The Boston Phoenix
December 3 - 10, 1998

[Out There]

Jerry sprung

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 society.

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.