Of the many lessons I’ve learned the hard way in my life, one of the hardest has been this: Never take a job for the story. Sure, you’ll win every game of “two truths and a lie” at every icebreaker function for the rest of your life if you take a job on The Jerry Springer Show, as I did when I was 22 years old and much more committed to irony than I am now. But is the cocktail party banter really worth the damage to your soul? I can only speak for myself here, but honestly? Not really.
The longevity of The Jerry Springer Show is, frankly, insane. The show debuted on September 30, 1991, and chugged along until this June, when The Hollywood Reporter announced that although new rights holder The CW would continue to show reruns, it had not ordered any new episodes of the show and was unlikely to do so in the future. That’s after 27 years and more than 4,000 episodes, all of them interchangeable enough that although I vividly remember working on an episode where a family got into a Thanksgiving-themed food fight onstage, lobbing handfuls of whipped cream and creamed corn that I had spent the morning dutifully collecting at the grocery store, I couldn’t find a clip of that specific episode because that exact insane premise had been done so many times. I don’t even remember what the source of all the rancor was, though I do remember repeatedly asking a very upset woman not to rub the food off of her face during commercial. And if I can’t keep the episodes straight, reruns should suit the general public just fine.
Assuming this is actually the end, The Jerry Springer Show still made it longer than nearly every one of its competitors. The Jenny Jones Show aired in syndication for 12 years before wrapping up in 2003; Sally, 19 years. Ricki Lake, who had other options, hung up her eponymous talk show after 11 years back in 2004, before reviving it with a less sensationalist focus in 2012. (That incarnation was much shorter lived.) Now that Jerry’s gone, the last tabloid talk show hosts standing are Maury Povich, who’s been telling people whether they’re the father or not on Maury since 1991, and Steve Wilkos, an ex-Chicago cop and Springer’s former head of security who spun his celebrity into his own daytime TV trash-fest in 2007.
That kind of tenacity is impressive, especially considering Springer’s peak was 20 years ago. 1998 was the year that The Jerry Springer Show consistently beat Oprah Winfrey, who by that point had evolved from her own trashy origins into an aspirational self-improvement guru, in the ratings; a November 1998 report in The New York Times noted that Springer had ruled the daytime Nielsen ratings “35 of the last 38 weeks.” 1998 was the year of Ringmaster, a paper-thin parody of The Jerry Springer Show starring Springer himself as a put-upon talk show host surrounded by sex-crazed freaks—in typical Jerry Springer fashion, he insisted on adding some sex scenes for himself as well—and the year of Jerry Springer: Too Hot For TV!, a VHS compilation of the show’s most outrageous moments that sold half a million copies via late-night infomercials. It was the year the show filmed its notorious bestiality-themed “I Married A Horse” episode, which was also released on VHS after several markets refused to air it.
It was also the year The Jerry Springer Show got the best advertising it could ever have asked for: Senators Dan Coats (R-Ind.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) reached across the aisle to jointly pressure the Department Of Education to stop providing grants to fund closed captioning on Springer’s show. At the time, Lieberman called it “the closest thing to pornography on broadcast television,” which must have thrilled Springer immensely. By that point, he had become thoroughly morally ambivalent: Although The Jerry Springer Show was originally conceived as a relatively high-minded political discussion program, low ratings led Springer to ramp up the salaciousness and exploitation with the help of a notorious former Weekly World News reporter around the same time the 1995 murder of a man who had confessed his love to another man on The Jenny Jones Show left some questioning the ethics of the tabloid-TV phenomenon as a whole. If Springer was worried that the same thing might happen to one of his guests, those fears were drowned out by skyrocketing ratings and a booming chant of “JE-RRY! JE-RRY! JE-RRY!”
1998 was also when I started watching The Jerry Springer Show. Growing up in a working-class neighborhood on the west side of Cincinnati, I was only a couple of steps removed from being a Jerry Springer guest myself. And he used to be our mayor, back in the ’70s! What further proof did I need that I was too good for this impossibly dull, infuriatingly ignorant, incurably Republican burg, a belief that was shored up every time I skipped sixth period to watch caricatures of my neighbors scream at each other about their sordid sex lives. This fascination with the dark mirror image of my own upbringing continued into college, where I gleefully joined kids from wealthy suburbs in making fun of the “trailer trash” we saw on Springer. This performative contempt masked a deep insecurity: “Maybe they won’t know I’m here on scholarship,” I thought. “Maybe they won’t smell my dishwashing job on my clothes.”
It was another hazy afternoon spent in front of the TV that inspired me to send my résumé to The Jerry Springer Show my senior year of college, essentially as a joke. “Dude,” my roommate, who had a history that was very similar to mine, said. “You’re moving to Chicago. It’d be hilarious if you worked on Jerry Springer.” I agreed, we laughed, I mailed one of the résumés I had printed out at the library to the address on the screen, and we all moved on with our lives. Then, a few months later, I got a phone call.
The producer on the phone was interested in my background—not my telecommunications background, which was minimal (I had taken a few courses in school, as part of a concentration in film) but my origins in Cincinnati. Many of the show’s guests came from the Tri-State area of Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky, she told me, and they had had success with hiring PAs from that area. I seemed smart, so she wanted to know if I was interested in a job. In short, the guests were my people, and I would be able to communicate with them effectively. I knew their ways. They would trust me, and I would betray them, as I had been betraying them for years.
The question everyone always asks when you tell them your first job out of college was at The Jerry Springer Show is, “So, it’s fake, right?” The answer is: yes and no. Different producers specialized in different types of stories—love triangles, unusual fetishes, family drama—and aimed for different levels of verisimilitude as a result. If you were doing a show about, say, being in love with a stuffed animal, a producer might not look too deeply into a guest’s background if they were willing to put on enough of a performance. But, in general, the love triangles and warring clans were real, albeit heavily coached. As Springer himself put it when he testified in front of the Chicago City Council about violence on the show in 1999: “My show is overall for real. Has there ever been a case when there’s been what you would call a fake guest? Yes. Has there ever been a case when someone made up a story? I’m sure. But I’m telling you, overwhelmingly, the show is real.”
We didn’t tell the guests to fight each other, per se, but we did separate them during commercial breaks and whisper in their ears about how the other party had done them wrong and they needed to stand up for themselves. This was after a full day in which PAs and APs like myself took the different sides out to different tourist attractions and to dinner at different novelty chain restaurants—ESPN Zone was a favorite—carefully coordinating to make sure we never ran into each other at Navy Pier or wherever. On these outings, we listened sympathetically to the guests’ complaints about the person or people they hated enough to drag them onto The Jerry Springer Show, plying them with cigarettes the entire time. (Nearly all of the guests smoked.) “That’s terrible,” we’d say, between bites of limp nachos. (No alcohol; we couldn’t have guests going on benders and not showing up for the taping the next day.) “You should tell them how you feel so you can move on with your life.” They absorbed this advice with a smile; no one ever told them their feelings were important in their day-to-day lives. And if they ripped big chunks of each others’ hair out onstage as a result of all that validation? Well, that’s showbiz.
The fetish beat was the one everyone wanted to be on, because booking guests for those shows was relatively easy: Just call up BDSM professionals who placed ads in the back of alt-weeklies (another dying breed) and ask if they’d be interested in a free trip to Chicago and some free advertising. Barring that, if a PA called up some friends who did improv and asked them if they wanted to have some fun pretending to be clown fetishists, the producer didn’t need to know about it. The rest of us were stuck calling everyone who left a voicemail on the Jerry Springer hotline—yes, every single one of them—and trying to find the one embittered outcast with a poor sense of boundaries among the thousands of drunk frat boys who had called in as a joke. Some of the callers had pitches already prepared, like the man who desperately wanted to come on the show to talk about his KISS memorabilia collection. “Get into a love triangle with two other KISS superfans, and maybe we’d have something,” I told him.
I was assigned to the “family drama” beat, which was the most difficult of all. Not only did you have to find a real dysfunctional family, but you had to get everyone involved to agree to come on the show. Many promising leads were dropped because of a sister or a father or an aunt who didn’t want to air the family’s dirty laundry on TV. And although one of these perfectly reasonable people ended up getting me fired—despite my many pleading phone calls, an intelligent man and good father refused to sign the paperwork to allow his underage daughter to appear on the show, which meant my team’s episode that week fell through, which meant someone had to get fired—I can’t begrudge them their dignity.
I was the villain in that situation. I knew that. And with every show we taped, I felt more morally conflicted. I spent long periods of time hanging out with the guests, after all, and although some of them were delusional assholes, most were simply caught up in an out-of-control situation without the financial or emotional resources to deal with it in a healthy manner. These people needed therapy, and I was sticking them in cheap polyester pantsuits and sending them out onstage to fight each other. (The racks of skimpy clubwear in wardrobe were reserved for the sexier premises.) Maybe knowingly participating in the exploitation of vulnerable people because my roommate and I thought it would be funny did make me a bad person. And it sure wasn’t worth working 12 hours a day (or more), six days a week, even if I did make overtime. So although I sat down on the sidewalk and cried after being escorted out of the building, convinced my career in media was over forever, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t any relief in those tears.
Perhaps it’s for the best that The Jerry Springer Show will just shuffle quietly off of the daytime TV stage, given that Springer himself always seemed a bit embarrassed by what he had become, even as he did things like vocally oppose Studios USA’s 1998 decree that there would be no more physical fighting on the show. He continually distances himself from the show in interviews, telling this very site in 2008, “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.” He was rarely in the office, and we were instructed to divert guests’ requests to meet him into a meet-and-greet with Steve Wilkos instead. (Wilkos is a nice guy, and the guests were usually starstruck.) Even the autographed photos of Jerry that we gave every shellshocked guest before putting them in a cab back to their hotel were impersonal and mass-produced, kept in a filing cabinet next to the one the office manager kept stocked with cartons of cigarettes.
I never even spoke to him. Sure, I was only there for less than two months, but the staff wasn’t that big. If I had, I would have told him that both of my parents voted for him back in the early ’70s, when he was a rising star in the Ohio Democratic Party and not a bespectacled symbol of the grasping narcissism and amoral emptiness at the heart of the modern American character. Sure, he resigned from the Cincinnati City Council in disgrace in 1974, after a raid on a Northern Kentucky “health club” found that he had paid for sex with a personal check. But he came back, and won another City Council election a year later. On a certain level, I empathize with Jerry Springer: We both tried to get as far away from Cincinnati as we could, only to find that it would take more than a “Final Thought” or an extra spin on the Ferris wheel to get out of the spiritual corner we had backed ourselves into in the process. The ultimate irony is that it took working for his show for me to figure that out.