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Good Riddance, Jerry Springer

When former Cincinnati mayor Jerry Springer first signed on the air with his signature TV talk show in 1991, there was little reason to suspect that this was the beginning of a cultural juggernaut. As far as anyone was concerned, Springer was treading a road already traveled by Phil Donahue, Oprah Winfrey, and Sally Jessy Raphael, if not the more bombastic Morton Downey Jr.

But after more than a quarter century, Springer has more than proven that his is a show apart. More than anyone, he’s helped sink television to its new low and explode trash programming into the culture war circus that we have today.

It took 27 seasons, but in May, NBC-Universal finally pulled the plug on this bottom-feeding showman, though a “best of Springer”—if you can call it that—rerun package will be offered on the CW Network.

Springer hailed from an era of series daytime talk shows that had replaced the celebrity-driven formats of the 1970s—Dinah Shore and Mike Douglas were retired by their syndicators in 1980, while the mighty Merv Griffin called it quits at age 60 in 1986. Even Johnny Carson was ready to go within less than a year of Springer’s debut. And Dick Cavett, whose consciously cerebral ABC and PBS talk show was recently given a TAC tribute [1], ceased production at the end of 1981, airing its finale in most PBS markets over the spring and summer of 1982.  

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It was Phil Donahue who rode to the rescue, tying his top-rated daytime show to white-hot issues that were previously taboo for TV—transgenderism, date rape, molestation, domestic violence, feminists versus fundamentalists, AIDS, institutional racism, and so on. And if Donahue was Adam, then in 1986, Oprah became Eve (along with Sally Jessy), adding her signature empathy and message of empowerment, becoming the first African-American woman to host a truly successful daytime talker. (The great Della Reese tried from 1969 to 1970, but her show never took off.)  

As the novelty of Oprah, Sally Jessy, and Donahue’s top-rated offerings wore off, syndicators became ever more intent on turning up the scandal and the sizzle. Geraldo Rivera and Morton Downey Jr. were fresh out of the gate by the late ‘80s, even as shows like Entertainment Tonight and PM Magazine (somewhat unintentionally) gave birth to the hardcore tabloidism of Hard Copy, Inside Edition, and A Current Affair.    

But it was in 1993, when former John Waters movie teen queen Ricki Lake launched her talk show—the first to explicitly target Gen. X high school and college-age students—that Springer had his lightbulb-above-the-head moment. Pushing the limits of paternity testing, transgender this-‘n’-that, and sex in general, Ricki ruled the ratings, even as a 40-something former backup singer and showgirl named Jenny Jones was climbing the charts with her newly launched show (we’ll get to her in a minute).  

As any religious conservative will tell you, there were plenty of other trends in the ‘80s and ‘90s—the not entirely holy trinity of MTV, Madonna, and Marilyn Manson, plus hardcore gangsta rap, Quentin Tarantino, Beavis, Bart Simpson, and Cartman—that contributed to the coarsened American pop culture that we “enjoy” today. There was one thing, though, that set Springer and his ilk apart.  

Like their secular patron saints Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin, late 20th-century entertainers used their boundary pushing to “out” and address the hypocrisies, double standards, and self-satisfied smugness of their time. But what “redeeming social value” could one find in The Jerry Springer Show besides the cheapest of cheap laughs at the expense of fellow Americans’ pain, humiliation, and palpable desperation? A show that treated its all-too-human guests like toilet paper? A show proud of its “distinction” as “The Worst Show on Television” from TV Guide? Even Springer’s predecessor as the Ayatollah of Trasherola, game show guru Chuck Barris, rightly recalled that most people had the time of their lives when they were contestants on the Gong Show or Newlywed Game. Not so on Springer: they usually left with black eyes, torn hair, and tear-stained faces.  

I can still remember watching in my (relative) youth a few minutes of an all-too-typical episode in 1999 or 2000, when the Springer show was at the summit of its popularity. It was yet another episode promising “Sexy Secrets.” This time, a Latino male prostitute was readying to drop a truth bomb on his conservative sister. “I’m a street-walking ‘ho, Jerry!” He sashayed when Jerry called him out, and the crowd cheered Beatles-style. “You want it, you want it!” he cajoled, working the audience. Jerry brought out the sister and said (in his most obsequious and respectful tone) that her brother had something to tell her. Of course, Sis crumpled into tears, weeping and wailing, as the hooting and hollering audience laugh-laughed and ooh-oohed.

Five years or so earlier in early 1995, Jerry’s closest runner-up for trashiest TV talk show, The Jenny Jones Show, ran an even worse Sexy Secrets special. This time, another femme gay man detailed his hottest fantasies about his straight neighbor, who was then brought out for the Big Reveal. The neighbor thought he was about to be reunited with his old girlfriend, and the producers just let him go right on thinking that. The straight young man had struggled with mental illness and had already attempted suicide once—something that the producers on Jenny Jones either didn’t bother to find out, or, much more chillingly, deliberately chose to ignore.

After Jenny gay-baited the squirmingly uncomfortable “couple” in the ugliest ways (including asking her audience like a teenage Valley Girl if a male-to-male kiss was really an “errrrooooootttic” kiss or not), she then sent her two guests home summarily with no apparent follow-up, nothing. The humiliated and panicked guest of honor with the history of mental illness blew the gay man’s brains out practically as soon as they both got back to their hometown. Two lives were destroyed, but “the show must go on”—all the way until 2003 in Jenny’s case, eight years after her most famous guest had his funeral.  

Ironically, the heyday of The Jerry Springer Show also corresponded to what many critics call TV’s Second (or Third) Golden Age: The Sopranos, The West Wing, ER, The X-Files, Seinfeld, Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives, to name a few. Then again, there were also the early-evening garbage shows (EXTRA, Access Hollywood, and Inside Edition), and as we all know, “reality TV” began to sow its cloying seeds, from the tiniest cable boutiques to Big Four network primetime.  

Most tellingly of all, cable news has completely adopted the Springer aesthetic. They may not feature live paternity test results and “baby mamas” scratching and kicking their rivals on air, but no doubt there is a little Jerry in every one of those bemused but puckish anchors refereeing the ugly catfights between political pundits on CNN and MSNBC today. Over Jerry’s long run, TV made its final transition from being a mass-market medium to a demographically targeted microcosm of 300 channels producing “content” from low to high—with the broad American middle (if such a thing even exists anymore) ever increasingly squeezed out of the wide-screen picture.

From A-list celebs going out of their way to trigger Trump voters at awards ceremonies to Trump’s own Twitter tantrums and locker-room braggadocio, we as a society have had way too many Springer show moments lately. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that our own president once staged his own “smackdowns” on WWF [2]he seemed to know instinctively what a certain (broad?) spectrum of voters wanted.   

Springer was ultimately a symptom, not the disease. Still, it’s hard to shed any tears for one less cyst on pop culture’s behind, especially with the way everything else has been going lately. And to use the unctuous catchphrase of Jerry’s simpering little “homilies” and insincere “life lessons” at the end of his shows…

That, my dear friends, is my “Final Thought” on the life and death of The Jerry Springer Show. And hopefully, he WON’T be back after the next commercial message.

Telly Davidson is the author of a new book, Culture WarHow the 90’s Made Us Who We Are Today (Like it Or Not) [3]. He has written on culture for ATTN, FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series “Pioneers of Television.”

28 Comments (Open | Close)

28 Comments To "Good Riddance, Jerry Springer"

#1 Comment By Youknowho On July 18, 2018 @ 10:37 pm

Who needs Jerry Springer when we got Donald Trump in the White House?

#2 Comment By Lenny On July 19, 2018 @ 12:48 am

Jerry and Roseanne gave us Trump

#3 Comment By Mother124 On July 19, 2018 @ 7:21 am

I was never a viewer of any of these shows, so it came as a surprise,watching the clips, and I’m thinking: what kind of “talk show” has to have bouncers on stage???????

#4 Comment By Kris On July 19, 2018 @ 7:32 am

They may not feature live paternity test results and “baby mamas” scratching and kicking their rivals on air, but no doubt there is a little Jerry in every one of those bemused but puckish anchors refereeing the ugly catfights between political pundits on CNN and MSNBC today.

I think you left out a certain cable news channel here.

#5 Comment By General Manager On July 19, 2018 @ 10:00 am

I think Springer was the disease. The insidious apostle for cultural degradation. Springer is very bright and knew exactly what he was doing. Sprigerism became a quasi-religion. Good riddance to bad rubbish. Hope he does not try and reinvent himself as a socially conscious politician. His shock jock appeal was hypnotic for many. No doubt he rode a market niche. Could you?

#6 Comment By James On July 19, 2018 @ 10:34 am

I was reflecting on the same thing earlier. I never watched it back in the day, I’ve never enjoyed seeing people at their absolute worst. It was definitely the template for much of the devolution we have today, though, that’s for sure. I think it’s difficult for younger people to imagine that it wasn’t always like this, and that’s really a shame.

#7 Comment By TG On July 19, 2018 @ 10:37 am

The problem with this article is that it assumes that the guests were on the level – Springer was 100% pre-determined pro wrestling. But I doubt you’d approve of that either.

#8 Comment By Mark On July 19, 2018 @ 12:01 pm

My family lived north of Cincinnati (between Dayton and Cincinnati) from 1988 to 1991. During those years, Jerry Springer was a very respective TV news anchor (on WLWT). Many times he gave an incisive opinion commentary toward the end of the broadcast. He must have taken a deep dive when he left WLWT and sold out when he did his show.

#9 Comment By Chris Mallory On July 19, 2018 @ 12:20 pm

Mr. Davidson, every TV I have owned has had two switches on it. One to change the channel and one to turn it off. I found when I did not like a show using those switches would solve the problem.

#10 Comment By sglover On July 19, 2018 @ 2:46 pm

Didn’t know Springer was even on the air any more. But then I’ve never been as obsessed with the idiot box as TAC “editors” seem to be.

Bottom-dwellers like Springer and the whole TV zoo are simply among the truest, most loyal worshipers of a right-wing sacred totem: The most holy market. It’s always so precious and adorable to watch people like Dreher and Buchanan gas on about how “the culture” is “destroying families” with things like pornography, Jerry Springer, and so on — yet they never dare walk that one extra millimeter to concede that these are all just instances of satisfying market demand.

#11 Comment By Phillip On July 19, 2018 @ 4:02 pm

Watching Springer was like watching a car wreck.

#12 Comment By Jeremy On July 19, 2018 @ 4:25 pm

You know those people on the “Jerry Springer Show”, those are the average Americans. Oh, yeah, believe me. Below average can’t get on the show. Can’t get on. Below average is sitting home watching that shit on TV, getting ready to out and vote, filling out their sample ballot.

George Carlin

#13 Comment By Trumpest is Best On July 19, 2018 @ 7:57 pm

Springer glorified the lowest scum on Earth. The fact the show lasted 27 seasons says something about the demographics of the viewers.

#14 Comment By Miriam Barton On July 19, 2018 @ 7:57 pm

Springer was never a show I watched. I thought it was really disgusting and stupid. Low life mentality.

#15 Comment By Youknowho On July 19, 2018 @ 8:06 pm

@sglover

Indeed, the inability to go against the Holy of Holies, the Free Market makes their protests against the purveyors of today’s culture hollow. Those purveyors are satisfying a demand, and letting the market decide what sells and at what price.

Is it too hard for them to admit that the Free Market is a basically amoral entity, and if it has to have a moral center someone must provide it?

(Also there is a contradiction among Free Market advocates. The Market is basically the aggregate of individual decisions, made on rational basis, of what to buy and sell, and at what price. Rationally. But then those supporters of the Free Market bemoan the wrong choices – moral, religious, political, philosophical people make.So they end up postulating that people who make consistently bad decisions in their lives become founts of rationallity and wisdom when they go shopping).

It is what I call the Smithsian heresy (among Catholics) that says that the Pope is infallible only ex cathedra and in matters of doctrine, but that Adam Smith is infallible ALWAYS.

#16 Comment By Michael Bartram On July 19, 2018 @ 9:15 pm

and then there is fox news, fantasy and out of balance

#17 Comment By Mark Newman On July 19, 2018 @ 11:18 pm

Who needs this stuff now that the damaged perverts in jester-town and the mainstream media are eating each other for our entertainment. God bless President Trump!

#18 Comment By Thomas Hobbes On July 20, 2018 @ 1:11 am

General Manager says:
Hope he does not try and reinvent himself as a socially conscious politician.

Actually, he was a socially conscious politician before the TV gig if you can believe it.

I actually have never seen the show on TV, but I was a front row audience member once (a gift to a friend who was into that type of humor). The ladies we went with thought that low cut shirts would be our ticket to the front row and perhaps they were onto something since that is where we ended up.

My two take aways from that experience are 1) the show is at least mostly fake – guests are there playing a role so they can be on TV and have a laugh, and 2) Springer is the saddest man I have ever met. The dude just obviously recognizes that what he is doing is horrible and is deeply ashamed. Does he have a horrible gambling/drug addiction he needs to pay for? Is somebody threatening his children’s lives if he doesn’t continue the show? I may never know.

Anywho, my friend had a great time getting in a shouting match with a clearly fake guest and I have a video of myself looking self conscious as I try to play along.

#19 Comment By Josep On July 20, 2018 @ 4:16 am

@Chris Mallory
(Sorry to go off-topic, but) How can you adjust the volume if the only two functions are to change channels and turn the set on/off?

Sometimes I wonder whether TV in the US was better when it was limited to a smaller no. of channels (at least three) or worse.

#20 Comment By Nick On July 20, 2018 @ 5:15 am

I saw a snippet of Jerry Springer exactly once in my entire 39 years. Twenty years ago in college I took a criminal justice class and we took a tour of two prisons in Ohio. Just about every cell had a TV, and every TV was tuned in to Springer. And for me, that pretty accurately sums up Springer, his guests and his audience.

#21 Comment By Olga On July 20, 2018 @ 10:27 am

I was no fan of Jerry Springer. I am sure I watched a couple of episodes back in the 1990s. Really, I had no idea he was still on. However, I think other reality shows are far worse like The Bachelor or Toddlers and Tiaras. However, I don’t have cable and I just don’t bother with TV anymore.

People that go on talks shows like Jerry Springer or reality shows like The Bachelor know they are going to be humiliated. People do it anyway. Some are hoping at a chance at fame, restart a flagging career or for some it was a chance to stay in a nice hotel and visit New York for a couple of days. A trip they could never afford to do any other way. It is sad really. The shows would not exist if guests weren’t willing to be on them.

#22 Comment By Michael On July 20, 2018 @ 11:48 am

I was on the faculty of a major state university in the 90s. The lounges of the student union would be packed at 3pm watching Springer. Plus there were clusters of students who religiously met in this dorm of that apartment. Quite the phenomena. Peaked in 97 or so, but for a few years was the hot cultural happening on campus.

#23 Comment By Davis On July 20, 2018 @ 2:46 pm

One thing the article failed to cite is Howard Stern’s impact on shows like Springer’s and Maury.

In the aftermath of Stern’s sophomoric weekly Saturday night programs, that’s around the time the above-mentioned shows veered from rather serious content to devolve into what they became and the “success” that it brought both of them.

There’s a song by a rather obscure hip hop collective that made a clever observation in the early 90s, the lyrics: “Television, the drug of the nation, breeding ignorance and feeding radiation.”

Thesong took to task our cultural obsession with the 24-hour cable cycle, having access to countless channels, yet the dissatisfaction with “nothing on” that we quite often grouse about.

#24 Comment By grin without a cat On July 20, 2018 @ 4:55 pm

At first, Jerry Springer wanted to do a serious show about public policy. He was very knowledgeable about that stuff and was quite capable of creating a quality show of that nature. However, after the first few episodes it became clear that few people were watching, so his producer advised him to change the format.

#25 Comment By Peter On July 20, 2018 @ 7:42 pm

Disclosure: I appeared on Springer in 2000 as a fake Catholic priest, Fr. Felcher; a play on Fr. M. Phleger, a Chicago activist priest who was advocating for taking Springer off the air.

I am thoroughly ashamed for my role; it was a gig that I got paid $200 for. My disclosure now constitutes a breach of the contract I signed with Springer’s producers.

The premise of the particular episode I appeared on was to demonstrate how fake the stories were on Springer and that they should not be taken seriously. It failed in this regard, as many in the audience stood up and cursed at me and called me a fraud (not in the way they thought). I was purported to have had dalliances with certain young women who were being counseled by me.

It was all fake, as were most Springer episodes. His producers picked up likely stories from punk bars in Chicago and hilbilly bars in Kentucky just across the border from Cincinnati. They ginned them up and let things happen.

I was once approached by Springer’s producers to play a Ku Klux Clan member, complete with hood. I declined. On the episode I was to appear on, the KKK member was ‘friends’ with an actual professional athlete, who happened to be black. The athlete (actually) punched the “KKK” dude and injured him.

I have met Jerry Springer several times in Chicago nightclubs, where he was hanging out with very young Asian women, different every time.

My experience with Springer and his producers is a source of deep shame. I feel he is a scumbag and everything his show was represented a milestone in the coarsening of the American culture, as it is. Good riddance.

#26 Comment By Lert345 On July 23, 2018 @ 12:41 pm

I once chatted with a guy whose brother was a guest on Springer. The brother said a lot of it was scripted. They were told what to say, when to say it, when to throw the first punch etc …

It was the modern equivalent of the old freak shows and and of course lots of the material was fake. But it made viewers feel better about themselves.

#27 Comment By Peter On August 1, 2018 @ 10:53 pm

This article reminds me of the lyrics in a Don Henley song, Dirty Laundry:

We can do the innuendo
We can dance and sing
When it’s all said and done
We haven’t told you a thing
We all know that crap is King
Give us dirty laundry

#28 Comment By Pihc On December 17, 2018 @ 6:58 pm

I love The Jerry Springer snow. For many reasons. The stuff on the Springer show is mild compared to the trump show. I mean we have a reality tv show dude as the president. I hope trump is impeached ASAP, is sent to prison with a life sentence due to treason (an assortment of fraud, rape, lies, paying off hookers, etc), ends up getting raped daily and is killed while making license plates. Ut before he dies, he spends several months in horrible pain which no pain killer can handle. The guy that killed him calls him Reek.