Jerry Springer’s Opera Buffa

Jerry Springer, Madame Tussauds wax museum in Las Vegas (Shutterstock)



Ours is a house divided. On the bright side, at least we are not running at each other screaming vitriol and kicking and clawing until we are (reluctantly) dragged apart so someone can lift a T-shirt for Jerry beads.

On my husband’s side of the house, Jerry Springer deliberately performed a public service (an admittedly lucrative one) by reminding those of us he shocked that people often behave thoughtlessly and horribly—and that these people vote. The project succeeded beyond Springer’s own expectations, and it transformed the child of immigrant refugees into an American icon.

On my side—which will receive far more space and weight here, because no one has been hired to bounce into the ring and enforce fair play—Springer was an intelligent man who should have restrained himself, because he was baiting people with less savvy to make fools of themselves for money, attention, and the sheer primal satisfaction of giving way to one’s base impulses. In so doing, he encouraged them to be their worst, and he turned the rest of us into Romans at the Coliseum.

Writing for The Atlantic, Megan Garber calls The Jerry Springer Show “gaudy and sad and insulting and irresistible.” I had no problem resisting; I would snap off the tv as soon as I could grab the remote. And then Andrew would remind me that I was living in a bubble of an echo chamber stuck to an ivory tower. “Babe, these people are out there. They make up a huge part of this country. It’s riskier to ignore them than to try to understand how they think and act.”

I would rather (which proves his point) take a course in anthropology. It pained me to see all those torrid secrets and betrayals screamed on air. If they had been confessing calmly to Esther Perel, I would have watched with interest and compassion. But The Jerry Springer Show ratcheted up the awfulness, giving its viewers more delicious shock and outrage every week. What troubled me was that despite Springer’s avuncular advice and woeful head shaking, this show was not at all about helping people fix their lives. Perel called her podcast Where Do We Begin? Springer’s show, named after him, gave us an engaging celeb as a ringmaster, dangling treats of attention and reward to encourage freakish or feral behavior.

Skeptics often said the show was a fake, and people acted their parts for the formulaic buildup and gladiatorial climax and then went home happy, chortling together over the big fat check they had received. Certainly the template taught participants what was expected of them. But I have a hard time imagining a happy, peaceful ride home, all the slamming insults forgotten, the slaps’ sting soothed by a cuddle. Even if you think you are playing, thoughts you have held back tumble forth when the inhibitions are removed. Once they hit the air, they gain strength of their own and cease to obey you. Instead of vanishing on command, they will stick to the other person’s memory forever.

Were relationships destroyed that could have been saved? I doubt it. But the reason I doubt it is that we were deliberately introduced to these people at their worst. Gentleness and thoughtfulness make lousy tv.

Imagine the behind-the-scenes selection process, people flipping through applications trying to decide who would turn violent or hysterical in the fastest and most telegenic way. What bothered me most was the classism. Did Springer even once bring a well-to-do professional couple onstage and let them confront each other and scream it out? Of course not. Those people knew the difference between public and private, and they had power, and they understood the importance of image and reputation. Unless one of them was unbalanced or courting public sympathy, they worked at containing the damage of their equally lurid scandals and equally vicious arguments.

As a journalist, when you are interviewing someone who is naïve about the media and may not realize the consequences their words could have, you take extra time and trouble to explain. Unless their words or acts have wronged others, you stop yourself from quoting juicy soundbites that would be easy to misinterpret. But Springer folded his arms and watched people sink. Was it instructive? Oh, yes. Was it as compulsively fascinating as a train wreck? Yes. But it also made me sick to my stomach. Like the nation’s previous president, he was giving people permission to behave without any regard for reason, fact, courtesy, or just basic human decency.

When he briefly stopped the fights, the ratings plummeted. When the fights resumed, the ratings rose again. I often wondered how he could stomach it. Gerald Norman Springer, born in London to Jewish parents fleeing the Nazis, grew up in Queens, majored in political science, and received a law degree. He met Micki Velton on a blind date and married her four years later. The following year—a scandal I would ignore, were it not so fitting—he admitted to soliciting a sex worker (he paid by check!) and resigned from the Cincinnati City Council.

The marriage survived another two decades. Springer and Velton guided their one daughter, who was born legally blind and deaf in one ear, through her life’s early challenges. Katie Springer found a career teaching children with special needs and is now married, with a son. She has defended her father staunchly, telling Access Hollywood, “It’s a shame he wasn’t born in America, because he would make one hell of a president.”

And he might have. He worked for the campaign of Robert Kennedy, ran for a seat in Congress, served as mayor of Cincinnati, ran unsuccessfully for governor of Ohio, and considered running for the U.S. Senate—but by then, he had started The Show. Which, at the outset, was political and fairly serious—before morphing into an early example of trash tv.

But while the show was condescending as hell, Springer was not. He could look bemused, his brow furrowed, or wry, smiling because what else can you do? His reactions were never harsh or priggish. His mobile features were either expressive or blandly nonjudgmental, takin’ it all in. Had he been born in the U.S., this man might have been the Democrats’ version of Trump.

Springer’s sympathy and concern even seemed genuine. But did episodes titled “Dumping My Baby Mama for a Bigger Booty” or “Sugar, Spice, & Slapped So Nice” move us closer to sympathy and concern? Or were they comforting because viewers could feel superior? Did Springer drive home sighing ruefully, or were his guests just pieces of a giant crazy quilt, a little smelly and torn, that he held at length, distastefully, between thumb and forefinger?

In 2002, the sons of one of Springer’s guests sued the show for creating “a mood that led to murder.” That is a strong accusation, and they eventually dropped their monetary claim. A friend of mine blames Springer singlehandedly for the shift from news to infotainment. That, too, seems a bit too sweeping. People are already who they are, and their lives play out accordingly, with or without a studio set.

But his show did change us.

At the start of Jerry Springer: The Opera, a British musical that won four Olivier awards, Springer is briefly admonished by his inner Valkyrie. At the end of Act I, he is shot by one of his guests, a man who likes to dress like a baby and soil his diaper. In Act II, we find Springer in Purgatory with the ghosts of his past guests, who “have all suffered unpleasant fates.” His Warm-Up Man, who turns out to be Satan, forces him to return to Hell and do a special show. (Springer’s response to the opera? “I only wish I’d thought of it first.”)

By Act III, the actor who played the guest in diapers is back onstage as Jesus, a guest on the Springer in Hell show. Arguments break out, and everyone turns against Springer—until God shows up and invites him to come to Heaven and help judge Humanity. Springer agrees eagerly, but the angels and devils fight over him, and he winds up dangling over a pit of fire. He begs for his life, but a little too glibly. Finally, he reaches deeper and makes “an honest statement that resounds with his audience.”

We always sensed he was capable of that. But the angels of his better nature kept their mouths shut and watched the revelry instead. Why? As a consolation prize after that checkered, limited career in politics? As a $30 million fail-safe against the terrifying precarity his parents faced? Or so he could show us to ourselves?


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.