For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced or reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.
WARNING: This ill-advised attempt to reconsider The Jerry Springer Show’s critical reputation may contain adult themes or strong language. Parents are cautioned that this article may not be suitable for anyone.
The man should not command much adoration. He’s quiet and unassuming. Truth be told, he looks like a bit of a nerd, the kind of guy who might be a divorce lawyer or anchor the evening news. In fact, that’s who he was before this show began: a Cincinnati news anchor acclaimed for his hard-hitting journalism. (Before that, he had briefly been the city’s mayor.) He didn’t want to be here, listening to the gathered throngs chant his name in this television coliseum. The show he had signed on to host was an extension of his journalism career, a serious-minded look at issues of importance that wouldn’t have been out of place next to the Phil Donahues of the world. Yet ratings pressures will push just about anyone into a corner in television, and here he was, no longer exposing America’s dark underbelly but rolling around in it. Hadn’t he harbored political aspirations once? And on and on cheered the masses: “JERRY! JERRY! JERRY! JERRY!” He might not have known it at the time—he might have given interviews in which he decried the show that brought him to prominence—but Jerry Springer was inventing the present.
Yes, it sounds ridiculous. The Jerry Springer Show was exploitative trash, not a show that anticipated the world of today. But watch a late-’90s episode of the talk show through the prism of the world we live in today. Springer was YouTube before YouTube, widespread Internet fetish porn before widespread Internet fetish porn, reality TV before reality TV. It was indebted to the past, particularly to programs like Donahue and The Morton Downey Jr. Show. Hell, the show’s trajectory can be directly tied to the rise of The Ricki Lake Show, a program it would overtake and eventually outlive. But Springer gobbled up those shows whole, synthesized them into its DNA, then turned itself up to 11. It was no longer a television show. It was America’s id, going nuts on stage, and the man who presided over it looked like a math teacher.
The 34th rule of the Internet—as determined by members of the group Anonymous for the site 4chan in the mid-’00s—is “There is porn of it. No exceptions.” The idea is a celebration of the Internet’s massive democratization and of the belief that humans will get off to just about anything. Name the item, and there’s a site dedicated to that specific fetish or peccadillo. There are a lot of reasons for this, chief among them the fact that kids who grew up with the Internet increasingly turned to it for their porn-related needs. But it’s not as if Internet porn arrived fully formed and ready to serve any possible constituency. Yes, the integration of the net into American homes meant that it would surely be used for pornography—most technological advances are eventually. But there had to be an evolutionary step between the idea of Internet porn targeted at just about any possible fetish community (which was often greeted with horrified shock in the ’90s) and a world where the idea of this existing is mostly greeted with an acknowledgement that it’s out there and is probably best left out of polite conversation, all things considered.
That evolutionary step was The Jerry Springer Show.
Almost everything about the sexual politics of The Jerry Springer Show was deeply horrifying, as it presented almost anything that deviated from the typical monogamous norm as a strange, seedy horror. (Weirdly, the show was fairly progressive when it came to gays and lesbians—even if it boasts episodes with titles like “Lesborama!”) Springer himself leaned socially liberal, but he knew that presenting deviations from the norm would require a kind of shocked sternness. He was the high school principal who found kids having sex in the bathroom during class, and he was not happy about it.
Yet the savvy of Springer—and what so many of his imitators missed—was that The Jerry Springer Show treated almost all of this with equal titillation. Take, for instance, the show’s treatment of transgender people, notably trans women, one of the first arenas the show explored when making its shift from a more straightforward talk show to what it became. Springer was hardly the first talk show to tackle the subject, which was a talk show mainstay, and no one should suggest Springer was a bastion of progressive thinking when it came to trans issues. Trans people were treated just like everybody else—which was to be used for the purpose of Springer’s usual freak show format. But the show, and these women, also dared viewers to find the idea a little alluring. That idea was surprisingly revolutionary. Sure, objectification is just another form of making someone “the other,” but it was a damn sight better than the demonization most other talk shows practiced. And the longer the show ran on, the more that attitude spread to other American subcultures.
Of course, the titillation was only implied. The show sat in judgment, mostly, the freak show narrative inviting the audience to sit in superiority over the guests and cackle at the weirdos. But that’s ignoring all of the people the show admitted the simple existence of. It featured people engaged in incestuous relationships. It featured dominant/submissive affairs and polygamists. In the show’s most controversial episode, it featured a man married to a horse. Springer never normalized any of this, because the freaks always needed to be laughed at. But by simply allowing all of these people onto television—even if they were there to slot into certain pre-formed narratives—the series casually opened the door to a nation that was not as white bread as it desperately insisted it was. Jerry Springer guests were everywhere. Maybe you were one, late at night, when you couldn’t get your brain to shut up.
Slapstick sells. Humans have a real appetite for comical violence as a species, driven by the part of us that laughs in recognition of the thought that someday, the guy falling on his ass might be us, but today, it’s not. Sex and violence are the lizard brain attractions of almost all art, the things tossed in to make sure the parts of us that haven’t evolved past fish that crawled out of the sea have something to stare at. After all, how many popular viral videos are simply footage of some horrible mistake knocking someone over, or one cat whacking another one across the face? The sharp punctuation of violence in everyday life—the idea that falling down is funny—is the reliable engine that keeps YouTube rolling along. (Okay, sex sells on YouTube, too, but go with me here.)
The Jerry Springer Show understood this, too. One of the most persistent criticisms that dogged the program—beyond the idea that it’s somehow morally depraved—is that the many fights that break out in almost every episode are “staged,” that this is the professional wrestling of the talk show medium. The fights are so predictable it’s possible to set your watch by them, and they became a part of the show’s formula (a theory confirmed by the show’s Wikipedia page, which has a section that breaks down what a “typical” episode looks like, down to roughly when each fight will happen). The show’s critics likely believed that to “prove” the fights were staged would remove the program’s veneer of authenticity. If it wasn’t “real,” then maybe it wouldn’t be popular, and then maybe all of the people participating in it and suggesting the country was wilder than anyone could possibly imagine would be revealed to be well-trained actors. To this sort of mindset, the program’s so-called authenticity was the fig leaf that preserved its decency.
But The Jerry Springer Show was one of the few talk shows to overtake The Oprah Winfrey Show in the ratings at the height of its popularity. It’s hard to imagine that suddenly learning the show had secretly been hiding a person who was really good at sloppy fight choreography all this time would have dramatically affected its ratings at that peak. The more likely answer isn’t that the show carefully scripted its fights, but that the participants in the show knew what was expected of them, and the series was only too happy to goad them along if it meant higher ratings. Chairs flew. People raced across the stage to claw at each other. Security guard Steve Wilkos became an unlikely star.
And even if the series were an elaborate fabrication, so what? How many viral videos in this age of viral videos have been revealed to be frauds, a smirking Jimmy Kimmel pranking the country? Does that take away from the weird excitement of that wolf prowling the Olympic village, the laughs when shared with friends? The viral video trades heavily in getting people to ask, “Did you see this?” and by making sure its fights occurred with clockwork regularity, The Jerry Springer Show achieved the same effect. Every episode may as well have started with a woman frozen in mid-punch, fist about to connect with the face of the man who done her wrong, a giant, red “play” button hovering over their blurry visages, begging to be clicked.
Above all, though, it was about the freaks. It unleashed an uneasy tension in viewers. It still does. On the one hand, The Jerry Springer Show asked viewers to point and laugh at people, often from very different (read: lower and poorer) class backgrounds than those of the audience. It was often a literal freak show, and it seemed to have no regrets about labeling its guests as such. On the other hand, it was such an institution at its height—turning up in an Austin Powers movie and on The X-Files, among other places—that anyone who went on the show had to know what they were getting into. Here was another fig leaf held up by the show. Yes, it was being exploitative and unfair to its guests, but they asked for it, right?
Reality TV existed in the ’90s. The Real World, which debuted in 1992, is generally considered the first mass-market version of the form, following in the footsteps of PBS’ An American Family. Real World, too, certainly traded in putting the sorts of people who’d never been on television on television, then letting them act like crazy people. And talk shows themselves always had a lascivious streak to them, a willingness to drag otherwise normal people on the air and find the one thing about them that was different, the better to reinforce the audience’s superiority. So it’s not like Springer’s willingness to do this was somehow unprecedented, nor can it be pointed to as the only influence on the explosion of exploitative reality shows surrounding us now.
Yet the timing makes too much sense. The show’s central question often seemed to be, “Can you believe these people exist?” and it was fond of holding the camera steadily on so many people who were largely ignored by the medium. They were lower class, sure, and they often spoke with thick accents. But they were entertaining—particularly if they had some wild backstory or were prone to hitting people in the face—and they drank up every moment they had on camera. The Jerry Springer Show, at the height of its popularity, seemed like an attempt to treat Andy Warhol’s famous saying about people being famous for 15 minutes in the future not as a witticism but as an active hypothesis that could be tested under laboratory conditions. It is not so very far from Toddlers & Tiaras, from Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, from a Real Housewives show.
Where Jerry Springer failed and ultimately lost its edge was in not being able to follow these people home. And yet in the best episodes of the show—as in the best of the reality shows that were influenced by it—there is a sense of someone’s essential humanity being captured onscreen, almost accidentally. That was what powered it (and the best of its children) past the fact that it treated too many of the people on it like complete and utter deviants, unworthy of basic human decency, past the fights that might have been fake, past the hooting of the audience members at these people they felt reflexively superior to, just because of where they were sitting. No matter how much contempt Jerry treated the guest with, no matter the ridiculousness of the audience questions, the best guests carried themselves with a weird dignity. Watch “I Married A Horse.” The man in that episode is still somehow genuine, somehow a human being, as worthy of respect and dignity as the people watching him.
It’s an awful tension. We want to feel superior, but we cannot. Maybe it was a mercy, then, that The Jerry Springer Show didn’t follow its guests home. Maybe it was the ultimate perversion that many reality shows that followed in its wake would. The stage of this talk show was a safe space, a place to work these issues out, and when the lights dimmed, they were gone, but for the imagination.
Today, The Jerry Springer Show is a lazy cat of a program. It rests sleepily in far-off sunbeams of the television schedule, almost innocuous in a medium that is always racing toward newer, more outrageous controversies. Just as The Simpsons was supplanted in the minds of the easily outraged by South Park and the Seth MacFarlane oeuvre, Springer was supplanted by the many shows that saw their freaks less as human beings and more as marketing tools. Viewers can say what they will about Jerry Springer, the man. He might have been smug and haughty. He might have found his show beneath him. He might have found his guests utterly ridiculous. But he was a journalist at heart. He was curious. He really did want to know if that man loved his horse, and he knew we did, too. His show is still on the air, but, lazy cat that it is, can only be roused to perform its old tricks every once in a while. Even in terms of talk shows, its ridiculousness was eventually supplanted by Maury, which wedded its willingness to exploit just about anybody if it meant solid ratings to a kind of mock solemnity, a more sincere Springer for a decade that imagined itself shaken by world events and done with irony.
But we were never done with The Jerry Springer Show. We simply started to find the elements that made it so successful everywhere else. The Jerry Springer Show was awful, execrable television, but that was what made it so good. It understood, on some level, that human beings like to gawk and that the future belonged to said gawkers. It was polite enough, then, to provide an efficient delivery system for that gawking, until it was time to sign it over to the Internet and cable networks that would push it far beyond its breaking point. Now, we gawk 24/7. All we do is look and judge and imagine, never understanding that to someone else, we are the freaks.
And still the man is there, just as indolent and comfortable as his show. On some level, he must know we live in his world now—in the land of the news anchor who would be governor of Ohio but somehow got waylaid amid the weirdos. This might not have been the life he would have chosen for himself, but it’s made him rich and happy. And it’s given us the hum of electrons that bond so many atoms in the pop culture universe together, the white noise underlying everything we see and do and say when our omnipresent screens flicker on for another day: “JERRY! JERRY! JERRY! JERRY!”
Next time: Let’s do the complete opposite of this, as Stephen Bowie heads back to Mayberry and The Andy Griffith Show.