been seen on television," Springer argues. That vast wasteland out there is home to many folks, and Spinger is their honorary ambassador.

Springer passionately invokes the First Amendment to protect what his guests say, though FCC rules force the show's producers to silence the long passages of profanity uttered by vociferous guests. Springer claims he will sue any guest who lies to get on the show, but once they get there few guests seem inhibited by the threat of legal action or any other repercussion. Despite the populist thrust of Springer's demographics, the issues are purely interpersonal. Vendettas and ambushes abound. Pain is felt, but no one's pointing fingers--or giving the finger--to any ideology or institution. The only bad guys are individuals, like that good-for-nothing two-timing, cross-dressing in-law who lives next door. Hair pulling and chair tossing are the lingua franca among Jerry's guests. "They see everyone else on the show fighting," Springer told Broadcasting & Cable last year, "so when they come on and they get angry, they figure it's okay. Now they all do it." Last winter these outbreaks pushed Springer's ratings past Oprah Winfrey's. "So there I was," he writes in Ringmaster!, "a guy of absolutely no talent and training in his field suddenly sitting on top of the world, all because I had guests who fight. It didn't make any sense."

If Springer is mystified by his Oprah-topping coup, he's clear about the moral superiority of his unstaged fights over the slick "fictional violence" seen in movies and prime-time TV. "There is nothing, I repeat, nothing, at all enticing or attractive about the behavior you see on my show," he writes. "Do I think it's a good idea to punch someone in the face?" Springer said to me during a phone interview. "No. You can interview everyone on the planet earth and you will never ever find a human being that would say I'd ever hit them. I've never hit a human being in my life. I never slapped my daughter. I never got into a fistfight as a kid. I just don't do that."

Yet Artisan Entertainment capitalizes on the Springer show's colorful fights to publicize its new movie Jerry Springer in Ringmaster, which opens on Thanksgiving under the ad banner "Season's Beatings." Promotional bandages and condoms round out the ad campaign. In the film, written by Jon Bernstein and directed by Neil Abramson, Springer plays Jerry Farrelly, the host of The Jerry Show. While Ringmaster! explains Springer's origins, the movie--focusing on the segments "You Did WHAT With Your Stepdaddy?" and "My Traitor Girlfriends"--throws more light on the guests. When the stepdaddy chickens out and heads home to Florida before his segment is taped, one of his trailer-park lovers yells, "[Jerry] don't want no fucked-up redneck inbreds!"

But Jerry does, because his fans love those folks and he loves to fight for them. In the movie a morally outraged member of the studio audience rails against Jerry's guests as a "pitiful bunch of sinners," declaring, "I'm not even sure you're a part of the human race." Springer told me he got a chance to craft Farrelly's rejoinder in his own words: "It wasn't in the script. It was left blank. The director said, 'If this were your show, what would you say?' 'Well,' I said, 'let me think about it.' So he put me in a room for five minutes to get my thoughts together. Then he said, 'You come out and we'll do the scene, and you just light up on him.' I just said what came to my mind." It's among the movie's best speeches, and Springer reproduces it in his book: "Let me tell you something. The rich and famous go on television every single day, hawking their blockbuster, tell-all books--revealing in the process the most intimate and lurid details of their private lives--who they've been sleeping with, what drugs they've been using, a veritable litany of their misdeeds and dysfunctions. And because they're celebrities, we can't get enough of it. Indeed, nobody ever tells them they can't go on television talking about these things. We just love it. But when my guests come on television, talking about the exact same issues--just because they're not rich or powerful or famous or because they don't speak the King's English, or wear designer clothes or live in your fancy white suburbs, all of a sudden, what? They're the scum of the earth? How dare they go on television?"

Class is the unspoken bias behind those who label Springer's show "trash." "Clearly they just don't like the class of people on the show," he says. In the movie a television reporter doing a story on The Jerry Show tells Jerry's producer, "I can't watch your show. I find it bleak and depressing." The producer answers, "I think you find poverty bleak and depressing, and our show reminds you that it exists." In his book Springer concocts a dream in which he dies while taping "I Cut Off My Manhood" (an actual show that aired July 14, 1997) and appears on God's talk show in the sky. After Springer's guest spot, God sends him back to his fans and foes with a heavenly commandment: "Keep fighting the good fight against those who would suppress freedom--the elitist and arrogant of my flock." Invoking the First Amendment, Springer writes, "If the idea 'America' is to mean anything, it is critical that we protect the show."

Part of that mission is protecting the guests from each other with off-duty Chicago cops; another is property damage. "Our guests, frankly, have been kicked out of so many hotels in Chicago that we're basically limited as to where our guests can stay," says producer Sheila Rosenbaum in the book. "Some of these people have never been away from home before, or to the airport, on a plane, let alone ever stayed in a hotel, so they just don't act like normal people during their stay."

Tweaking the line between "normal people" and the rest of America is the subtext of shows like Springer's, argues Joshua Gamson in Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity (University of Chicago Press). "I like what talk shows make us think about," he writes, while acknowledging that they "seem about as much about democracy as The Price Is Right is about mathematics." By trolling for outrageous guests, suggests this gay Yale sociologist, Springer and other talk shows offer political platforms for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans--even if the ones who take the bait are not polished op-ed spokespeople. Gamson allows that "ugly, rude, peculiar people, especially on talk shows, do not make the best representatives of the argument for tolerance, acceptance, freedom, and rights....You know you're in trouble when Sally Jesse Raphael (strained smile and forced tears behind red glasses) seems like your best bet for being heard, understood, respected, and protected." Yet "almost everywhere else in media culture you are either unwelcome, written by somebody else, or heavily edited."

Thanks to hundreds of guests who want airtime and millions who watch them get it, there are television talk shows more upscale than his own where Springer can plug his book and movie. Last week David Letterman pressed Springer about tabloid reports that he'd had sex with show guests--a mother and daughter--who supposedly videotaped this hotel-room romp. Springer dodged the question: "Did that happen? I don't know. Why do you think I'd answer that?"

Letterman accused his guest of Clinton-esque evasion: "You're behaving a little like the president, is what you're behaving like."

Springer replied, "Will you come on my show so then we can talk about your life?"

"Absolutely not," said Letterman.

"Trust me, I don't want to talk about this either," replied Springer.

According to the Chicago Tribune, at the movie's Hollywood premiere Springer quipped, "My wish for all of you is that you never have to be on my talk show, and I truly hope none of your reputations are ruined by being here tonight." In his book he writes, "The truth is, everybody has a talk-show subject in them." However, when Playboy asked Springer what goals he had for the show, he answered: "My greatest goal is that my child will never be on my show [laughs]. I have no goals for it."

Springer told me he has no idea why his own sense of privacy differs from his guests'. "If you personally are in my life, then I will talk to you," he said the day after his Letterman spot. "But if I don't know you well, there's no way in the world I would tell you about my life, so why go on television or in the newspaper and talk about your private life? I don't know the people I'm talking to. To me that's totally consistent. No one ever gets on our show who doesn't want to."

That's why Bill, Hillary, Monica, and Linda probably won't turn up on the Springer show. "If you watched C-SPAN the last two days--let's be honest, I'm competing now with Ken Starr. He's trying to take my material. I mean, the absurdity of everybody in the news media going after Monica and totally missing the point. The point is not the money. The issue is, why do you want to talk to Monica? Why is that serious news? It's entertainment. Everyone wants to suddenly be a talk show."

"News hurts people without their permission, without their consent," writes Springer in Ringmaster! "Our show is purely voluntary." When I asked Springer for the bottom-line message of his show, he replied, "Give people a chance. Don't be judgmental. Don't think you're better than other people." He was between stops on a press tour, riding around Manhattan in the back of a limousine.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo manipulation by Benjamin Utley.

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