Jerry Springer has courted controversy for decades – but from the outset it is his charisma that I am struck by. He greets me with a warm handshake and an easy-going smile; needless to say, I am instantly charmed when he takes my coat for me with a witty “Some Americans have manners.”
Springer does not have the imposing presence you would expect of a household name in every Western society, nor that of the self-proclaimed “father of the destruction of Western civilisation.” Throughout our conversation, I am set at ease by his ceaseless humility; he gushes about the excitement he felt before giving a speech at the Oxford Union back in 1998, and consistently refers to The Jerry Springer Show as “our show”, rather than his own.
Springer certainly views himself as someone who has been incredibly lucky with his lot in life. He tells me that he didn’t audition for the show but was assigned to it; when I put to him that he was head-hunted, he replies, “This is a head they didn’t want to get!
“The show has done well but, honestly, anyone could do what I do. It’s true, I always koke about it – what do I do? I say ‘Come on out!’, ‘You did what?!’ and ‘Coming right back!’”
He clearly didn’t envisage that the show would catapult him to international super- stardom when he first undertook it. I ask him whether he thinks that the show is not as controversial now as it was. “Well I think what was shocking back then is that we had never seen something like it on television,” he replies. “We know those things happen – all you have to do is read a daily newspaper. But we’ve not seen it on television before because television, particularly in England, tended to be very proper. When I first started you didn’t even have commercial television: it had censors all over it. But now, because of technology and the internet, everything is out in the open.”
Can this shift be seen as a change for the better, or should television be regulated, I wonder? “Well the question is irrelevant because the whole world is becoming more open,” he says. “There is a trend aided by technology that leads to the democratisation and liberalisation of society. So whether it’s politics, the media or your personal lives, everything is visible.
“There is more that you reveal about yourself on Facebook than will ever be revealed in a television show. So it doesn’t even matter if I say it’s good or bad – it’s unstoppable. Dictators are falling because people can go on their cell phones and topple governments.”
I question whether the show is exploitative, but I’m met with an absolute rebuttal. Interestingly, Springer sees his work as a network anchor as more exploitative than hosting a talk show. “Journalism and news exploit people – and we did that every day. The news always does stories about people without ever asking their permission or ever saying ‘If this story hurts your marriage or hurts your career, or puts you in a bad light or embarrasses you in front of your children then we won’t run it.’ On our show it’s purely voluntary. You decide to be on, so the word ‘exploitation’ is knocked out straight away.”
He runs me through the set up of the programme. Guests get to decide what they do or do not want to talk about and are allowed to use fake names or wear disguises. He stresses that the guests are given a list of twenty-one possible surprises and have to agree to each of them as a possibility before they can go on. “If there’s something you don’t want to be told on national television then you’re not on the show. Imagine if some reporter called up and said ‘We’ve got this story about you but if this hurts you we won’t run it.’ You’d be laughed out of the newsroom. So exploitation is what news does but certainly not what our show does.”
Where some have deemed that the show is exploitative, others have claimed its danger is in its potential to corrupt. Residents of Connecticut, for instance, opposed the show relocating to their neighbourhood for fear that it could “morally corrupt the town”.
Springer has no time for this idea. “Our show is stupid. I’m not suggesting that this improves the culture; this is just a one hour escape from life but it’s certainly not damaging to someone… You’re not going to be corrupted by watching a one hour television show.”
Springer has previously stated that The Jerry Springer Show isn’t something he himself would watch. When I ask why, he responds, “Because I’m seventy years old. It’s aimed at you, your age group. When I was in college there is no question that I would have watched this. Us guys, we’d get together and we’d hoot about it.
But your tastes change. We don’t aim it at older people; it’s a young person’s show. Young people are much moreâ€¨open about their lives and they don’t take everything so seriously.
“The guests get angry but they get angry because their girlfriend has been cheating on them or their boyfriend has been cheating on them. I’m not saying the anger is not legitimate because it is – but the next day they’re dating someone else. It’s not life changing.”
He notes that his show does not offer pregnancy tests and claims “the reason the show has lasted twenty three years is because whoever comes on the show knows that I’m never gonna yell at them.” With this in mind, I ask for his opinions on Jeremy Kyle. “Well I’m not going to comment on any of the other shows, everybody does what they want,” he states. “Besides, I don’t see the show that much. I’m sure he’s good at what he does but I have no idea. I know that other people have shows – but I don’t even watch my show!”
Humble as ever, he attributes the appeal of the show to his guests, rather than himself or the premise. “The stories are always the same. What makes the show interesting, or why people keep watching is not the subject matter but the personality of the guests. And as many people as you have, you have personalities. That’s what makes it fascinating.
“There is nothing new on television. Human behaviour has not changed in at least three thousand years. There is nothing that has ever been on our show that is not in the Bible. There is nothing that has ever been on our show that is not in literature, that is not in Shakespeare. “We are social beings and we are always fascinated by how human beings behave. Thousands of years ago people would gather in the town square and discuss what is going on in the neighbourhood. Three thousand years later the neighbourhood is now global, because of technology. Nothing is new.”
“And when we say that television is aiding the deterioration of society, we are so self important. Let me tell you: we had a holocaust before anyone had a television set. You want to talk about the deterioration of western culture? A very sophisticated western culture called Germany exterminated six million people in my lifetime when nobody was watching television.” The knowledge that Springer’s parents were Jewish refugees and many family members died in the Holocaust adds weight to these already impossibly heavy words.
I proceed to ask about his opinions on Jerry Springer: The Opera, a British musical based on his show which received 55,000 complaints when broadcast on BBC Two. “It’s a serious opera,” he says. “It’s about me but I have nothing to do with it so I can’t say that I created this great opera or whatever. My mom would have been proud; she would have said, ‘Oh my God, Gerald, you’re an opera! You got culture.’”
He adds, “The controversy was not so much when it opened but when the BBC decided to air it. It shouldn’t have been on television because of the language – it was sacrilegious.” Regardless, he speaks glowingly of its humour and seems to enjoy the idea that he could bring Jesus and the devil “together at the end with a final thought,” as he does in the production.
As the room fills with students desperate to meet Springer, we wrap up. He proceeds to pose for an endless number of photographs, alternating between warm smiles, peace signs, and nimbly extending his leg to ensure that his quirky orange sneakers are in frame. Happily, despite being swarmed by eager Oxonians, he still takes the time to pose for a photo with his completely star-struck interviewer.