It’s become a cliché, but it’s hard to imagine “Jerry Springer” airing in 2023.
The tabloid talk show — which debuted in 1991 and aired 4,969 episodes during its 27-season run — was known for outrageous guests and NC-17 situations that soared over the boundaries of good taste. But the heart of the program was the good-natured host, a former newscaster and Cincinnati mayor who was a ringmaster to the circus that played out onstage every day.
Springer, who died on April 27, was known in the industry as a loyal friend and a kind boss. He also had an impish sense of humor. He was the first to joke about the craziness of the show that made him nationally famous. But he also defended it and embraced the unique moments that only happened on his stage.
“My show is what it is,” Springer said in a 2018 interview. “My show is stupid…[But] we all have moments in our life when we are not at our best. What is interesting is that famous people can do the exact same things as people do on my show, or even worse, and we put them on late-night TV, we buy their albums and books, cheer them as heroes. On our show, people talk about exactly the same thing, but because they are not rich, famous, or good-looking, and don’t speak the Queen’s English, we call them trash.”
In fact, Springer’s secret weapon was treating every guest with dignity, despite how deep in the mud things often got. The episode premises were consistently outrageous — “Threesome with my Mom,” “I’m Not His Cousin, I’m His Fiancée,” “Your Boyfriend Is Gay” — but the host would ask piercing questions about each guest’s situation, even as they literally rolled up their sleeves to physically fight their enemies.
There was a merry lunacy to “Springer,” as the well-worn pattern escalated tension deliciously: A first guest would come out to tell their sob story, their lover would emerge and things would be tense, and then they’d be joined by a third party, at which point fists start flying as bodyguards rushed the stage.
The brawls always scratched an itch at the intersection of WWE and John Waters’ outré fascinations, as many of the guests were in unconventional relationships, or didn’t looked like traditional TV stars. The kaleidoscopic gathering of people seemed to have only one common thread: Would you battle out your problems onstage?
Yes, there were a lot of gross elements of the show that felt tethered to the zeitgeist of ’90s culture defined by “Girls Gone Wild,” such as audience members showing their breasts for “Jerry Beads,” the uncensored “Too Hot For TV” video compilations of the series’ wildest segments, and referring to guests using less-than-politically correct language.
Yet the dark joke at the end of every episode of “Springer” was the host delivering an achingly sincere “Final Thought” straight to camera, which tried to contextualize the wild episode into a life lesson. “The truth is, in most cases, we get treated the way we permit ourselves to be treated,” Springer would say, minutes after a hurled chair just missed a guest’s head.
Most importantly, “Springer” was emblematic of a time in the ’90s when television felt truly dangerous. Without the glut of content from streaming, there some notoriously illicit shows that would entice millennial kids to sneak the television on while parents are in the other room. From Fox’s rude family satires like “The Simpsons” and “Married With Children,” to the shocking language of “South Park” and frank sex discussions on “Dawson’s Creek,” the decade was bookended by the expansion of mainstream media coverage of tawdry, racy and downright shocking subject matters. Throughout his heyday in the 1990s, Springer marched on, a bandleader of subversiveness who reveled in the tomatoes thrown at him.
Springer always ended his “Final Thought” segments with the same sentiment, a fitting final message to remember him by: “‘Til next time, take care of yourself, and each other.”
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