How TV's trashmeister turned serious and betrayed us all
Out There by Jay Jaroch
I've always admired Jerry Springer. Not the way I admire Churchill or Gandhi,
but I do admire him. I mean, sure, his show is basically human cockfighting.
But I always felt you could tell him that and he wouldn't care. You could
criticize him, call his show cultural toe cheese or an affront to human
decency, and he'd simply recline, take a puff of his cigar, and admit it. "It's
just entertainment," he would say. "It's just a circus." He had a better grip
on it than anyone.
No longer. Something has happened. Now Jerry wants us to believe that what
he's doing is also important. This is a Jerry I don't even know anymore.
After seeing his movie and getting a dose of this new version -- well, I'm not
sure I can respect a Jerry who believes he's making a contribution to
First off, let me say that I feel just as torn about watching Jerry as the next
guy. On the one hand, his show is a magnificent car wreck, a diorama of
dysfunction so broad in its appeal that its success seems to transcend
explanation. It seems there is nothing better than a 600-pound woman and her
midget boyfriend to create an ass-shaped depression in the American couch, and
I, for one, am not immune to this perverse allure. On the other hand, I feel
guilty for watching, knowing that my message to the programming gods is to give
me more sub-mental shows about sub-mental people and the sub-mental lives they
lead. I feel that I should be doing something more productive than sitting in
front of the tube -- or at least watching Frontline -- but instead I'm
watching a neo-Nazi love triangle unfold. That half of me feels it should get
up and go wash. But there's the beauty of Jerry's show. There is no redeeming
social value. It's entertainment. It's a circus.
Sensing the sheer drawing power of The Jerry Springer Show, Hollywood
recently decided to throw together a big-screen version. Jerry Springer:
Ringmaster follows the lives of two groups of dysfunctional characters who
come to be guests on the show. Of course, there's the usual mix of white trash,
gold teeth, hair weaves, hair-pulling, backstabbing, profanity, and loveless
sex -- all the stuff you'd expect from his TV show. But Springer's movie has
something the show doesn't: a claim to moral legitimacy. And therein lies the
problem. Sitting through the film, listening to dialogue that attempts to
rationalize the show's debauchery -- well, that made me cynical in a way that
sitting through 54 minutes of jealous ass-kicking never did.
Just about midway through the film, it starts: an attractive, well-to-do
television reporter admits to Springer's producer that she finds the show
"bleak and depressing." At that point I found myself agreeing with her: I also
find the show bleak and depressing. But I find the nightly news even more bleak
and depressing, because, unlike Springer, it actually matters. That, I
imagined, would be the appropriate retort. Instead, the producer explains to
the reporter how all of Jerry's guests are poor, and that it must be poverty
that depresses her. He even goes so far as to say that Jerry's show "reminds
you it exists." I cringed, but I kept watching, hoping that was as
self-righteous as Ringmaster was going to get.
Soon, on-screen, a mother and daughter are scratching, kicking, and disowning
each other in front of the TV cameras. This is more like it, I thought.
But backstage, over a sappy George Winston-esque soundtrack, the mother starts
admitting her shortcomings as a parent. Both of them have lumps in their
throats. They bond. It's like a white-trash Hallmark moment. Then the film cuts
to the other main characters learning a lesson about friendship in the studio
lobby. This is getting ridiculous, I thought. And then, at the film's
climax, even Jerry himself gets into the act. I pushed back in my seat, held my
hands outstretched. "No," I cried, "No, not Jerry!" I watched through my hands
as Jerry began castigating an audience member for elitism, simultaneously
answering all his real-life critics in a minute-long diatribe. Something about
how when the rich expose their sordid private lives, we all eat it up, so why
do we get so upset when the poor do it, blah, blah, blah. I'm not really sure
what he said. I was covering my ears. But the message was clear: The Jerry
Springer Show is here to remind America that there are unfortunates among
us, and that our problems aren't really so different from theirs. The Jerry
Springer Show is now somehow important. It translates the lives of the
conspicuously ignorant into some greater social truth.
I shook my head and walked out of the theater.
So why the self-delusion? As I understand it, the biggest point Jerry's film
tries to get across about Jerry is that he is an unwilling participant. He
didn't create these people or their problems; in fact, he'd prefer that there
weren't a steady stream of Americans ready to reveal their pathetic lives to a
national audience. He wants the viewer to know that Jerry Springer might be
rich and famous, but he isn't proud of himself. He also realizes that he once
had a promising career in politics and broadcasting -- at one point in the film
he even laments, "My parents wanted me to be the next Walter Cronkite." He's a
decent, caring man looking for a better reason to be part of the public
consciousness. But he also knows that this is already his second act in
American life, and he won't get a third. That's gotta hurt. And I thought about
how hard it must be to try to find meaning and hope in this life when your day
job consists of talking to a guy who likes to be dragged around in a dog collar
and called Francine. In fact, I almost feel sorry for Jerry.
I wish him well on his quest for moral legitimacy. I just wish he'd pursue it
on his own time. On my time, I wish he would go back to being the guy who
publicly admits that his show is not an advocate for the poor and
disadvantaged. He's a smart guy, and I certainly don't believe that he thinks
the best way to plug for the nation's lower rungs is to feature them in a
segment called "You Keep Stripping and I'm Gonna Leave!" In fact, the only
social function he may be performing is to highlight the need for better
education and dental care.
Instead of trying to delude himself, Jerry could take heart from knowing that
he has become a father figure to a lost segment of our population, a kind of TV
rabbi for nonpracticing intellectuals. Maybe that'd cheer him up.
But that's enough therapy. There's a reason The Jerry Springer Show
doesn't bring in a psychiatrist for the final segment. It's because I don't
want Kiki and Peaches to consider what they're doing, and I don't expect them
to turn their lives around. I want them to lash out in irrational ways. I don't
expect to learn anything, and Jerry shouldn't expect to teach anything. Lord
knows Peaches is in the dark. But so what? Nobody learned anything from
Who's the Boss? either. It's just entertainment. It's just a circus. In
the meantime, if Jerry wants to find his soul, I've got some advice for him:
stop searching in between "Look, Mom! I'm Naked!" and "Klan-frontation." Trust
me, Jerry - it's not in there
Jay Jaroch is a freelance writer living in Cambridge.