A few years ago, when Jerry Springer watched himself as a character on stage in Jerry Springer: The Opera at a performance in London, “it was awkward because everyone was staring at me, watching to see what my reaction would be.”
The TV chat show host paused and laughed quietly as we spoke by phone. “I would have preferred not to have been killed at the end of the first act. At least with Carmen she didn’t die until the end.” (Springer said he was “a huge opera fan. Carmen is on my mind because I saw it last week in Sarasota.”)
Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas’ production of the opera in Springer’s own name is in its first-length run in New York. He’s not sure if he will see it again, which may mean not seeing himself have a huge moral crisis about his actions as a TV host, and be tugged between the Devil and God as he considers the effects of exploiting people’s emotional traumas, gender identities and sexual orientations, all in the name of raucous entertainment.
“I had no idea what it was about back when I saw it,” confessed the amiable-sounding and quietly spoken Springer. “I thought it did a great job, though it’s a little bit sacrilegious in terms of Christianity. I could see why fundamentalists were upset by it.”
The opera also features an actor playing Steve Wilkos, who was Springer’s trusty security muscle and who went on to host his own show, and who this week is in the headlines, now facing a DUI charge.
Springer told The Daily Beast: “Steve has been a friend for 27 years now, and his family is wonderful, so obviously as you would with any close friend, you hope and wish for the best. I hope he gets healthy and can deal with his issues. I hope he gets through all this.”
Is the real Jerry Springer as morally conflicted about the circus of human chaos he still oversees every day as the Jerry Springer in the opera?
“My show is what it is,” said Springer. “My show is stupid. The only defense I ever give to the show, when people are attacking it or whatever, is that they won’t admit their criticism is elitist.
“We’re all alike. 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. People downgrade the people on my show, but if it was a celebrity saying the same thing, we’d be saying, ‘Oh my goodness, this person’s wonderful.’ It’s so hypocritical.”
Until Jerry Springer: The Opera, Springer always thought country music would be what the show would be best to put music to. “But opera has all the elements of the TV show: the idea of gender misidentification, mock tragedy, the chorus of chanting, the fighting. Everything is bigger than life in opera, and so it is in our TV show. If you put our show to music, you have an opera.” He laughed. “I’ve been cultural all this time.”
Springer said his true passion was politics, that if I wanted to know what he really felt about things to ask him about that.
He and Donald Trump met when Springer hosted the 2008 Miss Universe pageant, which Trump co-owned. Springer wouldn’t be drawn on whether he thinks the accusations of sexual impropriety against Trump have any validity, but he fiercely condemns the Trump presidency.
“I think, nothing against him personally, but he has no business being our president. He doesn’t represent American values. Three million more people voted for Hillary Clinton. Now the electoral college is in question if we find out what the Russians did to affect just a few votes.
“In any event, America is a multicultural society, and America was created with the idea that it didn’t matter who your parents were or where they were from, or if you believed or prayed to God. You could follow your dreams, that’s America. He wants to replace the Statue of Liberty with a wall. It’s the most un-American thing you can think of, and to have that in the White House just defeats everything we grew up believing about our country and every reason why we send our kids off to fight and die to protect this country.
“If you don’t believe in the idea of America, why the hell are you running for president? If I’m angry at Donald Trump, it’s because he ran for president in the first place not believing in our country.”
Springer could not run for president even if he wanted to. He was born in London, a Jewish emigré from Germany whose close family members were killed during the Holocaust. He moved to America with his mother and father when he was 5.
While his passion was always political, he said he always knew he would make his living doing something else. Before being the ringmaster of his TV show, Springer had been a lawyer, and then, famously, mayor of Cincinnati in 1977. In 1982 he sought the Democratic nomination for governor of Ohio. He thought he’d make his post-political-life money as a lawyer (his original career). “TV was a fluke.”
Two Senate runs in 2000 and 2004 were mulled and discounted. Last November, Springer said he would not run for governor of Ohio in 2018. Despite early Democratic polling suggesting he would win, “It’s one of those things you do on a yellow legal pad,” Springer said. “On the left side you write down all the reasons you don’t want to do it, and then on the other side all the reasons to do it. I gave it serious thought.
“At 74, it’s a five-year commitment, assuming you win: a year of campaigning and four years in office. I’d be 79. I asked myself, ‘Is this how I want to spend five years of reasonable health? My grandson Richard has become my life, and I just didn’t want to miss that. If it happened 20 years earlier, sure, yeah, but at this age I don’t think about career moves.”
Would he consider running for office ever again?
“It’s the same yellow legal pad. I obsess about these issues. It’s the only thing I get passionate about. But there are other ways for me to be active. I do a political podcast. But that train has left the station.”
“The only way politics remains pure is if you don’t make a living at it,” Springer added. “If you keep running for office, at some point you become intellectually dishonest, because the way you put food on the table for the family is by winning the next election. Suddenly you’re a 45, 50-year-old man and [have] been in public office and you think, ‘Oh my god, if I lose the next election, what do I have to do?’ You see it now with the gun issue: All these politicians scared to death they will lose at the next election, so the interest of the country is no longer paramount but rather ‘How can I stay in office?’”
Springer spends “a good amount of time” giving money, raising money, and making speeches around the country, particularly Ohio. He is a stout proponent of gun control.
“When I was a lawyer, I’d try and think about the other side of the argument, but I cannot come up with any rational reason why anyone who is not in the military or some security force should own an assault weapon or a weapon that can be converted to such. If you say it’s a ‘hobby,’ then start collecting stamps.
“Accept that these assault weapons invariably wind up killing more people than would otherwise be killed if there weren’t assault weapons. Measure that against going to the range and shooting. How could any rational person reach the conclusion of ‘Screw the lives of kids and the people getting shot because we want to keep having these guns’?
“It’s nothing to do with the Second Amendment. We’re not allowed grenade launchers. There are a lot of weapons we can’t have. There is no reason to have AR-15s and assault weapons.
“Raising the legal age to 21 won’t change a kid in a house being able to get their hands on one. And yes, we should do more about mental health. But you can’t do away with anger in society. In a country of 320 million people, you will always find a person crazy or angry enough to do something. As long as we cut down the possibilities of that person getting hold of assault weapons, more people will live.”
As for who should run against Trump and the excitement over Oprah Winfrey emerging as his opposition, Springer noted that “American history has always been about famous people running for president.” Until modern times, those famous people had been from the military—generals and such, he added—and then the entertainment industry had become the main propagator of fame, and so candidates had emerged from that field.
“Trump becoming president is not surprising,” said Springer. “We just couldn’t have known he would be so extreme. Trump is known and Oprah is known, and more qualified because of her intelligence, ‘connectability,’ compassion, and where she stands on issues. I don’t think being a celebrity qualifies or disqualifies you. That’s how a person gets known. But then you have to look at their judgment and character. If it’s Oprah against Trump, I’d vote for her.”
Springer’s passion may be politics, but he is most known for his crazy TV show. He said when it first appeared on our screens 27 years ago, nothing like it was on TV. “People were surprised humans behaved like that. But there is nothing on my show that isn’t in the Bible, or Shakespeare, or great literature.”
On stage and in his own show, Springer is often seen with his head in his hands or looking anguished at the confessions and obscenities springing forth. He said this querulous mugging was genuine.
“If you see something you think is crazy or inappropriate, that’s the reaction I have, anybody would have. You never hear me cursing. I’m wearing a suit. I think part of what makes the show work is the discrepancy between my persona on the show and what is happening on the stage, the craziness. If the show was hosted by a good-looking young hunk or if it would have been someone acting crazy, it wouldn’t necessarily have worked. It’s as if your teacher, parent, or uncle has walked into the room.
“If you’re asking is the ‘me’ you see on my show really me, well, yeah, I’m not an actor. I’m not even allowed to know the subject matter of the show. They hand me a card, and the card has the names of guests, and I’m supposed to ask the questions that you would ask sitting at home. “
He doesn’t have much time for the show’s haters—“If you don’t like what you’re watching every day, why keep doing it?”—and he refutes the thesis that he disapproves of what he does every day; that all those anguished looks to the floor are anything but a reaction to what he is hearing.
“The show is about dysfunctional behavior in personal relationships. That is what I was hired to do. If it was a show about basketball, we’d have basketball players on. If I was hired to do a show about politics, we’d talk about politics.”
Springer has no time for wringing one’s hands over the physical fights on stage either.
“We don’t do ‘Who’s the father?’ We don’t do anything life-changing. We have someone who’s really angry. That’s legitimate. They just found out their girlfriend is dating another guy. Their reactions are honest and real. But it would be a little disingenuous for me to say, ‘Oh, I don’t know how I’m going to sleep tonight. That guy isn’t going with that girl.’ We shouldn’t make the show bigger than it is.”
Springer laughed. “I’ve never been pushed in the bushes. I’m pretty much of a wimp. We have security guards. There is a lot of wig-pulling. It’s not like people are drawing weapons and knives. It’s crazy, but it’s an honest reaction.
“For example, if you had an English professor at Harvard and one night he came home and found his wife in bed with the next-door neighbor, do you think for one second that the professor would say, ‘Oh my dear forsooth, what is that I have found?’ No, he’d start cursing, throwing, grabbing for the guy. That’s the honest human reaction. That’s how people on this show are honestly reacting.”
People appearing on the show are fans of it, he said. They see the number on screen at the end. They know what to expect. The show is not exploitative, Springer said, but the TV news is, pursuing stories for commercial purposes to maintain their audiences (as one-time anchor himself, he should know, he said).
“On our show, no one comes on that doesn’t want to be there. They only talk about things they want to talk about. They don’t use their real names. It’s purely voluntary.”
On the show’s website right now is this invitation for potential participants: “Did you have a child with a transsexual or are you pregnant by a transsexual?” The show is a constant roundabout of shock reveals of secret boyfriends and girlfriends, with “surprise” gender identities and same-sex passions.
Springer denied that his show was homophobic and transphobic. “That’s 100 percent wrong. What people forget is that in the beginning we were the only show to open those subjects up. The show is about dysfunctional behavior. If you have a Southerner, they’ll say, ‘You’re making Southerners look bad.’ You’re accused of making any group look bad.
“But you’re not on the show because you’ve won a Nobel Prize. You’re on the show because of dysfunctional behavior. We never have censorship on the show except bad language, which we bleep out. The very first show we did interracial dating and we had protesters outside the building. The show has evolved as society has evolved.”
Social media now outpaces The Jerry Springer Show for outrage and boundary crossing, Springer insisted. “Movements happen so quickly on social media now. Slavery would have lasted 10 minutes if there had been social media,” he claimed. “We wouldn’t have had the Holocaust in Europe in the 1930s. No one would have been able to say, ‘Oh gee, I didn’t know.’”
You could equally argue that fascism and extremism are just as rapidly spread and popularized by social media today; that social media has helped extreme politics become so ascendant.
The Springer show also arguably aided, in its own way, the acceptability of boorish incivility and a coarsening of discourse to bloom into the mainstream. I suggested to Springer that one could argue that there’s a through line for what is said on the Jerry Springer show and the sneering language of insult and baiting President Trump has used ever since he began campaigning. Springer’s audience brays and cheers on all the chaos, just as Trump supporters cheered “Lock her up.”
“I never thought someone on our show should be president, and I’m obviously disappointed that that’s happened,” Springer conceded wryly, adding, “We had the Holocaust and nobody on the planet had a TV set. Lynchings were going on before television. There has been dysfunctional, terrible behavior since we had the Bible.”
What has changed, said Springer, is the exchange of information: The internet now stands in for the town square, and that town square is global.
“To suggest that bad behavior came about because of television is drugstore psychology, and hard to take that seriously. Look, the show’s stupid. Don’t watch it. That’s why God gave us remote controls. The show is a one-hour escape. It’s not great literature. If I were in college, would I watch it? Hell, yeah. I wouldn’t watch it now, but I’m a 74-year-old man. It’s not aimed at me. It’s aimed at college kids. That’s basically our audience.”
Why is his show stupid, as he keeps saying?
“Because it has no particular purpose other than one hour of escapism,” said Springer. “I guess if I really wanted to put together a term paper, I could come up with something and say these are little morality plays. The good guys get cheered. The bad guys get booed, and they lose the girlfriend. On our show, bad guys lose, good guys win, and that is the depth of the show. There is nothing deeper than that. I don’t see anything more in the show than entertainment.”
No, he is not as morally riven as Jerry the figure in the opera, Springer told me. He is more concerned, he said, about people dying of disease or trapped in poverty and not having health insurance. “You’re asking me how I’m going to sleep tonight? On my show this guy lost his girlfriend to his roommate. Television is not that important. When you want my opinion, you watch my ‘final thought.’ I write those.”
At some point, Springer said, he would retire. “When you reach this age, it’s almost on a year-to-year basis. Take a look at the schedule I have: five shows a week, the podcast, the America’s Got Talent national tour, political speeches and fundraising. And then to be with my wife and grandson.” He laughed affectionately. “He’s 9 going on 20. It’s the God’s truth best thing in the world. I just want to be around him. He’s my buddy.”
Watching the opera, Springer was confronted by the authors’ vision of his mortality. “I am not afraid of it,” Springer said of death. “I’ve just had such a wonderful life I don’t want it to end.”
Every year on his birthday, Springer told me, he returns with four lifelong friends to where they grew up in Kew Gardens, Queens, “to see the same apartment house, the same school, the same diners we ate at. I have difficulty giving up my past because it was such a great past. I think about how lucky my life has been. I’m really appreciative of that.”
Jerry Springer: The Opera is at Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street, New York City, until March 11. Book tickets here.