I'm in the studio where The Jerry Springer Show is filmed. Getting here from the lobby of the NBC-5 building in Chicago takes most of the morning. The odyssey involves long lines, bored contempt from staffers in headset walkie-talkies, and hours watching the NBC morning lineup on TV in a cramped room called—with alarming lack of euphemism—"the holding pen." Here in the studio, however, there's leg room. The men in headsets scurry and shout. And the TV monitors at either end of the stage whet the audience's appetite for public spectacle with highlights of the show we all came to see. There's the classic where Jerry mixes it up with the Nazi, and the Thanksgiving special where the woman whose husband slept with her aunt coldcocks her mother with a drumstick. "I hope they show the one with the 900-pound man," the lady next to me intones, "I hope they show the one with the 900-pound man."
Cincinnati, Ohio, where I grew up, is a conservative backwater. Cotton Mather and the prime minister of Malaysia would both feel at home on the school board, and the citizenry, as a rule, makes no distinction between Dick Gephardt and Chairman Mao. But for a time when I was a boy, one man pierced the city's drowsy, laissez-faire haze. His Brooklyn accent jangled the ears of a populace more accustomed to gentler Appalachian tones, and his leftist leanings mystified a local establishment still coming to grips with women's suffrage. He was our mayor, Jerry Springer.
Just being a Democrat in Cincinnati set him apart, but Springer was something even more unique—a popular one. One of the most sought-after public speakers in the city, he was welcomed with equal enthusiasm at black Baptist churches on the city's west side, and bingo socials in the city's all-white Appalachian district. Mike Ford, who managed Jerry's 1970 congressional campaign as well as the presidential races of Walter Mondale and Ted Kennedy, said in a 1996 Ohio magazine article that Springer connected with a crowd better than either of his two subsequent clients: "He was passionate beyond the norm. He was smart. He was funny . . . [and] he could read a room better than anyone."
Jerry went from mayor to local news anchor. He consistently won top-ratings on Cincinnati's NBC affiliate. He got into the habit of closing each broadcast with a short commentary. Progressive, well-reasoned, and articulate, these TV essays soon became a hallmark. Their tone was tricky—impassioned without being strident. One dares call them sage. Springer's final broadcast as a Cincinnati news anchor is somewhat legendary. A friend actually received a video tape of the broadcast as a gift from his parents. (I find it somehow significant that he held onto the video until just before I got the idea for this article, when he taped over it with an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) If the tape still existed it would show Springer making a short farewell speech. Or at least him trying to. Midway through his goodbye, he breaks down. For the last minute on air, he can only cry.
"The most important thing for a good show," says a man named Todd who eventually takes the stage, "is you guys." Not quite 900 pounds, Todd is, nevertheless, very large. He possesses the face of Al Bundy, the body of Reggie White, the alarmingly tight black jeans of Garth Brooks, and Madonna's headset microphone.
"You're allowed to make four sounds," he explains, "clapping, booing, oohing, or ahing. Some people like to pump their fists like Arsenio used to do, some people do that raise the roof thing. Those gestures are both very nice. Don't do them here. Clapping, booing, oohing, or ahing. If you're not sure which one to do look over at me. I'll be giving you hints. Let's practice."
Ooh is the hardest. I try to get it to come off disapproving and lascivious, the "ooh" you make before the words, "I'm gonna tell Mom." Instead, a pasty warble emerges, the "ooh" of a man undergoing an uncomfortable medical procedure.
The show begins with a quartet of LA sex-party enthusiasts, one of whom revels more enthusiastically than her boyfriend would like. Not only do I not know how to make the sounds demanded of me, but more importantly, I don't know when. The distinction between ooh eliciting and ah eliciting remarks eludes me. I can't even figure out when to clap or boo. My fellow studio audience members share my confusion. The girlfriend's announcement "I've always fantasized about having my own harem of men" elicits an equal mix of the four allowable utterances. I even detect a few unauthorized hybrids. "Aaooo" howls one lady in the next row. "Baah," a couple of us bleat by mistake. And Todd is no help. Thumbs down and frowny face—ooh or boo? Stylized grimace and shoulder shrug—ooh or ah? It's like taking notes in a physics class taught by a mime.
Our fortunes change with the arrival to the stage of the show's second segment. One boy, three girls, quite a few babies, two fights, lots of "Fuck you, bitch." This is the human condition, nasty and brutish just like Hobbes said, and its ugly reality galvanizes the crowd. When PJ, the philandering boyfriend, smirks, "I'm just telling 'em what they wanting to hear," we boo as one. When Crystal, girl no. 2, responds that she hates him, we clap riotously. We're in the zone. The appropriate sound wells up from me instinctively now. I don't even glance at Todd. To sing the breadth of human existence, I have four notes, and I'm nailing every one.
After a brief melee between Regina and Crystal, they're both restored to their seats.
"Tell me this," Jerry asks Regina, "When was the last time you slept with PJ?"
"About a week ago," Regina answers.
Jerry turns to Crystal, "How about you?"
Crystal focuses on a point in the air off-stage. She swallows once. Twice.
"Sunday," comes the barely audible reply.
"Oooooh," taunts the audience as one. Our inflection is perfect.
People think you sell your soul for what you get in exchange. In the beginning, Springer wanted to elevate televised cultural discourse. His program would showcase serious issues and feature thoughtful people engaged in respectful debate. When dismal ratings tanked that plan, Springer saw it as the last in a long line of failed attempts to make a difference. As mayor he'd tried to bring liberalism to Cincinnati and as anchor he'd tried to introduce thoughtful commentary to the nightly news. He'd reached out to disparate groups, served as a model of reason in an increasingly fractious society. But it was possible to see his every attempt at societal betterment as having failed. He was tired. And after suffering this last rebuff from the viewers whose lives he was bent on improving, he arrived at a decision: Fuck it. Fuck Cincinnati, fuck the American electorate, and fuck daytime TV. Cancel the health-care analyst, bring on the feuding Siamese twins. Sometimes, you sell your soul just because it's easier to live without one.
Crystal, we know, has no home. At 15 she left her parents' house under suspicious circumstances and moved in with Regina. Regina has just tried to knock her out on national television. Crystal has a 1-year-old. She's discovered that the baby's father, the only man she's ever loved and the only hope for stability in her unraveling world, has lied to her since the day they met. Crystal is 17. The desperation in her expression cannot be feigned. She blinks. Her lip quivers. She starts to cry. Once she starts, she can't stop. She cries while the cameras roll. She cries during the commercial breaks. Every once in a while she'll lean back and blink at the ceiling, as if by tilting her head, she can keep the tears from falling. It actually works until she looks over at PJ and her shoulders start shuddering all over again.
The oddest moment of any Springer show comes at the end, when Jerry shares his Final Thoughts. These short monologues bear a striking similarity to his nightly news commentaries in Cincinnati. They proceed gracefully from a broadly accepted premise to persuasive recommendation. They never last more than two minutes. And given the context, they're sort of insane.
"The rules have changed," Jerry voices into camera no. 4, "sex is not just an act between married parties anymore. . . . Knowing we can no longer count on society to
require or enforce the rule of sex only in marriage, no assumptions can be made about fidelity . . . other than what two people promise each other, what they're willing to trust, and what they make clear to one another they're not willing to tolerate. There's been a lot of pain here in terms of broken relationships," Jerry glances at Crystal. "I hope you all realize that you deserve someone to love you back."
Though Jerry's words suggest the same wildly fruitless gesture that stocks the country's public toilets with "Say no to drugs" urinal liners, we like to believe in their power. We like to believe that maybe Crystal took the words to heart. Maybe she no longer falls for hound dogs like PJ. Maybe she's found a part-time job and a place outside town for her and the baby. We like to believe that maybe today, right now, at this very second, she's walking to nursing school in a white uniform, humming "I Am Woman" softly to herself, trying to remember what she ever saw in what's-his-name, and thanking God for The Jerry Springer Show.
I arrived in the lobby of NBC-5 a self-righteously bewildered moralist. I left simply bewildered. Yes, watching the Springer show is like leering at the geek as he munches a chicken head. And yes, I enjoyed it very much, all right?
I'm not proud I enjoyed it. I don't doubt that in enjoying it, I sacrificed a small part of my humanity. Therefore how I came to enjoy it is instructive—I simply decided to. Midway through, between segments one and two, I abandoned both my running indictment of the show's decaying effect on society as well as my efforts to sort through the emotional anguish on stage. It was a decision I made quietly, almost imperceptibly, but I made it deliberately. I'd opted for entertainment, and it swept me away: You can't unjump into the ocean. The first half of the show I remember clearly. The second half is a blur of shouting and fist pumping.
Why I made the decision is instructive also—it was easier that way. I negotiated the same basic soul-for-peace transaction Jerry did. I too agreed to fuck it. Fuck human misery, fuck 15-year-old girls cast out of their parents' homes, and fuck the cruel men who exploit their vulnerability. These things would no longer confuse or sadden me, but would amuse me instead. I agreed that responding meaningfully to the desperate absurdity on stage seemed too hard. Once you get the hang of it, it's simpler just to boo, clap, ooh, and ah.