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Jerry Springer’s eponymous talk show may have been tasteless, but you can’t say that Springer himself didn’t have taste.
“I would never watch my show,” he commented to Reuters in 2000. “I’m not interested in it. It’s not aimed towards me.”
He may not have been interested, but plenty of people were. The hugely successful tabloid show, one of the pioneers of trash television, notched nearly 5,000 episodes during its 27-season run from 1991 to 2018. During the peak of its popularity in the mid ‘90s, it even beat The Oprah Winfrey Show in the ratings in many cities.
You could say that Jerry Springer was the anti-Oprah Winfrey Show; if aliens monitored our broadcasts in those days, they would have been hopelessly confused about whether mankind was worth preserving or not.
Springer, who died on Thursday at 79, was such an iconic figure that he even became the subject of an Olivier Award-winning British musical, Jerry Springer: The Opera, which was nearly as controversial as the television show that inspired it. When it made its U.S. premiere at Carnegie Hall in 2008, Springer was played by Harvey Keitel, in a performance only slightly less sleazy than his child-prostituting pimp in Taxi Driver.
Looking back over the years of Springer’s show, it’s hard to select the “best” moments. Was it the episode about the man who claimed to have married his horse? The one featuring the mother-daughter dominatrix team? The transsexual who cut off her own legs with a chainsaw? The various women competing for the world’s sex record, including one who had sex with 251 men in ten hours? The show’s topics were a veritable smorgasbord of incest, pedophilia, adultery, hate groups, perversion, and humanity’s worst instincts in general. Violence and nudity were common occurrences, with women flashing their breasts in exchange for Mardi Gras-style “Jerry Beads” and fistfights more common than at Trump rallies. This was the sort of audience participation show in which the stage chairs were made purposefully large so that they couldn’t be used as weapons.
A pop-psychologist could theorize that the show was an outgrowth of Springer’s traumatic early life. He was literally born in a bomb shelter, in 1944 during the London Blitz, and two of his grandparents died in concentration camps. His early political career included a stint working as a campaign adviser for Robert Kennedy, which ended with Kennedy’s assassination. Clearly, he was no stranger to the dark side of human nature. This was not a man destined to host a children’s show.
And yet, he started out seriously, at least up to a point. Progressive in his politics, he became a member of the Cincinnati City Council, but resigned after admitting to soliciting a prostitute. He apparently paid the brothel with a check, a fact he later used as a selling point in campaign ads when he ran for governor of Ohio. You have to give him points for honesty. He was also the mayor of Cincinnati for one year, having been appointed to the position by the city council.
He didn’t set out to become a provocateur when he entered broadcasting. He started out as a reporter and political commentator and even created a catchphrase for himself, “Take care of yourself and each other,” which you can find included in the dictionary definition for “irony.” When his talk show debuted in 1991, it originally dealt with social and political themes, featuring such guests as Oliver North and Jesse Jackson.
But serious discussions about homelessness and gun violence don’t get ratings or pay the bills. In a transition that can fairly be described as emblematic of the coarsening of culture and society in general, Springer dumbed the show down. And by dumbed it down, I mean reduced it to the lowest possible common human denominator. For many it became a guilty pleasure, but for anyone with a modicum of good taste or self-respect it was the sort of show that made you feel like showering after watching.
It wasn’t even safe for those participating in it. When a woman was murdered by her ex-husband just hours after they appeared on the show along with the husband’s then-girlfriend, the victim’s sons filed suit against the show. Years later, another suit was filed by the family of a man who killed himself weeks after being publicly embarrassed on the program. The Jerry Springer show didn’t need a legal team; it needed a human rights commission.
“I was hired to be a ringleader of the circus,” Springer once told Larry King. He was obviously an intelligent, and by many accounts, very nice man, but he apparently had no shame about the tawdry path his career had taken. In 2002 TV Guide magazine put the show at the top of its list of the “Worst TV Shows of All Time.” Springer embraced the dubious honor, often introducing his episodes that way.
Toward the end of Jerry Springer: The Opera, God and the Devil fight over whether which of them should claim possession of Springer’s soul. It would have made for one hell of a series finale.
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