May 3, 2023

Jerry Springer, R.I.P.

About Jerry Springer, three things:

1. When confronted with the story that he had once paid for a prostitute with a check, he supposedly replied, "Hey, the check was good!" or words to that effect. Now, I don't want to appear as if I'm condoning prostitution, but that was a masterful way to handle the situation. People can't embarrass you if you refuse to be embarrassed. It was, in its own way, very self-effacing, and it's hard not to like someone, even if just a little, who can do that.

2. Many years ago I wrote an absurdist political satire featuring as a secondary story a former professional wrestler running for governor of his state. (You might know who I'm talking about.) Near the end of the campaign, the candidates participate in a debate, held on a stage arranged to look like a wrestling ring; Mike Tyson was the timekeeper, and it seemed perfectly natural under the circumstances to have Jerry Springer as the moderator. I never published it because it became more and more difficult to tell the difference between satire and reality, but I might return to it someday.

3. As part of my research for the book, I subjected myself to watching an entire week of the Springer show in order to get his verbal and physical mannerisms correct. It was a very strange experience; I knew what I was letting myself in for, of course, but the five episodes I watched were, by turns, disgusting, hilarious, and oddly touching. It wasn't something I'd care to repeat, but it also wasn't the worst television experience I've had. I'm not sure whether or not that's something to be proud of. As disgusting as his show could be, I nonetheless found it impossible not to like him; hating him was about the farthest thing from my mind.

It occurrs to me that the worst nightmare for American elites was probably the idea of a show produced by Chuck Barris and starring Jerry Springer; with both of them gone, they can rest easy about that, although I'm sure they'll find something else to worry about. When Springer died last week at the age of 79, my first thought (after thinking about Barris) was that it truly was the end of an era. That's an overused phrase, but in this case there was no other way to put it. The British newspaper The Guardian said that Springer "changed US television for better and worse," and I think that's a fair assessment. There had been shows like Springer's before, and his success spawned copycats—many, many copycats—but they all lacked one thing: Jerry Springer himself. 

In parading his cast of oddballs and misfits into homes on a daily basis for nearly 30 years, many would argue that Springer displayed a callous disregard for his guests—exploiting them, ridiculing them, holding them up as an example of the worst that American culture had to offer. In so doing, they argue, Springer not only coarsened pop culture, he magnified and then perpetuated such coarsening, not just by encouraging copycat shows, but by deluding people to engage in more and more extreme behavior in order to achieve their fifteen minutes of fame. His show became a bizarre combination of "You Asked For It" and "Can You Top This?"  

Most, if not all, of this is probably true; in looking back on Springer's career and his impact on pop culture, I thought of a parallel to another man who was criticized and despised by the ruling class, a man accused of pandering to the sensational and bringing journalism down to the lowest common denominator for the sake of ratings: Walter Winchell.

Winchell, who fought his way up from struggling vaudevillian to the nation's most widely read columnist and most powerful broadcaster, had a withering contempt for the elitists, the wealthy and upper class, the denizens of what was once called Café Society. In making them the focal point of his gossip column and radio program, he sought to cut them down to size, to strike a blow for the little guy, a group in which he counted himself. By attacking their foibles, follies, and excesses, he turned their lives into a form of entertainment for the masses, and provided those same masses with a glimpse into the hitherto guarded lives of the rich and famous.

I think in some ways Springer saw himself in the same light. "It’s basically elitist," Springer said of the criticism he faced. "You have all these celebrities [coming on other shows to] … talk about who they slept with, what drugs they’ve been on, what misbehavior they had, and we can’t buy enough tickets to their shows. We can’t buy enough of their albums. We go to see their movies. We buy their books. We think they’re god-like." He took particular umbrage at the idea that he was exploiting his guests; he was, instead, giving them the same chance for publicity that others had because of their wealth and celebrity. 

Springer, like Winchell, was condemned by critics and self-appointed guardians of taste. Like Winchell, Springer found his greatests champions among the people, especially the high school students who took to his brand of entertainment with relish; it was as if America's favorite baby-sitter had morphed from Sesame Street to a TV studio in Chicago. Both Winchell and Springer were political animals: Winchell as a champion of FDR and a dedicated anti-communist; Springer as a politician himself, a former city councilman and mayor in Cincinnati. Both thought of themselves as populists, and both were accused of bringing polite society into the gutter. They weren't necessarily misunderstood, but both were more complex individuals than originally thought. And both, though it was hard for many to believe, had a real concern for "the people"—Winchell, who received letters from thousands of listeners each week looking for help or complaining about various injustices, would pass along those that made the biggest impression on him to President or Mrs. Roosevelt; Springer, whose show was at one time even more popular than Oprah Winfrey, would give a "Final Thought" at the end of each show, a moral-of-the-story that many thought hypocritical, and would end by saying, "Take care of yourself, and each other."

Comparisons can only go so far, of course, but there's no doubt that journalism changed forever because of Walter Winchell, and television changed forever because of Jerry Springer. Whether these changes could have been effected in a less sensational way is a topic for another day, and it's difficult to make the case that either one of them left their respective media in better shape than they found it. TV Guide once called the Springer show the worst in television history. This, we should remember, is the same TV Guide that was once an influential, even intellectual, review of television before it became just another fan magazine with sensational headlines. We don't live in the land of what-if, though, but what-is. 

One thing that few can argue is that for many, The Jerry Springer Show was hugely entertaining, must-see television. Whether we see a show like it again probably depends on whether we see another Jerry Springer again. If that's the case, then I'd say it's pretty unlikely, because Jerry Springer broke the mold. The rest are just cheap imitations, and to borrow one of Burnham's Laws, just as good, isn'tTV  


  1. What follows is a true story, in two parts:
    Part One:
    There came a time when Jerry Springer's national ratings were waning, just a bit; this happened sometimes in national syndication.
    Springer, who had been doing news commentary on Cincinnati TV just prior to taking over the talk show, was looking into the possibility of getting back into that line - and WMAQ-Channel 5, his home station in Chicago, expressed interest.
    Channel 5's 10pm anchor, Carol Marin, who was highly respected here in Chicago, was opposed to bringing him onto the newscast, and the local TV crickets were loudly supporting her.
    Channel 5 hired Springer for the comment spot (the continuation of his talker notwithstanding), and Carol Marin resigned forthwith - whereupon Channel 2 promptly signed her up to anchor their 10pm newscast.
    This was front page news: Ch2 made much of how Carol Marin would have full editorial control of the newscast - with no frills, no stunts, and no network promotions, among many other promises.
    Jerry Springer's commentaries only ran on two Ch5 newscasts; after much sniping by the crickets, he stepped down, and went back to his "silly talk show".
    Part Two:
    Some while after this, CBS launched Survivor, amid hoopla worthy of the Second Coming.
    Perhaps you recall the whoop-de-doo: that first Survivor series was covered as is it was a regular news story - even though it was widely known that the whole series had already been taped.
    And yes, this included local TV crickets, who "reported" the weekly results as if they were Real News.
    Came the season finale, and CBS prevailed upon its stations to cover the ceremonies as if it was actual "breaking news event".
    And how did Carol Marin, Ch2's 10pm news anchor, who had been promised that her newscast wouldn't do that sort of thing, handle this "story"?
    She played it The Company Way - Survivor got the whole half-hour (well, almost, anyway: the did leave a few minutes for sports and weather).
    There was a brief moment when John Calloway got comment on how much news time was given to a Game Show ( a Beat The Clock knockoff set in the middle of nowhere), which had already been long decided anyway; Calloway was on and off in less than five minutes, disappearing amid the hype.
    Carol Marin had the character to look just a bit embarrassed by it all; she resigned from Channel 2 not long after, and wound up apologizing to Jerry Springer for her presumptiousness earlier on.
    And the world went round again ...
    ... and if you can find a lesson in any of this, you're welcome to try ...

    1. I'm not sure about a lesson, but it's definitely entertaining! I remember reading about Carol Marin's problem with Springer (was Ron Magers at the station then?), but hadn't heard the Survivor story before

  2. I remember seeing Carol Marin on WSM-TV in Nashville up to 1978, when she left for Chicago. This is the same station that led to bigger things for Pat Sajak, the station's weatherman in the mid-1970s, and Dan Miller, the lead anchor w/ Marin who moved to LA in the mid-1980s and became Sajak's announcer/stooge on Sajak's brief CBS talk show a few years later.

    I've never seen more than a few mins. of Springer's show, but Jay Leno (who had a sort of populist appeal himself) joked about the Final Thought segment by saying (I think more than once.) that no one guesting on the show even had a 1st thought.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!