Jerry Springer's outrageous talk show ended in 2018. It's still playing out everywhere, in real life.
The politician-turned-talk show host, who died Thursday of pancreatic cancer at 79, had apologized for his raucous and often controversial show.
Jerry Springer once said that he'd never watch his own show but now, in a way, everyone else is.
To be clear, the politician-turned-talk show host, who died Thursday of pancreatic cancer at 79, is, of course, not solely responsible for the harsh way we see people interact on TV and in real life, from shows such as the now canceled Tucker Carlson Tonight, to former President Donald Trump's Twitter rants, to the increase in hate crimes. Yet The Jerry Springer Show — and all of us who ever tuned in — certainly contributed.
"It seemed somewhat harmless to many people at the time, even people who were disparaging it," Joshua Gamson, a professor of sociology at the University of San Francisco and author of the 1998 book Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity, tells Yahoo Entertainment, of the show. "But I don't think that we knew then that it would show up in MAGA rallies, with people shouting, instead of shouting 'Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!' But it's the same basic thing. It was almost a model for that kind of creepy political impulse to take people down and to treat politics like it's entertainment."
Those chants would come from the audience as they watched episodes like "I Married a Horse," which was banned in some places for its depiction of bestiality; "Klanfrontation," which featured a physical confrontation between members of both the Klu Klux Klan and the Jewish Defense League; "Married to Your Dad but Want You Back"; "Mom, I'm a Porn Star"; and more. Guests regularly brawled onstage and had to be pulled apart. They admitted to having done sometimes terrible — or at the very least embarrassing — things, spilling their guts to the the camera and the millions watching, from 1991 to 2018. Although, in its first few seasons, Springer, the former mayor of Cincinnati, had attempted to cover more serious social and political issues, he and his team found that going the opposite way drove ratings, even ahead of powerful competitor The Oprah Winfrey Show in some cases.
"In terms of current hosts, I think in some ways that the show that he was part of accustomed people to a kind of tone on television that has come to be more common," Gamson adds. "It's not really so much disingenuous hosts or hosts that are willing to bend the truth or rile people up was an invention of Jerry Springer, but the kind of cultural change where you're accustomed to seeing that kind of stuff on TV and in public, I think he really contributed to that, in a way that now looks kind of innocent, kind of naive, because it was in the entertainment sphere... And it spread, that way of pandering to particular audiences with outrage, using outrage and division, this sort of performance of division between people."
Just a few reminders of what the show, which had more than 3,000 episodes, was like:
Reality TV expert Danielle Lindemann, an associate professor of sociology at Lehigh University and the author of the 2022 book True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us, sees a connection between the genre she studies and Springer's show.
The beginning of 'say the quiet part out loud'
"They often take 'backstage' thoughts and activities (like, our sexual predilections, medical procedures and the things we think about our friends and co-workers but don't typically vocalize) and bring these activities, attitudes, and thoughts into the 'front stage,'" Lindemann says. "And I think you could draw a parallel there with contemporary politics as well, with public figures now more apt to 'say the quiet part out loud.'"
Springer himself appeared to regret what occurred on his show, joking after it ended that he was sorry for it, that he'd "ruined the culture" and hoped "hell isn't that hot."
But there's more to it, points out Laura Grindstaff, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis and author of the 2002 book The Money Shot: Trash, Class, and the Making of TV Talk Shows.
"I think [The Jerry Springer Show] was part of a broader phenomenon, sort of a sliding scale of civility for lack of a better phrase," she says, adding that the proliferation of media venues and changing technologies played parts too. "It's easier to say something really negative about someone in a tweet than it is to do it to their face."
'It was the producer's job to make sure that that interaction was really dramatic.'
Grindstaff had an up-close view of The Jerry Springer Show in the mid-'90s, when she was working on her doctorate degree in sociology. She worked on Jerry Springer as an intern and then production assistant, fielding messages from viewers hoping to appear on it, bringing producers whatever they needed and conducting interviews with everyone, from Springer to producers and guests, as part of her research.
"'This is a show where you just simply witness real, human drama, with the interaction that takes place between people,'" Grindstaff recalls Springer telling her on her first day.
She adds that "it was the producer’s job to make sure that that interaction [between guests] was really dramatic. And by that I mean most typically conflictual and angry and volatile. I don't think [Springer] ever pretended it was anything else. I mean, he described the show to me as a cultural cartoon."
Grindstaff says life behind the scenes was as stressful and unpredictable as the product that audiences saw. For one thing, people were often dropping out at the last minute.
Those who did participate had often seen the show and probably had at least an idea of what they were getting into by going on the formulaic show, which knew exactly what it was doing.
"So many times I saw guests really get into it on stage and then afterwards, back in the green room, they’re all palling around," she says. "The guests themselves were kinda in on it."
They had a big incentive for appearing on Springer even though much of it was a trainwreck.
A complicated legacy
"My view of it is that people were willing to make this deal: very unflattering behavior and representation in exchange for being part of television," Grindstaff says. "And you can't blame people for making that deal because these are the very people who are pretty much… invisible due to media. These are poor people, working class people. These are people with not a lot of formal education."
Springer and other daytime talk shows were one of the first places of visibility for, for instance, transgender individuals.
"And was the representation flattering?" Grindstaff asks. "Absolutely not, but were there other spaces where they were being invited to be able to say, 'This is me, I'm here. I exist.'? So it was a deal. It was a deal with the devil in a way, and I'm not surprised that people took that deal, because they were so excluded from any other opportunities or media visibility. So, yes, it’s exploitive but let’s also ask, 'Why isn't there a more dignified or respectable [place] for people to share their lives?'"
All this makes the TV legacy of Springer complicated.
Gamson sees it as "a mix of being really instrumental in creating a space for people from the margins who hadn't been very visible before to be on TV and creating a space in which those people, the conditions of them being visible were pretty strict and narrow."
Being seen meant performing a certain way.
"It required that people exaggerate their emotions, particularly negative emotions, be in conflict with one another, be loud... and it was a space that he was instrumental in creating that other people saw as trashy," Gamson says. "It's a very mixed thing, what he wound up creating."