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Few celebrities reach the notoriety of Jerry Springer, whose name is not only known in households throughout the world, it's synonymous with dysfunctional, bottom-of-the-barrel entertainment. But the host of the 17-year-old trash-TV program The Jerry Springer Show is a far cry from the Cincinnati lawyer who was elected to three terms on his City Council—the third after he was publicly disgraced for paying for a prostitute with a check—and a term as the city's mayor. Following an unsuccessful gubernatorial bid in Ohio, he pursued a career in television, first as a local news anchor, and then as, well, Jerry Springer. His show's success has let the lifelong Democrat travel the country, using his celebrity status to champion liberal causes, raise money, and endorse candidates. He's also made cameos in TV and film, appeared in his own movie, Ringmaster, and released a music CD titled Dr. Talk. Springer recently spoke with The A.V. Club about patriotism, appearing on Dancing With The Stars, hosting America's Got Talent, and how Jerry Springer: The Opera made him feel a little weird.
The A.V. Club: You often publicly ridicule The Jerry Springer Show, but without it, you wouldn't have a TV career. At some point, don't you have to admit it has some kind of redeeming value?
Jerry Springer: Well, have you seen it? [Laughs.] I think it saves taxpayers money: Our show is seen throughout the world, and when other countries see it, they no longer want to take us over. We probably save defense dollars. [Laughs.] If you're in high school or college, the show is a hoot. Certainly if I were in college, I'd be watching it. It's an escape from what else is going on in the world, but no one takes it very seriously. It's just fun.
AVC: Were a lot of your former political colleagues and residents of Cincinnati surprised by the show at first?
JS: Well, sure. I had been the mayor and a news anchor for 10 years. But when the show started, it was fairly traditional. It was a few years later that it started going crazy. But that's my job. Universal owns the show, and says we're only allowed to do crazy. In other words, if someone calls us with a warm, uplifting story, we're required to send them to another show. We're only allowed to do outrageous. That's what the show is. I don't produce the show; I don't own it. I'm very happy to be the host. It's fun to do, but I can't honestly tell you it reflects my interests.
AVC: So how does it fit into your personal outlook?
JS: It's my job. I like the idea that there's no censorship, because it's consistent with my views that we live in a free society and people ought to be able to express their views, even if they're repugnant to us. And I like the fact that it's just regular people. It's not celebrities. If wealthy, powerful people go on television and talk about their dysfunctions, we love them. We can't buy their books and magazines fast enough. We made a whole industry on the dysfunction of famous people, and no one calls that trash.
AVC: So you think criticisms of your show reflect notions of class rather than notions of decency?
JS: I think they very much do. The example I always give is of Princess Diana, who was on international television about 13 years ago, talking about cheating in her marriage, having bulimia, contemplating suicide—these are all subjects you see on every talk show. Not one person on the planet Earth said, "How dare she go on television to talk about that." No one called her trash. She was beautiful and spoke the Queen's English, and we loved her. You could have someone talking about the exact same issues, but if they don't look like her or speak like her, all of the sudden we degrade them. Clearly it's class—that's what the real complaint is. It's not that we don't know that stuff like this happens. It's in every newspaper in the world every day.
AVC: Does your persona on The Jerry Springer Show limit your ambitions, political or otherwise?
JS: No, it kind of expanded it. Obviously it made me very famous and gave me all kinds of opportunities in terms of what I get to do in life, whether it's Dancing With The Stars or America's Got Talent. But it's also enabled me to do the political work I love doing, because I'm a known entity. I travel around the country constantly, giving speeches, raising money, supporting my candidates and causes. You don't get to do this if you're a local person. It's a gift that came through this crazy show. It makes no sense, but that's the reality. And I'm personally grateful. So when I make fun of the show, it's not because I'm not grateful for the opportunities it has given me. But I recognize it has no redeeming social value. It's just like chewing gum—it won't kill you, but it won't make you feel very good either.
AVC: When you do political speeches and fundraisers, do you feel you have to separate yourself from your character on television?
JS: No, my politics are pretty well known. I'm constantly speaking at the colleges, and there's never a question about the show. I'll start out and tell a joke or two about it, and then I go on to what I'm talking about. And all the questions relate to what I'm talking about. It's pretty hard to find anyone who doesn't get it any more. Maybe the first couple years it was on, there would be, "Oh my God, what is that?" But I think everybody realizes it's all tongue-in-cheek. No one takes it seriously any more.
AVC: Do appearances on shows like America's Got Talent and Dancing With The Stars affect your image?
JS: I'm sure that's had an influence. When I was first on Dancing With The Stars, people were really shocked and surprised. People that knew me weren't, but if you only knew me from a talk show, then you'd say, "God, he looks like a relatively normal person." I play a crazy talk-show host, but that's not me. It's like an actor playing a role. And I think when I was on Dancing With The Stars—even though I've been on television 30 years in one capacity or the other—it was the first time I was ever on as myself. I'm always playing a role, whether it's the role of the mayor, the role of a news anchor, or a role of a crazy talk-show host. But there was a specific function. On Dancing With The Stars, I had nothing to do but be me, schlepping around the floor. And when I host America's Got Talent, that's really me just talking to regular folks.
AVC: You've mentioned a connection between the demographic of your show and the people you represented in government.
JS: Yeah, it's just regular, working-class people. The one common denominator of all the jobs I've had—being mayor or local news anchor or the host of the show, and even now with America's Got Talent—I really have a comfort level with regular people. I don't live in Hollywood. I don't have celebrities as friends. I like them, but I don't pal around with them. I just live in the Midwest, a real normal world.
AVC: Is that why you film the show in Chicago?
JS: Actually, it started in Cincinnati because that's where I was doing the news at the time. I would do the talk show in the daytime and the news at night. Then NBC bought the show and said, "We want it in one of our studios." The choice was either New York or Chicago. Chicago was chosen because it was only a 50-minute flight. In hindsight, it was a good decision, because the show works better in the Midwest. There's more of a sense of wonderment at all this strangeness. If you did the show in New York or L.A., people would say, "And?"
AVC: In your speeches, you've criticized tax cuts for the rich, but you aren't exactly a poor man.
JS: No, and I don't know why they're giving me breaks. It's not as if when I get a tax break, I'm going to go out and spend more money. I can already buy what I want. If everything was going really well and everything were paid for, well, fine, that would be nice. But we're in trouble. The tax structure is just one visible symbol of it. I find it offensive.
AVC: What did you think of Jerry Springer: The Opera?
JS: Well, I saw it. When it opened, they invited me to see it on the West End in London. I thought they did a really good job. I mean, I'd prefer it were about someone else. It was awkward for me to watch it. For one, it's about yourself, so there's no common experience. There's no one I can ask, "Gee, how did you feel?" I can't call Figaro or Carmen and say, "Hey, how did you feel about your opera?" It's just a very personal moment that I can't express to anybody. And then I felt a little bit awkward because, as I was watching it, everyone was looking at me to see what my reaction was. It was uncomfortable.
AVC: After bearing testament to some of the worst aspects of American culture, how are you able to be so optimistic about it?
JS: Well, its basic concept makes so much sense. Most of my family was exterminated in the Holocaust in the concentration camps. I came over here as an immigrant. When we passed the Statue Of Liberty, it wasn't just a slogan. In one generation, my family went from extermination simply because of how they pray to God to this ridiculously privileged life I live today. So how can I not love America?