Once the talk show host was mayor of Cincinnati. Now he's mayor of Sodom.
Talk show host Jerry Springer, the ringmaster of a lumpenproletariat circus, is enjoying a wonderful month. The Jerry Springer Show just evicted Oprah from the top spot in nationwide talk show ratings: Springer is now watched by nearly 12 million Americans every day, more than twice as many as a year ago. Jerry Springer: Too Hot for TV, a video compilation of the show's worst moments, has won a cult following and sold 500,000 copies by mail order. Even Springer's bad news is good news: Two weeks ago Sens. Dan Coats, R-Ind., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., demanded the feds stop funding Springer's closed captioning, calling the show the "closest thing to pornography on broadcast television." Activists for free speech and the deaf rose to Springer's defense: It's always good business to be censored.
This is an era of aggressively nice talk shows. Oprah has abandoned sleaze for self-esteem. Rosie O'Donnell has never met a guest she could not drown in slobber. But the Jerry Springer Show is unrepentantly vicious. It's dedicated to strife and misery, to the principles that human frailty should be ridiculed, that the weak and the stupid should be humiliated, and that there is no better cure for your problems than the sorrows of others. On Springer's show, men learn their girlfriends are actually boys; wives learn their husbands are sleeping with their sisters or ex-wives or both; women learn that their 13-year-old daughters are strippers or their 60-year-old mothers are whores; fat people are poked and prodded and berated. Springer is an endless parade of losers, perverts, and exhibitionists.
W hat makes Springer a TV landmark is not its guests-- though they are the saddest rabble in the medium's history--but its violence. Jerry seeks out guests who are too confused and too angry to address their problems rationally and too inarticulate to address them verbally. Other shows excise fighting and profanity: Springer promotes it. The audience--mostly well-groomed, college-age kids--screams for blood. When one episode of Geraldo erupted in a brawl in 1988, it made national news: Springer has brawls every day and more real-life violence than any show on television. On the episode I watched last night, "Tell Her It's Over," there were eight separate fights. There was also so much cursing that entire segments were incomprehensible (they're bleeped out). Most talk shows maintain at least the pretense of reasoned discussion: not Springer. The closest it gets to "debate" is a robed KKK moron assaulting a black guest, as in this clip from Too Hot for TV.
Springer himself presides, oleaginously, over this spectacle. He's sometimes funny, often smarmy, and always condescending. He brings the dry tinder and lights the match, but he's always shocked, shocked, when a fire breaks out. If guests swear, he tut-tuts them. If they fight--which is exactly what the host and his producers want them to do, exactly why they have burly bouncers at the ready, exactly what ratings depend on--he admonishes them to control themselves. A lecture from the devil.
It's no mystery why Springer is on television. A talk show is cheap to produce--one-fourth the cost of a news show, one-tenth the cost of a drama--and immensely profitable. As for Springer's grotesque content--well, someone will always push the envelope of good taste. And Springer is riveting, excruciating television. It is unbearable to watch but impossible to turn off. You know, I know, the audience knows, he knows: No good can come of exposing these horrible problems to the world, yet it's impossible not to watch it happen. As New York Times media critic Bill Carter put it, Jerry Springer does not have viewers, he has "rubberneckers."
So the question is not "Why is Springer on television?" It is "Why is Springer on television?" How did Springer, with his do-gooding résumé, end up here? The child of Holocaust survivors, he earned a law degree at Northwestern University, then became a campaign adviser to Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. Springer settled in Cincinnati, lost a race for Congress in 1970, and was elected to the city council a year later. He was only 27. He became a popular, outspoken, lefty leader--his first action was to propose a ban on the drafting of Cincinnati residents for the Vietnam War. He resigned in 1974 when he was fingered in a vice investigation--he had paid a prostitute with a check (duh). But a year later he ran for council again and won. In 1977 he was elected Cincinnati's mayor. Springer was an old-fashioned tax-and-spend liberal. He was a beloved figure around town, the smart young thing of Ohio politics. (He even read the New Republic!)
A fter a failed run for Ohio governor, Springer jumped to television. He delivered short commentaries at the end of local news broadcasts. He was brilliant: The minieditorials were concise, witty, and warm. He took over the news desk and soon became Cincinnati's most popular anchor. In 1991, he launched his own talk show. It was responsible and dull. As ratings sagged in 1994, Springer had a change of heart. Backed by a producer who'd worked at the Weekly World News, he went tabloid. The 1995 Jenny Jones Show-related chagrined the rest of the talk show world, but Springer filled the sleaze vacuum. He's descended the moral food chain--lawyer, politician, TV journalist, TV talk show host--and climbed the income ladder.
During his slide into Hades, Springer's liberalism has degenerated into a kind of nihilism. (If a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged, a nihilist is a liberal who is paid $2 million a year to do something revolting.) Springer makes several tepid attempts to justify Springer:
It gives voice to disenfranchised folks who would be ignored otherwise.
Guests are not exploited because they are.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.