No one stirs the pot like the con­tro­ver­sial Amer­i­can talk show host, who claims his pro­gram has made the cul­ture more tol­er­ant, writes David Hilt­brand

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv -

ERRY Springer, the P. T. Bar­num of talk- show hosts, is on the cam­pus of West Ch­ester Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, ad­dress­ing the stu­dent body. The kids, who oc­ca­sion­ally erupt into the familiar bat­tle cry — ‘‘ Jerry! Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!’’ — are get­ting the full dog and pony show.

Lit­er­ally. One of the episodes shown is I Mar­ried a Horse , dur­ing which a shet­land pony is led on to the stage of Springer’s Chicago stu­dio to kiss a de­crepit man in vi­sored sun­glasses. The host’s on- air in­tro­duc­tion: ‘‘ To­day we have a love story.’’

Ear­lier in the day at his ho­tel in Philadel­phia, Springer, 64, sar­don­ically dis­tanced him­self from this par­tic­u­lar spec­ta­cle.

‘‘ The guy who slept with his horse? I came out against it. I said it was wrong,’’ he says with a smirk. ‘‘ So let it never be said that I don’t have a moral com­pass.’’

That’s Springer. He watches with amused as­ton­ish­ment his show’s sick pageant of mid­gets, tran­nies and crack­pots but he never steps into the slime pit him­self.

‘‘ One of the rea­sons I work ( in this role) is that peo­ple see me as a reg­u­lar guy in the midst of the chaos,’’ he says.

‘‘ My role is purely re­ac­tive. I don’t know any­thing about the guests be­fore­hand. All I have is a card with their name on it. Ev­ery seg­ment

Jalways opens with me say­ing, ‘ So what’s go­ing on?’ Then they tell me their story. And I ask them ques­tions and make jokes.’’

That disin­gen­u­ous blend of shock and mock has kept The Jerry Springer Show on the air for 16 sea­sons.

‘‘ If you aim a show at high school and col­lege kids you can be on for­ever be­cause there’s al­ways new kids com­ing along to watch,’’ he says. ‘‘ If you aim a show at a 30- year- old, by the time they’re 33 they’re bored with the show. But you al­ways get new kids. I re­ally think that ex­plains our longevity. Be­cause the show is mind­less. It serves no pur­pose. But it stays on be­cause of the gig­gle fac­tor.’’

Later at West Ch­ester, the stu­dents are shown a prepack­aged clip reel, nar­rated by Matt Lom­bardo, the sports ed­i­tor of the cam­pus news­pa­per, who has been drafted as mod­er­a­tor. It traces the arc of Springer’s talk- show ca­reer, start­ing in 1991 when he was an earnest news an­chor in Cincin­nati try­ing to as­sume the man­tle of Phil Don­ahue.

An­other high­light is the 1997 episode Klan­fronta­tion , when mil­i­tant mem­bers of the Jewish Defence League were brought on to de­bate robed and hooded Ku Klux Klan mem­bers. To no one’s sur­prise, a full- scale, chair- throw­ing riot broke out in the stu­dio.

The at­ten­dant con­tro­versy and rat­ings spike marked a turn­ing point for the show.

Af­ter the clips, there’s a brief ques­tion and an­swer ses­sion with the au­di­ence (‘‘ What keeps you in­ter­ested?’’ ‘‘ My bills’’). Then Springer asks the crowd’s for­bear­ance for ‘‘ four min­utes to talk about what’s go­ing on in the world right now’’. He de­liv­ers an im­pas­sioned case for uni­ver­sal health care, ad­vis­ing the kids to hold all the pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates ac­count­able.

‘‘ You say to them. ‘ If we don’t have na­tional health in­sur­ance by the next elec­tion, you who I voted for will never get my vote again as long as I live.’ ’’

Then comes the part of the evening that ev­ery­one came for, as Springer moves to a side ta­ble and the stu­dents queue to have their pic­tures taken with him by their friends with mo­bile phones. It’s a per­fectly mod­ern mo­ment, made pe­cu­liar only be­cause Springer is some­thing of a Lud­dite.

‘‘ We’ve be­come sub­servient to the tech­nol­ogy,’’ he says. ‘‘ My staff al­ways makes fun of me be­cause I don’t use a com­puter. It’s not a world that I want to par­tic­i­pate in. I have no email. I have a mo­bile phone with no num­bers ( pro­grammed) on it.’’

The very idea of Springer is con­tentious. BBC World re­cently re­ported that Bri­tain’s House of Lords had re­fused to hear a pe­ti­tion of ap­peal brought by a Chris­tian ac­tivist group try­ing to pros­e­cute the BBC for blas­phemy.

Chris­tian Voice had sought to over­turn a High Court rul­ing that pre­vented it bring­ing a case against the BBC for screen­ing Jerry Springer: The Opera . A Bri­tish mu­si­cal writ­ten by Ste­wart Lee and Richard Thomas, the show is based on The Jerry Springer Show and is no­table for its pro­fan­ity, ir­rev­er­ent treat­ment of Chris­tian themes and bla­tantly provoca­tive

scenes, such as a troupe of tap- danc­ing Ku Klux Klan mem­bers.

The show was re­cently staged at New York’s Carnegie Hall, with ac­tor Har­vey Kei­tel in the ti­tle role.

In The New York Times , Ben Brant­ley wrote of the two- night stand: ‘‘ Oh hear Amer­ica singing, cit­i­zens of New York, as you never have heard it be­fore. Hear­ken to your ev­ery­day sis­ters and brothers, the lost, the lonely, the fetishists, the freaks, as their voices swell and meld into one com­mon chord of long­ing: to be seen, to be heard, to be ( oh yes) fa­mous.

‘‘ But from the mo­ment the cho­rus files on, car­ol­ing in sweet har­mony and sour lan­guage about the television host who fills their lives with won­der and ex­cite­ment, you in­tuit that there’s much more than easy satire afoot. If there weren’t, the ba­sic joke of com­bin­ing sa­cred mu­sic and pro­fane con­tent would en­dure for only the length of a cabaret com­edy sketch.’’

The thing is, no one ought to take the car­ni­val of dys­func­tional hu­man­ity that is The Jerry Springer Show too se­ri­ously. Peo­ple love to be stirred up, and no one stirs the pot like Springer.

His peo­ple skills may be a prod­uct of an il­lus­tri­ous past. He has been a two- term mayor of Cincin­nati, po­lit­i­cal pun­dit, lawyer, news­caster, coun­try record­ing artist, TV per­son­al­ity, movie star and a Broad­way ac­tor.

But Springer is all about irony. He in­sists that his goofy, out­ra­geous pro­gram, al­most un­wit­tingly, has made the cul­ture more tol­er­ant. ‘‘ The in­tent of the show is pure en­ter­tain­ment,’’ he says. ‘‘ But the ef­fect is that we’re more ac­cept­ing, more open as a so­ci­ety.’’

Does that mean that in a few years mar­riages be­tween peo­ple and ponies will be com­mon­place? Springer laughs. ‘‘ We did a fol­low- up show,’’ he says. ‘‘ The horse left him. It’s not as open as you think. Horses are so judg­men­tal.’’

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