They chant "Jerr-eee! Jerr-ee!" every week night in the audience of "The Jerry Springer Show" (Channel 49, 10 p.m.).
Well, he's on my phone now, discussing all the new Springer products that are likely -- trust me here -- to earn him the sobriquet "dunce of all media" by a week from today. Specifically, he's talking about his new movie, "Ringmaster" (out Wednesday), which I found virtually unwatchable, and his book, "Jerry Springer: Ringmaster," which is, of course, more thoughtful but still of interest only to scholars, Springerites and Springerettes.
A brief conversation with the reigning ringmaster of trash TV.
Q: Let me be blunt here. There are those who think of your show as the end of Western civilization as we have come to know it. You must run into those people from time to time. What do you say to them?
A: If I am (the end of Western civilization), I hope I'm there to televise it. I hope it comes on our show. Obviously, I don't take it seriously. Right now, for better or worse, this is the most popular show on television. Twenty-five million people a day watch it. . . . People who criticize what is admittedly a silly or stupid show, I don't take personally . . .
I know there are reporters who write columns that don't like the show. I know there are Bill Bennetts, etc. I have to tell you -- I never, never run into people on the street or in airports or in restaurants who are rude to me. I'm sure there are people who don't like the show, but they don't come up to me. The people who come up to me are always, "Can I have an autograph? Can I have a picture? Oh, my kid loves your show." . . . I know there are critics who think this is the worst show ever.
They're probably right. It's certainly the silliest show on television. Sometimes it's stupid. But it's only television.
Q: What are your standards? Where does Jerry Springer draw the line?
A: I have a very strong line. I will never tolerate censorship. Any (segment producer on my show) who says, "We're not going to put this on because it's against my beliefs" or "I don't like this lifestyle" or whatever, they'd be fired. . . . And I want the show to be totally truthful. We're not required to do that because we're an entertainment show. But I want it to be truthful. I don't want fake guests. If a producer is faking a story, the producer is gone. If we have guests that I think aren't telling the truth, we cut the segment. I've stopped shows many times in the middle because I don't believe the story. So that's it.
It has to be outrageous. That's what our show is about. I was hired to do a show about outrageousness. I don't compromise on these things.
Q: Other than that, there is no kind of human behavior that you wouldn't put on the show for "entertainment"?
A: Television deals with war, television deals with murder. You watch the local news -- what's worse than murdering someone? For two years we did nothing but obsess about O.J. Simpson. If television can talk about murder and rape and that kind of stuff, why can't I talk about someone being dumped? Or lesbians? Or gays? . . . Admittedly, we don't talk about things as horrible as murder on our show. Why would people be upset because we have lesbians or gays or transsexuals and then say it's OK to talk about murder and rape?
Q: I'll admit, one of the best arguments you make for the show is the class argument -- that these are people that nice proper middle-class folks don't like to think about.
A: Take Princess Diana. She was on international television talking about how she cheated in her marriage, how she had bulimia, how she contemplated suicide -- every possible dysfunction, the most intimate details of her private life. And there wasn't one person on the Planet Earth who said, "How dare she go on television and talk about that?" And yet you come to my stupid show. People talk about the exact same issues -- they talk about cheating, they talk about their personal dysfunctions, their disorders. Usually they don't talk about suicide -- they don't talk about anything that serious.
And all of a sudden because they don't speak the king's English, they don't have wealth or power or position or they don't live in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, we say: "They're trash. How can they talk about these things?" It's a very elitist argument. Q: Isn't there an implication in your show that poverty and dysfunction, in some way, go hand in hand?
A: Most of the dysfunctional people we know about are either very wealthy or powerful. We've had a lifetime of celebrities talking about their personal dysfunctions. They write books about it. There are specials on it. Now, all of a sudden, when regular people are talking about the dysfunctions in their lives, we call them trash.
Q: You confer momentary celebrity to people who think it's going to make their lives worthwhile. Does it? Or does it make things worse?
A: Let's face it, most of the issues we deal with have to do with dating, so it's nothing very serious. . . . The show is to some people empowering. What I mean by that is, the people you talk to as a reporter are celebrities, corporate executives, politicians. These are people every day who get asked their opinions about something. . . . Most people in the world are never asked anything except, "Do you have proof of identification?" . . . It does mean something to them. For one week, people are paying attention to them.
Q: Doesn't their 15 minutes actually make things worse?
A: The truth is, nothing that goes on in television is going to change their lives that much. The people on my show are never going to be on Oprah. And you know what? Why shouldn't they have a chance to be on television?
Q: Could you do this for the rest of your life?
A: In terms of making a living, I don't know if you can have more fun than this. I get paid handsomely to run a circus every day. If they came to you honestly and said: "You know what? We'll give you X million dollars to host a one-hour circus," there's no way in the world you would say no. . . . You'll have the No. 1 show in television, you'll be loved by millions, you'll have millions of dollars, and you'll have time to do anything else you like. What are you going to say? "No"?
It defines Jerry Springer and the corroding limitation of his show that he is incapable of imagining anyone who could answer that question "no."