JERRY SPRINGER GOES TO COLLEGE
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
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.’’