Chicago -- I'm here to write about "The Jerry Springer Show." But a youthful assistant director has just commanded me not to take notes until speaking with the publicist. The problem is, the publicist is too busy to talk.
Everybody is too busy to talk.
When I called from Baltimore about attending the show, they said I couldn't go behind the scenes, couldn't talk to Jerry's producers, and certainly not to Jerry himself. He's too swamped with media requests. He's God. He's the anti-Christ. He's bigger than Oprah!
Fine. Who needs to talk to Jerry anyway? He's merely the ringmaster for this madhouse show, an accidental tour guide for these crazy times when love triangles plague the Vatican, a guy shoots himself on live TV, Bob Dole extols the restorative wonders of Viagra on "Larry King Live," and it's no longer possible or desirable or even necessary to tease the truth from the twisted warp of of our lives.
Everyone's in high dudgeon over the Springer show. Critics fume at the violence that regularly erupts among guests because it's real. They fume because it's not. Community activists picket the show. Parents lobby to remove it from its after-school time slot. NBC's Chicago affiliate drops the show; Fox picks it up. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, wages a war against "Springer" and all sleaze TV. The show's producer, Studios USA Networks, promises Lieberman that the bloodletting and hair-pulling will be edited out. Springer says it won't.
Who knows who is telling the truth? Who cares? Lost in the dissonance is a simple fact: "The Jerry Springer Show" is hysterical. It's hysterical precisely because it doesn't discriminate between truth and fiction. The fuzzier the line between the two, the more surreal the show becomes, the more savage the sendup of our bizarre lives.
It's not that truth is beside the point; but it's just one minor frame of reference in a culture more obsessed with its own confessional, messy, self-reverential notoriety than honesty.
It took me awhile to catch on. Once, I, too, dismissed the Springer show as merely tawdry and grotesque. Those wretched people and their small, sex-obsessed lives depressed me. I took their nastiness too seriously. I identified irrationally with the victims. No talk show went so low as Jerry's, I thought, puffing away on the NordicTrack in front of the tube.
I abandoned the NordicTrack, and consequently the show, but the Jerry drumbeat got louder and louder as I went about my own messy life. Several of my students at Loyola watched it faithfully. If people want to air their filthy linen on national TV and get clocked for it, fine, the students said. They're only a threat to themselves.
Scamming your way on to Jerry with a fabricated tale of woe has become the ultimate prank, the way swallowing goldfish or cramming into a phone booth once was. On the Johns Hopkins campus, a friend of a friend of a friend and her friend got on. They pretended they were feuding roommates. Another set of Baltimore Gen-X pals got on as a feigned lesbian love triangle -- ditched boyfriend included.
In my son's fourth-grade class, an altercation between a teacher and student escalated when the young girl claimed that being from a broken family exempted her from punishment. She evidently had learned early on that the "victim" is the attention-getting role in the memoirs, movies and talk shows that guide our lives.
"You have no right to punish me!" she scolded the teacher.
As the teacher showed her to the principal's office, the classroom chanted: "Jerry Springer! Jerry Springer! Jerry Springer!"
As Springer himself has been known to ask, what does it all
mean? Why did this show resonate with kids and adults, and attract a multiethnic and multiracial audience? What was its universal appeal? I went to Chicago to find out.
Entering 'Jerry reality'
While waiting for the taping to start, I spend an hour in an NBC Tower VIP lounge. Thank goodness there's an enormous television screen. I watch as rival talk-show host Leeza Gibbons debriefs the sole survivor of a violently dysfunctional family. Then on the "People's Court," "Judge" Ed Koch hears a case concerning a breast implant that went awry. Didn't he used to be mayor of New York?
Despite the assistant director's prohibition, I jot notes. As Jerry has said, "If you don't protect the edge, if you give in once to someone's censorship, you're no longer free."
Maybe he was kidding.
I approach a fit, mustachioed bald guy dripping with chunky gold jewelry, including a necklace with a golf ball-sized, diamond-studded baseball pendant. Hi, you look like a guest, I say. Would you talk to me?
He and his buff buddies snicker. They appear embarrassed for some reason and decline to talk. Later, I learn the bejeweled man was Derek Bell, in town with the Houston Astros to play the Cubs. Just catching a Springer show before the game.
So I turn to Lisa Beasley, a 27-year-old phlebotomist from Orlando. She's happy to talk about Jerry. She won a radio contest that sent her to Chicago to see Jerry in person. She was the 10th caller! While she's here, her VCR at home is set to record the Jerrys she's missing.
"I've got a Jerry Springer life," the mother of two little girls confides. "I wouldn't want to go on national television and expose my private life like that," she says. But she loves it when others do.
"Oprah is dead to me," Beasley says. Ricki, too. Nothing's on prime time either. " 'Melrose' got so stupid it's not even worth it anymore."
Beasley craves Jerry's "reality," whether it's staged or not. Like that show when the adult baby in a crib called Jerry's resident psychologist "a big poopy head."
"People out there have never seen a transvestite," Beasley explains. "They need to open their eyes. They don't know there are Satanists, Ku Klux Klanners and men who are bona fide dogs, and that's just how life is.
"Yes, sometimes I am blown away by some of the things going on," Beasley says, like the lady that goes in the pool with the chocolate pudding and men pay to lick it off. Or the well-endowed woman who invited Jerry to, well ...
In any case, when Beasley gets home after a tough day, feeling agitated and not amused, "I'll flip on Jerry Springer and I'll be laughing. I'll be in tears."
Nothing like a hair-of-the-dog-that-bit-you to make things right.
'Just be kind'
We go into Springer's studio, your generic cozy, brick-lined TV set. Laurie Fried, the creative director, is apologetic. This will not be our typical show, she warns. You know, usually it's about relationships and love triangles. This show is a little different.
How do you mean?
Well, uh, I think, I heard -- she can barely bring herself to say it -- it's going to be about bestiality. Fried grimaces. She looks
No fights? Nobody sleeping with his best friend's mother? Just people who sleep with their pets? Bummer!
You might want to skip this show, Fried strongly suggests. Get some lunch, come back for the second, "more typical" one: friends and spouses who don't like their love ones' kinky lifestyles.
That's OK, I tell her. I'm happy to see both tapings.
Please, she says. "Just be kind."
Kind? Jerry, Jerry, what can I do to you that you haven't already done to yourself?
Mark Arito has come to the show with buddies from the Chicago suburb of La Grange Park. Arito, 42, is probably the only person here in a suit besides Jerry (his is Armani). Much of the audience is studded, pierced, tattooed, shaven and buzzed. They all look like potential guests.
Except Arito, who is entirely earnest and conflicted about being in an arena where the Ten Commandments -- and maybe a few new ones -- are flouted with gleeful abandon. Arito's a grown man, but even his mother in California wasn't pleased with his decision to come today.
Arito isn't in denial about life "out there." Even if the guests are actors, "I believe the circumstances are true," he says. "We live in a twisted society."
But when he hears Fried stage-whisper today's topic to me, Arito blanches. Jerry may just be taking things a little too far. "This may sound weird, but I grew up in a very morally upstanding
home where conversation about these topics never came up," Arito says.
Before the cameras roll, a stage manager whips the audience into an orchestrated frenzy. He runs the crowd through its "oohs, aahs, applause and boos," and summons everyone to their feet for applause and the "Jer-ry!" chant. Turn off your laser pens, your pagers, your cell phones, your watches, don't pick your nose, don't cuss and don't jump into any on-stage melees, he cautions. His charges seem to love being told what to do.
By now, the rowdy crowd is ready for Jerry, who warms them up with a well-worn, pre-show monologue: "My wife ran away with my best friend. I really miss him."
The audience groans. "Excuse me, how much were the tickets?" Jerry asks. The audience roars. Being a second-rate comedian only enhances Springer's peculiar mystique as an uncalculating cipher in the right place at the right time.
Finally, the show begins. We meet "Mark," a stout, bearded man who walks with a wooden staff, and his "wife," Pixel, who (which?) happens to be a pony. They lick each other on the lips. They share a cup of water. "I'm going to vomit," Jerry says on air. The audience oohs and boos.
Off mike, Jerry begins muttering: "They're going to beg for the fights, they're going to beg for the fights."
Ever the trouper, though, Jerry forges ahead. When others rent pornographic videos, Jerry asks, does Mark rent "Mr. Ed"?
No, Mark says calmly, he already owns the "Mr. Ed" oeuvre. But his retort can hardly be heard above the audience's response, the chant of "Jer-ry! Jer-ry! Jer-ry!"
Next a video about Mark and Pixel is screened. It shows Mark cooking a spaghetti dinner for his "wife," and fondly musing on their intimate moments together.
Then a commercial break and Jerry's promo: "This next guest lost her virginity at age 13 to the family pet!"
We meet the guest and King, her latest canine flame. Yes, she's been with humans, too, she says. "Is that cheating?" Jerry asks.
Through that line of questioning, the audience learns that one boyfriend caught her in a compromising situation with his dog -- so he shot it.
Then a handsome guy in sunglasses takes the set with his dog, Lady. Though Lady is a female, the guest says he's never had a heterosexual relationship with a human. At least in a gay relationship you have someone to confide in, says Jerry, putting a hand to his forehead, in his trademark, "I'm so perplexed" way.
At this point, Pixel's spouse speaks up. There are advantages to having a partner who can't talk, he says. Someone ought to tell President Clinton that horses can't lie and pigs can't sue.
At this, the audience jeers and cheers. Ominous vibes crisscross the studio. Taboos are being smashed left and right, and the place feels like it could ignite instantly into a riot. Real or imagined, these are crimes against nature, against the Bible, against the law! These sick people deserve to be trashed, and that's where Jerry's audience comes in. He may be our guide to this sorry scene, but this is our Colosseum, too. It's our job to thrill to the spectacle laid before us.
On stage, things are calm. Lady and King nuzzle each other and visit with Pixel. Off camera, Richard Dominick, the show's executive producer, hisses questions to Jerry, who is often rendered speechless by what sits before him.
But this doesn't dampen the audience's adoration. When Jerry reads his Final Thought, an off-color sermon referring to pets' proper place in our lives, the crowd goes wild. It's a triumph of deadpan camp, made at the expense of his guests, who sit stoically, unchastened by Jerry's mocking condemnation.
There's no way of knowing for sure if these pitiful people are genuine. But then, the program's authenticity is in question every step of the way -- that's part of the fun.
The "Springer" show is a hall of mirrors. It's the Salem witch trials. It's the Marx Brothers. It's puritanical. It's pornographic. It's horrifying. It's hilarious.
I'm like Lisa the phlebotomist, laughing until I weep. Next to me, though, Arito looks ill. He's not sure he can tell his wife about what happened on this show. "Real or not, he's got my stomach turned," he says.
Jerry, I realize, is ready to torque up the outrageousness as far as it will go. Don't like the fights? Don't like the sordid love entanglements? Then how about a little homily on bestiality?
Did you expect something else? Something more than this depraved farce? Television, with its double standards, its family-friendly pretense and its reflexive obsession with violence, sex and other societal hot buttons, deserves this absurdist joke -- and so do we who watch. Don't let those hypocritical TV executives who get all high-minded about "responsible broadcasting" tell you otherwise.
Besides, it's "sweeps" ratings month.
But a horse, of course, made even the most ratings-hungry executives blink. As Jerry predicted, they would beg for the fights. Many stations across the country, including Baltimore's WBAL, Channel 11, chose not to air the "I Married a Horse" episode on its scheduled air date last week. The show most carried instead? "Past Guests Do Battle," a medley of oldie-but-goodie Springer melees.
From bad to banal
Before I watch the next, "more typical" show being taped, I find lunch downstairs. When I return, I'm herded into the freight elevator (the same one Pixel took) with the hoi polloi, who queued up hours early to nab their free tickets to the taping.
Susan Scott, visiting from England, says Jerry is big back home. She and another British woman on holiday met the night before in a Chicago hostel and decided to see the show. This is what it must have been like in a Roman amphitheater, giving the thumbs up or thumbs down, says Scott, 29. "It's almost a basic human instinct ... like playing God."
Don Binkley and Ron Salyers, two guys in their early 20s, have come from Merrillville, Ind., to celebrate Ron's release from the body cast he'd worn for six weeks after his four-wheeler flipped over on him.
Ron and Don are here for the violence. Better yet, it's free violence, "instead of paying umpteen-thousand to see Mike Tyson bite off an ear," Don says.
We're marched from a stuffy holding pen into the studio. After the stage manager's same prep talk and Jerry's same lame monologue, the show begins. We meet a man and his comely wife, who happens to be an exotic dancer "with a secret."
We meet her colleague, another exotic dancer. "Want to see how we work, Jerry?" they ask with little prompting, then proceed to strip each other and step naked into a bathtub full of bubbles conveniently placed on stage. As sultry music plays, they simulate love-making.
Brute male energy seizes the studio. Ron and Don are beside themselves.
"I'll tell you right now, it's already better than the first one," says Don, who was disappointed in the Pixel episode.
"I cannot believe this, they can't show this on TV!" someone says.
"How can you bleep frontal nudity?" another asks.
"That's all right, it'll go right to the video," says a third, aware that Springer's best-selling "Too Hot for TV" video, with its uncensored melees, nudity and profanity, will soon have a sequel.
"Jerry's got the best job," Don shouts. "I swear to God!"
In the front row, Derek Bell sits with his new friend, Steve Wilkos, the Chicago cop who's become famous moonlighting as a security guard on the show.
The women slip out of the tub and acquire towels. Their secret also slips out: They're lovers in real life! But hubby also has a secret: The other woman has been his lover, too!
Ordinarily, this is the point where fists and chairs fly, but this trio does not seem up for a fight. The only people who seem at all upset are audience members who got soaked during the bathtub vignette.
The exotic dancers are followed by two transvestites, one of whom doesn't approve of the other's failure to inform her massage clients that she is not, anatomically speaking, a total woman.
Next, Mistresses Flame and Lickable, two dominatrixes clad in skimpy black leather get-ups, do appalling and painful things with mousetraps, whips and air pumps, while a friend of Mistress Flame's monotonously laments the dominatrix's wayward life.
These guests are their fetishes, genuine or not. Beyond them, they are boring, even banal. Once the initial shock of seeing Mistress Flame demonstrate her peccadilloes subsides, it quickly becomes shtick. Like so many guests before her, in the midst of doing something outrageous or kinky, she loses her way. It's like a kid who, in the middle of a make-believe rodeo or coronation, suddenly remembers that she's just play-acting.
Clearly, she needs help.
"Doctor! Doctor! Doctor!" the audience shouts. Enter another stock character from Jerry's central casting: Dr. Robert Butterworth, the frizzy-haired psychologist who, like Jerry, is dazed and confused and drowning in deviancy and loving every minute of it.
As expected, he proclaims everything before him as abnormal. He's worried about everyone up there, too. He doesn't want anybody to get sick or hurt. But his concerns are lost. In the chaos that is "Springer," Dr. Butterworth is just one more shouting head.
The show ends. Nothing's really resolved. But nobody seems to care. It's time to go home, to watch TV, to go back to work, to a bar, a video arcade or mall -- whatever. After all the hysteria, no one seems particularly exhilarated; instead, the crowd seems spent, depleted, worn out.
Jerry's still on, though. He cheerfully shakes hands with departing audience members. "Nice to see you," he says again and again. He poses for photographs, and signs autographs robotically until the requests stop. There's a weird disconnect between the showman's smiling face and the moral mayhem that had just occurred under his watch.
Outside the studio, I look for the publicist, again to no avail. You're not supposed to be wandering around by yourself, yet another assistant director chides me. She leads me to an elevator and gets on, too, to make sure I'm out of here.
In a downstairs shop, a "Springer" show employee in his 20s buys a soda and tells the clerk about the nude bathtub scene. "I've never been more grossed out in my life!" he says, shaking his head.
My question is simple: "Then why do you work here?"
"It's TV!" he exclaims, incredulous that I should have to ask.
Outside on Michigan Avenue, Chicago's "Miracle Mile," a group of teen-agers launch a profane brawl over something stupid like a jacket, a slight, a girl. Two schoolgirls watch the fisticuffs and laugh. Then one says, let's get out of here before they start shooting.
Around the corner, President Clinton is expected that evening at a fund-raiser, and you know what Monica told Linda Tripp she did with him.
In the local news, seven Chicago firefighters who behaved lewdly and spewed racial invectives at a retirement party have been fired. Elsewhere in the city, three white men who tried to kill a black man in a racially motivated attack are to go on trial.
This stuff, the real stuff, the real scary stuff, you cannot blame on Jerry, no matter how much you despise him. He may be an easy mark, but he's just the messenger, an opportunist who stumbled upon a wondrous paradox: No matter how far-fetched and obscene his show gets, he'll never be able to top the daily fodder of our lives, the strange-but-true stories that make "The Jerry Springer Show" possible.
Which brings me to my Final Thought: Jerry gets it. He may not be a great mind, but he's a genius, nonetheless.
I think I get it now, too.
As Jerry would say, take care of yourself and each other.
The Genesis of 'Jerry'
Jerry Springer, a former lawyer and campaign aide to Robert F. Kennedy, had already served as mayor of Cincinnati (as a city council member, he was forced to resign in 1974 after revelations that he had written a check to a prostitute) and as a television reporter there when he was asked to host his own talk show.
"The Jerry Springer Show" premiered in Cincinnati Sept. 30, 1991, and moved to Chicago a year later. At first, Springer, 54, was a Phil Donahue-in-training whose guests included respected public figures like the Rev. Jesse Jackson. But poor ratings in the spring of 1994 led producer Richard Dominick to revamp the show.
Before long, Springer was out-Geraldoing Geraldo, and out-Jennying Jenny. Early this year, "The Jerry Springer Show" became the first talk show to best "Oprah" in the ratings race.
"The Jerry Springer Show" now appears in more than 150 U.S.
markets and in more than 30 foreign countries.
Some Final Thoughts on 'Springer'
" 'The Jerry Springer Show' is 'the closest thing to pornography on broadcast television.' "
PTC -- Sens. Daniel Coats, R-Ind., and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., in a recent letter to Education Secretary Richard Riley
"Is 'The Jerry Springer Show' a threat? The last time I looked at national crime figures, they were down."
-- J. Max Robins, TV Guide senior editor and columnist
"I see no problem if a mature teen-ager is getting a kick out of it. It's subversive. It makes adults look like complete idiots, which is sometimes a good thing."
-- Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University
" 'The Jerry Springer Show' is outrageous beyond the pale ... adults should be concerned that it doesn't give children the correct notions of what healthy adult sexuality is."
-- Annamarie Pluhar, founder and director of the Television Project, a nonprofit effort to wean families from TV, based in Silver Spring
Pub date: 5/24/98