Jerry Springer’s stranger-than-fiction life has seen him move from politics to trash TV, surviving scandal after scandal to become an unlikely voice of reason in an unreasonable world. But how will that voice hold up when he takes the stage in Chicago?
This may sound ingratiating, mainly because it is, but as I’m leaving the house to meet Jerry Springer for breakfast in Soho, I remember a small metal brooch I have somewhere and go back to dig it out. It’s one of those Stars and Stripes presidents have in their lapels, only this one is crossed with a Union Flag. I picked it up in 2003 – that strained time in Anglo-American relations – and I have never found the right occasion to wear it, until now.
When Springer, a trim 65-year-old with collar length, silvery-blonde, centre-parted hair, notices it, he leans across the table and, being long-sighted, lifts his glasses up to his forehead, so that he can see it better. ‘God love you,’ he says with an easy smile. ‘I’m right in the middle. A true Anglophile. Born in Britain, raised in America. You knew that, right?’ I did know that. He was born in an East Finchley Tube, during an air raid in 1944.
I also know that the talk-show host feels comfortable here: likes the tea; likes the humour; likes the politics (he began his career as a politician, a Democratic mayor of Cincinnati, before becoming a local television news anchorman). And I know he (mostly) appreciated Jerry Springer: The Opera, an extravagant joke at his expense, or rather, a uniquely British take on his notorious American daytime, blue-collar television show – the one featuring assorted inbreeding, punch-throwing, exhibitionist trailer trash.
(The opera, more a musical, featured a nappy-wearing Jesus declaiming he was ‘a little bit gay’, and when the BBC screened it in 2005, it prompted 63,000 complaints amid claims that it was blasphemous.) Such are Springer’s bona fides as an Anglophile, he has spoken at the Oxford Union, appeared as a guest on Any Questions and Question Time and been the subject of Who Do You Think You Are? He wept on camera when he learned that his grandparents had been tortured and killed by the Nazis at Theresienstadt concentration camp. And from June 1, for six weeks only, he has, to his surprise – because he can neither sing nor dance much – accepted a role in a West End musical, Chicago.
We shall come to that. For now we are talking about how our attitudes to Americans have changed since Barack Obama came to power. ‘Before, when I would come over here, I would sense a hostility to Americans. Now that Bush has gone you can sense the good will. Hey, we’ve got Obama. Who is cooler than Obama? I know the anti-Americanism was only on the British left, but even there I think most of you guys accepted that if you are going to have a bully in the world, America is not a bad bully to have.
‘I never noticed the animosity being personal towards Americans, though. I guess it’s like being angry at your parents – ultimately you know they are on your side.’
Oof! A little patronising perhaps, but we’ll let it go. While Springer doesn’t think too much should be read into Obama returning that statue of Churchill to us, he can see that there might be a parallel between the new president’s attitude to the British – informed by his grandfather’s persecution in colonial Kenya – and his own attitude to Germany, informed by the Holocaust (Springer’s mother, a bank clerk, and his father, a shoe shop owner, were forced to leave their parents behind when they fled Nazi Germany for England in 1939).
‘But I don’t hold it against modern Germans, just as I don’t imagine Obama would hold what happened to his family against the modern Brits. I recognise clearly, having been there, that the people responsible, the Nazis, have long gone. This wasn’t always the case. When I first went there in the Sixties, right out of law school, every time I saw a man in his fifties or sixties waiting tables I thought, could he be a former Nazi? It reminds you that this happened within my lifetime. This wasn’t something from a thousand years ago. It reminds you that, if it could happen there, in one of the most civilised countries in the world, it could happen anywhere.’
Springer believes his Jewish identity enables him to identify with the marginalised and dispossessed that he has on his show. ‘No question. Why have I always been such a liberal? I’m convinced it is because of my family Holocaust experience. It has taught me never to judge people on what they are, only on what they do. If people could live by that, there would be no discrimination in the world.’
Ah, his first homily of the interview! For those who haven’t seen his show – for people who have jobs, say – there is always a moment at the end when the tears dry and the teeth stop gnashing, a moment when Springer stands back and reflects. What have we learned here today? It is this that (sort of) makes it OK to watch the exploitational parade of low IQ misfits that is The Jerry Springer Show.
Clearly, he is an educated and urbane man, one with nice manners and a warm and crinkly personality. With him in charge the programme doesn’t feel like quite so voyeuristic and seedy, doesn’t feel as if you have come to stare at the lunatics in the asylum. Incidentally, what does he see as being the difference between what he does, and what went on at Bedlam Hospital, a mile or so from where we are sipping tea this morning?
‘Well, for one thing, people on our show volunteer to do it. People come on because they want to get something off their chest. They say: “You can hoot and you can holla all you want, but I’m going to say this.” I would never go on the show. You would never go on the show. But 10 per cent of the population of America would. I hate the snootiness of looking down on people like that. Be honest, when you meet a snob at a cocktail party you are thinking, he’s a fine one to talk.’
But is it fair to say that his role is like that of the Greek chorus? We look on these chaotic events, the swearing, the chairs being thrown, through him. He allows us to indulge our morbid curiosity, legitimising it because he has had a good education, he is one of us. ‘My role is to stay out of the way. The less I talk, the better the show is. I’m totally non-threatening. I’m the guy next door. I just bring out the acts. I’m non judgmental.’
What about when he gives a platform to a bigot – does he find himself judging them?
‘Me? Absolutely not. Nor do I ever endorse what they do or say. I can’t recall one occasion where I said something like: “You know, incest is great, give it a shot.” ‘
So he never wakes up in a cold sweat at 3am and thinks, I’m going to burn in hell for this? He grins. Nods. Acknowledges the reference to Jerry Springer: The Opera. ‘Look, the show – and I have to keep emphasising that it is a show, a show, a show – is about people who are outrageous and outside the norm. I’m hired to do a show about dysfunction. But if you watch the 18 years of shows, I think you would be hard pressed to find an example of me being mean or disrespectful. When all the media is coming down on them, saying “How can you give these people air time?”
‘I want to say, “What is the difference between you and the people on this show?” You dress better. You are richer. You had a better education. In the genetic lottery you had better parents, but you didn’t choose your parents. It was luck. What’s the difference between a person on my show and me, or you? Luck.’
It smacks of an intelligent man trying to justify to himself a job of which he is, if not actually ashamed, then certainly not proud. I suspect he feels cursed by the show’s huge ratings – 25 million viewers in the US, and many more in the 40 or so countries it is screened in around the world. He uses humour to deflect this unease, joking that he thinks it saves defence dollars. ‘When other countries see our show, they no longer want to take us over.’
In more serious moments, though, he will admit that he wouldn’t be doing the show if his mother was still alive. He would be too embarrassed. She had wanted him to be a doctor or a lawyer, but his early career in politics met with her approval, too. Springer read political science at Tulane University in New Orleans before becoming a campaign aide to Robert F Kennedy. After the assassination of his boss in 1968, he joined a law firm, and in 1970 ran unsuccessfully for Congress. He was elected to the Cincinnati city council the following year. But then, in 1974, Cincinnati police raided a brothel and found a cheque he had signed.
Springer admitted he’d been well and truly sprung, and resigned. The voters rewarded his honesty by returning him to his seat the following year; and his triumph was complete when he became Cincinnati mayor in 1977-78. But realising that the sex scandal would always be dragged up if he tried to go any further in politics, he decided to try his hand at television instead.
I think he could have made a good career politician, possibly one in the Bill Clinton mould. Warm, reassuring, unflappable. Does he wish his political career had gone differently? ‘No. Every day I think maybe I could give all this up and go into politics again, but then I realise that politics is part of my life anyway. I spend most of my time in the States making political speeches, raising money, campaigning. So I have never left politics, in a way. Besides, once you make politics your career you become intellectually dishonest because you have to win the next election to put food on the table. You compromise. You couch things.’
And nowadays, I suggest, politicians can’t be ‘normal people’ anyway because their records have to be squeaky clean. Even as students they have to avoid sex and drugs and potential scandals. ‘Actually, I think we are probably over that. Maybe 20 years ago that was the case. Even with the [Monica] Lewinsky scandal, Clinton left office higher in the opinion polls than when he arrived. People may have told jokes about him at cocktail parties, but there was never a question that if he had been able to run again, he would have won.’
So Springer was a victim of bad timing? ‘Not exactly. Back in the Seventies when I came clean I found the public were totally understanding, I think because I was the one who broke the story. I figured I would be blackmailed forever on this so I may as well just hold my hands up and say I really f—– up and I shouldn’t have done it.’
Was it liberating to get it off his chest? ‘With hindsight possibly, but at the time I felt like a piece of crap. I make no excuses for it. But again, there was a record there that people could judge me on, as a councillor, I mean. I had balanced the books. They figured that I shouldn’t be judged on something that lasted an hour. It was flat-out wrong, sure. But there are worse things a guy can do than go with a prostitute.’
I ask if now that he has reached official retirement age he looks back on his life and feels fulfilled. ‘Yeah. ‘Course. I mean, what a life. I don’t need to make a living now, so I can do things because I want to, because it gives me a kick.’
Like this musical? ‘Exactly.’
Did he also agree to do it because he knew it would take him out of his comfort zone? ‘Way out! It wasn’t something I saw coming. I mean, I haven’t acted since college. My agent called me while I was in London last summer and said, “Do you fancy it, Jerry?” I said, “Sure, why not?”
‘Then he said, “You’re going to have to audition.” Audition? “Sing. They need to find out if you can hold a tune. Go along to the Cambridge Theatre at 4pm this afternoon.” So I showed up and there were six people sitting in folding chairs. They said, “Let’s hear it”. I thought it would be a train wreck. I was with Bob.’
Bob is his bodyguard in Britain, a burly, deadpan cockney who is sitting one table away from us now. I ask Bob what he thought of his boss’s singing voice. ‘Fantastic. He was like a nightingale.’ Pause. ‘A nightingale being shot at with an air rifle.’
‘But it will be fine,’ Springer continues. ‘They will coach me and I’ll be having a singing instructor. Sure, I’m going to be nervous. Why wouldn’t I be? There’s nowhere to hide. I’m already memorising the script so that I am word perfect by the first day of rehearsal.’
How are his moves? ‘Someone yesterday pointed out that I was the oldest person ever to play Billy Flynn. Jeez, you really don’t need to hear that. They have told me that I have to get in shape because
I’ll be singing while I’m dancing. Well, I’m a circle, is that a shape? [He’s not, actually. He’s pretty lean.] Luckily, drinking and smoking aren’t among my vices.’
What is among them? ‘Well, I do smoke the odd cigar. And I eat horribly and I don’t do exercise. A round of golf once in a while. I’m going to have to go on a treadmill. I’m going to treat it seriously.’ His biggest fear is going blank and when I tell him that performers can now have a concealed earpiece through which prompts can be heard, he leans forward excitedly. ‘They can do that?’ He turns to Bob. ‘Have you heard about that?’ Bob: ‘Course.’
Jerry: ‘Oh, I am so happy. So if they see me hesitate they will cue me?’ Bob: ‘Yeah, and it’ll be handy because they can shout “duck” when someone from the audience throws a bottle at you.’
Springer’s fellow cast members look rather glamorous, I note. ‘Boy, you’re telling me, it’s a very visual show. A period piece playing with the stereotypes of Chicago gangsters.’
Come on, he knows what I mean. Day after day rehearsing with beautiful young women. Will he be tempted? Will he flirt? ‘Hey, I’m 65. I just want to be still breathing at the end of this.’
I only ask because in 1998 it was rumoured that Micki, his wife of 35 years and the mother of his grown-up daughter, left him after he slept with a porn star the day before she appeared on his show to discuss her attempt to beat the world sex marathon record. He will neither confirm nor deny the story, although he does describe himself to me as still married. ‘When I’m not working, I like being at home with my family. I don’t go out much. But like I say, I’m 65. What do you expect? That’s why most people don’t have room-mates.’
Room-mates? What does he mean? Does he not have a room-mate at the moment? ‘I’m not, I haven’t, since I was in a fraternity… I mean, yeah, I’m married. But when you go home, if you’re not with your family, then who do you want to be with? No one. You want to be on your own.’
Part of the problem, he admits, is that he is too recognisable. People chant ‘Jer-ree, Jer-ree’, at him when they see him walking down the street, as they do in the television studio. Generally, he has a sunny disposition, he says, but if he is in a rare dark mood, he won’t go out because he doesn’t want to be horrible to members of the public. ‘I love being alone but that’s because I don’t have a normal life,’ he says in a low voice, leaning forward. ‘As we sit here I have already noticed someone point at me.’
And there is the need of a bodyguard. His show plays a dangerous game, stirring up emotions in people who find it difficult to control them. In 2002 a man killed his ex-wife after they both appeared on the show. More typically, though, people find it cathartic and shake hands afterwards, feeling relieved they have aired their grievances. As host, Springer is keen to stress that the show is supposed to be entertaining rather than uncomfortable.
That is why it is layered with knowing, self-mocking allusions. The titles of the episodes are intended to raise a smile: ‘Honey, I’m a Call Girl,’ or ‘Pregnant by a Transsexual’ or ‘Mom will you marry me?’ (that was about a divorced woman who was engaged to marry her ex husband’s son from a previous marriage, but you probably already guessed that). One of the most watched clips on YouTube is of two dwarfs having a punch-up on the show, while the studio audience holler their approval. It makes the circus at Rome look tame by comparison.
It all makes you wonder, though, how a man obsessed with serious politics from an early age could end up presenting such a frivolous show. When the camera pans around to see his reaction, he does seem detached, nodding sympathetically perhaps, but his mind elsewhere. He is defensive about accusations that he has not only dumbed down television but that his show is vulgar and exploitative. ‘What critics mean by that is that guests on the show are vulgar. Snobbery again.’
Is there anything that shocks him, anything at all? ‘No, but neither are you shocked by anything. You can’t be a grown-up in the modern world and be shocked. I mean, we have had a Holocaust, a presidential assassination and 9/11. You may be surprised, because it happens to someone you know, but that is different.
‘What fascinates us is human reaction to certain behaviour. You look to the person you think will be most surprised. In other words, if someone comes out on the show and tells his girlfriend, “I’m really a woman”, everyone will look at his girlfriend. You are not shocked that a guy could really be a woman. That stuff has been around for as long as there have been humans. I mean, read the Bible. What is new in our show that you can’t find in the Bible?’
Um, how about “I married my horse”? ‘OK, that one might not be in the Bible, but you take my point. We did a follow-up to that one. The horse had left him. The point is, it is human nature to gossip. ‘You could take an Oxford professor and say, “Did you know Mrs Jenkins down the road is having an affair?” and he would lean forward and say, “Really? Tell me more.”e_STnS’ He grins. ‘Look, I don’t know why I’m defending this because I don’t even watch the show. Why would I? It’s not aimed at 65?year-old men. Our main audience is students.’
What about the relentless swearing on the show? Does that make him uncomfortable? ‘Well, we’re different in America because we bleep it out.
‘But anyway, television did not invent swearing and I personally don’t have a foul mouth, unless maybe when I’m with my buddies, telling dirty jokes. The people I work with will never have heard me curse. And I never lose my temper.’
I turn to his bodyguard again. That true Bob? ‘I’ve never seen him.’
‘Maybe, I’m passive aggressive,’ Springer concedes.
Certainly he seems self-contained. When not in England, he divides his time between the television studios in Chicago and his second home in Sarasota, Florida. The thought of living in Hollywood does not appeal to him and he doesn’t have celebrities as friends.
Part of him may revel in his reputation as an outsider who pushes the boundaries of taste too far, but another part seems to cringe at the thought that this, and not his political life, is what he will be remembered for. In 2003, Stewart Lee, the British comedian who wrote Jerry Springer: The Opera, invited the presenter to the first night of his musical and, afterwards, asked him to come up on stage. When the applause died down Springer simply said: ‘I’m sorry’. It got a laugh.