That kind of goofy sweetness is part of the puzzle of his latest incarnation. Heres a kid who went to P.S. 99, Russell Sage Junior High, and Forest Hills High School, then got a New York Regents scholarship, though he chose to go to Tulane. Arriving in the South in 1962, Springer was drawn to the civil-rights movement. He graduated from Northwestern law school in 1968 and went to work as an aide in Robert F. Kennedys presidential campaign. Springer was virulently antiwar, and when he joined a Cincinnati law firm in 1969 he worked on a referendum to lower the voting age to 18, even testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Pictures from this period show Springer in earnest-crusader mode, with aviator glasses and Welcome Back, Kotter hair.)
The referendum died, but Springer stayed in local Cincinnati politics, and at 25 ran for Congress (and lost) on an antiwar platform. He won a city council seat in 1971, but soon found himself living through his own Ohio-Queensboychick version of the Profumo affair.
In December 1973, and again in January 1974, when he was a councilman and newly wed to Micki Velten, a Procter & Gamble administrative aide, Springer visited a massage parlor across the Ohio River in Kentucky. He paid by check -- I didnt have the ten bucks in cash, he later joked -- and was busted by vice cops. He told his wife and family, resigned from his political post, and came clean at a press conference. Springers honesty worked in his favor. In 1977, he was re-elected and, because he also got a majority of votes, under local law became mayor. He was 33.
From all accounts, Springer was a well-liked, well-respected mayor, known for his intelligence, for his efforts to make a conservative city more compassionate -- and for bringing rock and roll to Riverfront Stadium. His biggest personal trial came in 1976, when his daughter Katie was born with considerable physical disabilities. Springer wont talk about his daughter -- or even comment on his current marital status -- but his official bio says that Katie was undaunted . . . and is a confident college junior and Springers top priority.
After two terms, Springer stepped down and ran for governor of Ohio. When he lost, he became a reporter and political commentator for Cincinnatis TV 5, WLWT. That led to a seven-year stint as a popular TV-news anchor, during which he helped move the station to No. 1 in the ratings and won Emmys for investigative reports about droughts in the Sudan and for going underground as a homeless person in New York.
When the company that owned the station offered Springer a talk show in 1991, he was being groomed as the next Phil Donahue. Both were telegenic helmet-heads with liberal bents. Both were articulate and achingly sensitive to the needs of people of color and women. Indeed, Phil was televisions first fully feminized male. Jerry might have been the second.
Springer conducted his early shows as mostly serious affairs, covering teenage racism in a Florida high school and survivors of gang violence, and interviewing political figures like Jesse Jackson. After the first year, during which the shows were shot in Ohio, production was moved to Chicago and Springer commuted for a year to keep his news job. Eventually he gave up the shlep. But as one of a pack of hosts in an overcrowded talk cosmos, he was having a tough time breaking through. Then -- the story goes -- he and his crew noticed that ratings shot up when certain kinds of guests appeared, individuals such as Melvin the Human Blockhead, who hammered nails into his nose.
Its not like we decided one day, Hey, lets have fights, says Richard Dominick, Jerry Springers bearlike executive producer. It was always happening, but our previous owners made us edit those parts out. By the time we did show the confrontational parts, we had learned lessons and gotten pretty polished.
The hook, ostensibly, is fighting (and what polished fights they are), but Jerry Springer is a show driven by the female body. Regardless of the aggressive sexuality shown by most female guests, its the same old thing: a sanctioned way for frat boys (in the audience and at home) to watch women in revealing outfits. Its also a way for kids deprived of access to the XXX stuff on the Internet or cable TV to feel plugged-in.
The women in love triangles seem to be acting out macho caricatures about wild and horny babes. And the show is so rigidly structured (seven segments, with asmany as a dozen guests per 33-minute hour) that, after allowing for the fighting, theres little opportunity for any other sort of expression. Most of the talk between women degenerates into Im a bitch? Well, youre a whore! There are variations such as Shes a fat-assed bitch! / Youre nothin but an ugly slut!, as well as the time-honored favorite from cat-fight central, If you knew how to take care of him, he wouldnt be sleeping with me!
When the women come out primed for a fight, the audience applauds, as if this constitutes progress. (When men fight, there are boos.) Sisterhood is complicated on this show, mostly nonexistent. Especially if youre sleeping with your roommates boyfriend, as Kim is with Lauras. Why did you do it? Jerry asks. Cause hes a great hunk of ass, replies Kim. It was a booty call.
Springer often travels to various cities to press the flesh of station managers and ad-sales people, get interviewed on the local news, and speak at area colleges. As an old pol, hes great at it, but he hardly has to campaign. Students account for a huge chunk of Springers viewership -- amazing, these days, for an irony-free show -- and at colleges hes greeted like the pope. A few weeks ago at Temple University in Philadelphia, a hall overflowing with a racially diverse crowd of more than 400 kids (most in oversize pants) broke into pandemonium at his appearance to moderate a battle of the sexes. Doing their best to approximate the sub-Mensa style of the actual Springer show, the students made such fightin statements as Men have brains in their genitals, and Women need to watch what they wear when they go outside. One genius went off the topic with, How much can Steve bench-press?, and the audience erupted in Steeeeve!, a tribute to the shaven-skulled Chicago cop whos head of Springers security.
But when Jerry took questions from the audience, the first, posed by a female African-American biology major and basketball player, was, I know you show minorities, but why doesnt your show show positive aspects of minorities?
His answer: That is true. That is true of anyone who is on our show.