You never really know which celebrity deaths are going to hit you. When my comedy hero Norm MacDonald died unexpectedly a few years ago, it barely phased me. But seeing the news that talk show pioneer Jerry Springer died yesterday, a wave of wistfulness and nostalgia overcame me. It caught me off guard. In the era of World Star and reality TV, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when The Jerry Springer Show wasn’t only hugely popular but also America’s mainstage for the Theater of Trash. Now he’s dead, but his show keeps going. We’re living in it.
I admire The Jerry Springer Show for a few of the same reasons I like Harmony Korine’s Gummo. While arguably exploitative—modern-day geek shows that, at their worst, poke fun at their stars—both are at least partially redeemed by their willingness to engage with their subjects. Gummo was named after the fifth Marx brother, an eccentric businessman and inventor who never appeared in any of the comedy team’s films, and Korine honors his title with a film about people on the fringes who don’t normally receive much screen attention. The same might be said of The Jerry Springer Show, for which no guest was too outré or unrefined, including zoophiles, apotemnophiles, and autonepiophiles. You’d be hard pressed to find a phile that Jerry didn’t interview at some point or another.
The Jerry Springer Show was like professional wrestling without the wrestlers. It came on late at night, ostensibly to prevent children from watching but also to give the outrageous program the surreal edge that comes with a lack of sleep. Similar to Late Night With Conan O’Brien and Adult Swim, The Jerry Springer Show exploited its late-night timeslot to delirious effect, continually pushing the boundaries of what people could reasonably expect when they turned on their TVs. More than just nudity, excessive swearing, or fighting, Jerry gave an unadulterated vision of American outsider weirdness that was difficult to find on TV—a risky endeavor for such a normally risk-averse business.
I have fond memories of staying up on summer nights, long after my parents had gone to sleep, to watch Letterman, then Conan, and finally cap the night off with Jerry. It was a steady descent into late-night lunacy, and unless you wanted to try your luck with the entertaining but vastly inferior ElimiDate (the less said about Last Call With Carson Daly, the better), Jerry was the final boss. The show could be offensive, demeaning, and tasteless, but it was always captivating in a way that only late-night TV can be.
I remember one episode, “A Man and His Food: A Love Story,” about a massively overweight man who refuses to stop binge-eating. His girlfriend says he loves food more than her, and to prove her point, she gives him an ultimatum: her continued love and support, or a six-foot submarine sandwich, which she rolls out on a huge cart to huge applause and laughter. A pained look overtakes the man’s face. “I love you but c’mon,” he says, pointing at the food. “I mean look at this. This is great. Why would I want to waste this?” He takes a big bite of the sandwich. She smacks it out of his hands. Lettuce goes flying everywhere. She’s screaming at him about how embarrassing it is to be rejected for a sandwich. He screams back at her about wasting food. I think about this, no exaggeration, at least once a week.
Just as entertaining as the show’s guests was its audience, who got the spotlight during the show’s “Q&A” segment, which was less about questions or answers than making fun of whoever was onstage. The question was always something like, “I got a question for the midget Mr. T: how you wear all them chains and not fall over?” They were rarely intentionally funny, but they often made me laugh in the same way that overhearing someone tell a hacky joke on the street does. The joke isn’t funny, but the fact that everyone laughs at it is. Meanwhile, the guest either has to swallow their pride or (more likely) shake their head and shout back expletives in a Morse code-like stream of beeps.
Reality TV long ago replaced talk shows like The Jerry Springer Show as America’s primary mode of trash spectacle, and one could easily argue that Springer’s talk show set the precedent for reality shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Hoarders, and My 600-Lb. Life. They wouldn’t be off-base, but I do view Jerry Springer in a slightly more sympathetic light than reality show producers. For one, Jerry invited people to participate in the theater of the show, to craft characters and perform them in the talk-show format. To an extent, they were his collaborators. And to that end, Jerry didn’t hide behind the camera, nor did he mock his subjects. He wasn’t a coward. He was always right there with them, asking sincere questions, sometimes putting himself in harm’s way, before offering his standard Final Thought.
There are a number of things that don’t age well about The Jerry Springer Show, like the Girls Gone Wild style “Jerry beads” that female audience members received for flashing their breasts, or the show’s perpetual atmosphere of transphobia. At times, The Jerry Springer Show could exhibit all the worst aspects of American culture. While I don’t buy that art is ever the cause of society’s problems—even the most incendiary and hateful art is always symptomatic of something larger—it does feel at times as though the high-pitched, profane conflict of Springer’s show changed the way we interacted. At the very least, it was a preview for social media-era discourse: people incomprehensibly shouting over one another while everybody else laughs and eggs them on. The same could be said for political discourse, and politics itself. Watch any political debate from the past eight years and tell me American politics hasn’t devolved into one big episode of “My Septuagenarian President Is Out Of Control." (Springer himself was no stranger to politics; before his show, he served on the Cincinnati City Council and briefly as interim mayor.)
None of this is really Jerry’s fault. No matter how loud they chanted his name, it was always bigger than him or his show. I hope he rests easy. And this weekend, if you see someone cussing out a meter maid or trying to fight a security guard, don’t worry. That’s just angel Jerry getting his wings.