When Jerry Springer took on Billy Flynn two years ago for “Chicago” -- first in London’s West End, and then on Broadway -- the critics reveled in the casting. After all, Flynn is a stylized Jerry Springer, a canny lawyer who maneuvers outcasts onto the stage where they want to be, public moralizing be damned. Bloomberg called Springer's performance as “irresistible as watching puppies playing in a basket."
Then last year Springer won a part as Captain Hook in a British pantomime production of “Peter Pan,” billed -- like all British pantomime -- as rowdy family entertainment. There he was, the man on whom most of society’s ills have at some time or another been blamed, waving a hook at a crowd of children and their parents. He’d been a newsman, a city councilman, a re-elected city councilman despite a scandal with a prostitute, the mayor of Cincinnati, a Star to Dance With, and a recurring TV host. Now it seemed he was also Safe For Work.
It’s a career trajectory that fits the rhythm of one of his episodes. After a mildly eventful start and raucous middle, here Springer is at his Final Thought, making his pitch to be taken seriously. This fall, he took his seriousness to the road, canvassing through his old base in Ohio to push for the repeal of an anti-union bill (he’s an MSNBC-loving liberal). In September he kicked off a week-long symposium at Johns Hopkins University with a talk titled, “America’s Boundless Possibilities: Innovate, Advance, Transform.” Two days later, “The Jerry Springer Show” started its 21st season.
The Huffington Post recently spoke with Springer, curious for his take on his infamous show. He was down-to-earth, warm, and agile at the sales pitch. Read on for why he thinks we’re no better than his guests, and how a guy like him came to be doing a gig like this.
Why is your show still around? There’s no excuse for it! No, I think probably because we have a niche and no one wants to copy it. Up until the time we came on, American TV was primarily upper-middle-class white and if you were anything different, you had to be on one of the side networks. Or if you were on a main network, you had to be a doctor living in the suburbs, like Cosby. And then we came along, and it wasn’t that people hadn’t seen people like our guests before. All you had to do was walk down any street in America and see people of different income levels and education. Wealthy people do the exact same things. Movie stars do the exact same things. But they’d never seen it on television.
What sorts of things are you talking about? Dysfunction. Any kind of dysfunction. From dishonesty to different lifestyles. I can go through any newspaper in America in any city, and by the time I get to page three I’ve got a whole season. The fiction is that we’re better than the people on our show. I’m here to tell you we’re not. It’s just some people dress better, or got luckier in the gene pool, had better parents, a better education. Surely if the people on my show behaved that way every day of their lives, that would be inexcusable. But to suggest that you can go into a wealthy neighborhood, and there’s been no divorce, no cheating, no one’s ever looked at a porn movie. It’s just not true.
How do you come up with show ideas then? Do you go through city newspapers? We don’t come up with show ideas. The titles are put on after the show is taped. I’m not allowed to know what the show is about beforehand. When I go out there, they hand me a card that says only the person’s name, and my job is to ask the questions you would want to ask, watching at home. And to make some jokes. If I did know the topic beforehand, I probably wouldn’t come in.
Why do you say that? I’m partly joking. But it’s not a show that I would watch. I’m 67 years old.
What shows do you watch? I watch sports and cable news. I’m a political junkie, so that’s my interest. I’m liberal, but I watch the three majors. Obviously I watch MSNBC, also CNN and Fox, which is what I would call ridiculously to the right.
Which is more ridiculous: Fox News or “The Jerry Springer Show”? Well Fox, because it has more consequence. Our show is obviously silly. People on our show get angry, but the next day they’re dating someone else. It’s never taken health care from anyone. It’s never put us into a war.
True. But one could argue “The Jerry Springer Show” hasn’t endeared us to other countries. It's often cited as a reason to dislike America. We should do away with the news then. If you’re going to have a mirror, it’s going to show America.
Is your show an honest mirror? It’s common belief that the episodes are scripted, and the guests are acting. Obviously because it’s a TV show, you have to organize the story into shortened bits. You’ve got seven minutes and you’ve got seven people talking. But the stories have to be true. The lawyers are all over the place. When Universal bought us, they set the rules: the show has to be outrageous or inappropriate, and it has to be truthful.
It has to be outrageous? If someone calls us with a warm, uplifting story, we have to send them elsewhere. That’s not what I was hired to do. If they were hiring me to do my own kind of show, I’d probably be on MSNBC.
How long do you think you’ll keep going? Good Lord, I have no idea. It’s been 21 years. Who would have thought it’d last this long? I give it no thought. I enjoy doing it. It’s only 2 days a week, so I can do my other work. I do a dating show on GSN and a live show of “America’s Got Talent.” And I do shows overseas -- late night shows kind of like “The Tonight Show,” in England, South Africa and Australia.
And then what I do virtually every week of my life is politics. I spend a lot of time traveling the country.
What do you canvass for? Mostly liberal causes. Fighting the voter suppression bill in Ohio [HB 194]. We’re trying to get that repealed in time for the 2012 election. They’re doing it in 38 states so it’s obviously a planned effort. They figured they could knock the African-American vote by 5 percent and Obama will lose.
Do you ever consider heading back to politics for good? Never. I treat politics kind of like my religion. It’s something I believe in, but I don’t want to have to make a living at it, because if you make a living at it, you somehow become dishonest. You have to put food on the table. There are so many people at the state level or Congress, where my God, if they lost the election, what would they do? They’re forty, fifty years old, they’ve never really done anything else. I knew early on that I would do politics, but I would never make a living at it. I would do something else. I really sold out. I was a journalist for ten years (laughs).
Right, terrible line of work! How’d you get into it? I was hired by NBC to handle their news. The company that owned the station also owned “Phil Donahue,” and “Sally Jesse Raphael.” One day the CEO took me to lunch and said, "Phil is retiring. We’re starting a new talk show, and you’re going to host it." It was assigned.
In the beginning it was a traditional talk show. We had Oliver North on, Jesse Jackson. It was just a normal -- really a boring -- talk show. Then when Universal bought us, they said, ‘It’s going to be a crazy show.’ And actually, I had a part in that. At the time there were 20 talk shows all trying to be like Oprah, appealing to what they called back then the middle-aged housewives. Well, along came Ricki Lake, and Ricki was really the first to appeal to college kids. So I went to them and said, ‘Just as a business model, why are we trying to be one out of 20? Let’s follow Ricki’s model and get a nice piece of the pie.’ What I hadn’t thought through is that young people are just wilder and more open about their lifestyles. That’s when the show went crazy. Since that time we just made it in pop culture. I run into people who tell me, ‘I grew up on your show,’ or ‘My mom never let me watch, but I always watched.’ It’s not like it’s really a horrible thing, but it’s kind of a little bit naughty.
CORRECTION: A previous version of the article cited Ohio's voter suppression bill as HB 159 instead of HB 194. While both limit voters, 194 is the bill in question.