Jerry Springer's favorite Jerry Springer show is ... America's Got Talent, the wacky NBC amateur-hour contest from the mind of American Idol mad genius Simon Cowell, on which Springer serves as emcee-slash-zookeeper.
"I'll be the first to say our show is just stupid," Springer freely admits, sitting in a closet-sized dressing room at Wayne State University, beating most of the nation's TV-watching public to the punch when they think about the daytime talk monument to bad taste that bears his name. "It's silly and it's entertainment ... It has no real purpose."
How common for people to hold contempt for the very vehicle that drives their success. Jerry Springer, the show, seen twice daily at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on WMYD-TV (Channel 20), is marking its 17th season on the air, still draws respectable ratings and hasn't done too badly for its host. It has made Springer rich, a household name, landed him on Dancing With the Stars and spun off a feature film (Ringmaster), another talk show (The Steve Wilkos Show, hosted by his former head of security), even a British musical, Jerry Springer: The Opera.
And now he's on multi-city tour of college campuses, playing to crowds who cannot remember a time when Springer wasn't on television as the undisputed king of talk-show trash. At American University he appeared two days after Barack Obama and jokingly announced his own candidacy for president, thanking Obama for warming up the house. It was fitting, because last week at a packed Wayne State auditorium, between the video clips of transsexual midgets and onstage brawls from past shows and the perfunctory audience responses (yes, chants of "Jer-RY! Jer-RY!" rocked the air), a surprisingly large portion of Springer's appearance revolved around politics.
"That's my real passion in life, that's what I get serious about," he says. "Every week of my life I'm giving a political speech someplace or raising money, and now I'm active in the campaign, so I feel that's my real job. The show is only two days a week; we tape three shows on Mondays and two on Tuesdays. It runs on autopilot, but what job wouldn't after 17 years? So I spend most of my time doing political stuff."
Springer, the former mayor of Cincinnati, is stumping for Hillary Clinton, but her name was scarcely mentioned during his Detroit appearance. "I've known Hillary for years, I've been a Hillary backer," he says. "I mean, I look at Barack and say, 'What a talent,' and if he turns out to be the candidate I'll do everything I can to see that he can win, and give money and make speeches."
One of his key messages at Wayne State had to do with the primary system, well-placed given the mess the Democrats made in Michigan. "Here's the point I haven't seen articulated by either side: Either we have political parties or we don't, and if you want to do away with them then do so. But if you're going to have them, then Democrats ought to decide who the Democratic candidate is and Republicans ought to decide the Republican candidate. I don't like — whether it's in a caucus or a primary — people who are independents or members of another party coming across to vote. It's not fair. I'm a Democrat; I shouldn't be allowed to vote in a Republican primary. I could be real slick and vote for their weakest candidate."
Springer can't run for president — he was born in Britain — but he says he hasn't ruled out running for political office again someday. He certainly has the name recognition, thanks to that damned show he disdains. "What's interesting about the show, if there's anything, is that because it has been on so long, it really is a time capsule of our popular culture. Issues that were shocking to us 17 years ago, like interracial dating or gays, you don't even think about today as an issue. You'd be embarrassed to talk about them in that way."
The irony is almost laughable: This thoughtful, articulate, intellectual man, forever to be trapped in the identity of daytime TV sleazemeister. If he's troubled about his legacy, however, he doesn't let it show.
"I don't want or expect to be remembered, except to my daughter [Katie]," Springer says.
"Do you know the name of your great-grandfather on your mother's side?" he asks suddenly. Long silence. "You see? In your own family, you don't remember people of past generations. We had a meeting after one of the shows about three weeks ago and I mentioned Jack Benny. Everyone on the staff looked at me like, 'Who the hell is he talking about?' They're all in their 20s. But if you could be Jack Benny, one of the greatest comedians in history, and not be remembered, then what chance do the rest of us have?"Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org