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Interview: Jerry Springer

By Karl Klockars in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 11, 2008 6:05PM

springerintheoffice110908.jpgJerry Springer’s infamous television sideshow may not have the cultural zeitgeist that it had a decade ago, but he and his crew still plugs away, day after day, getting close to twenty years later. If you haven’t seen the Springer show lately, it’s still the show that drove preachers and moralists nuts in the late 90’s, nudity and violence and all.

It's also still the show that made a star out of a former newscaster and semi-disgraced politician out of Ohio. (Semi-disgraced, because many people don’t realize that after his sex n’ checks scandal, he was actually re-elected to office.) Jerry Springer has been more associated with Chicago than Ohio since the show spread across the globe, and might be one of the city's most famous residents (after that Oprah lady).

You may recall that Chicagoist sat down with Brian Simmons’ pseudo-Springer a year ago – now we’ve spoken with the real thing. From his liberal radio talk show career to hugging Carol Marin to whether anything’s ever gone too far on his TV show, Springer has never shied away from outrageousness or politics. Part of us considered showing up naked and on fire for the interview, but then, sometimes you just want to leave work at work.

Chicagoist: A few months ago, I read that you were going to change focus of the show, and go back to what the show originally was…kinda take it back to the beginning. How is that process going?

Jerry Springer: Yeah, kinda. Last year we got into doing a real circus, with circus acts. And I think what people really like, is what we originally were. Crazy, but compelling. The stories have to have some substance, even if the guests were over the top. So we’ve been doing that, and so far it looks like people are liking it. There’s a growth every day. So I’m really happy with that. That’s one thing about this business – you can tell day to day what people like, what your audience likes. Because you test it every day. So I’m happy with the direction the show is going in.

C: So, when you were talking about going back to the old show, we’re not talking about serious topics like abortion, gun control, so on.

JS: No, we wouldn’t go that far back. [laughs]

blacksweaterspringer110908.jpgC: Because when I was watching the show a few minutes ago, it’s still lesbian partners, infidelity, fist fights, threesomes, so on…

JS: Oh, oh, that, sure, we would never change that. We’re not allowed to. I mean, Universal bought us – we’re only allowed to do crazy. So if you call us with a warm uplifting story, we’re required to send you to another show. They won’t air it if we do that, we were told. There are strict rules. So we have no choice in that.

It’s still really crazy – the only difference is we don’t do the circus acts any more. In terms of the substance, it’s as crazy as ever, because that’s what the show is about. We’re paid to do a show about outrageous people, or people involved in outrageous situations. So the rule is that it has to be outrageous and it has to be truthful. If it doesn’t meet both standards, we’re not allowed to put it on.

C: Living in Chicago, people are certainly aware of your TV history, but I don’t think most people know about your political history. A few months ago I heard a This American Life all about your career in Cincinnati and it really made me consider what I knew about Jerry Springer. Do you still get feedback on stories like that?

JS: Yeah, it’s been on for years now. It first ran about three years ago, and yeah, we get a lot of mail every time it’s on.

C: Do you ever speak to people - like myself - who have had their perceptions of you changed as they get to know more about you?

JS: I don’t think that happens any more. I think in the beginning, when the first thing people knew about me outside of Ohio was the show, then if anything else came up, that was strange. But in the last several years, there’s been so much written about me, and I’m on so many shows – political shows – and then Dancing with the Stars and America’s Got Talent, that there’s no…people get who I am now.

They see the show for what it is. The confusion of me being part of the show no longer exists. And that probably changed two and a half years ago, three years ago. It started with the political stuff, got a big jolt with Dancing With The Stars, and then with America’s Got Talent…obviously it’s the #1 show on television, [people] see me every week. Twice, three times a week. No, I don’t get it any more.

But I used to. I tell you, about four or five years ago, it was constant. Because I’d go around and give speeches, so whenever it was outside Ohio where they didn’t know me, there was this…”Oh my god.”

crossedarmsspringer110908.jpgC: Your radio show was right around that time too.

JS: Yeah, I did that for 2 years. But you have to re-sign for another 2 years. And truthfully, it was too many hours a day. I loved doing it, and if it was my only job, I would continue doing it. But it’s 6 hours a day – 3 hours on, and 3 hours preparation. And so I’d get off at noon and I’d have to go to work. It was just physically impossible. I’d get up at 4 in the morning, and I wasn’t home until 11 o’clock or midnight. And then have to get quickly ready for the next day – it was just too much work. So I stopped it.

C: WCPT, your old station, just expanded their coverage, and MSNBC has come into their own in the past 6 months or so. The world of the liberal talk show seems ready to be in the forefront. Would there be anything that would get you back on the air in that sort of capacity?

JS: There could come a time where I could decide to do that. But I’ve got so much going on right now in terms of politics, this show, America’s Got Talent, stuff I do in Europe…there’s just so much going on now that it’s not realistic to think of doing something else.

But – I’m almost 65. As I start slowing down, I could see that being a job that I would take into retirement, once I give up television. But as long as I’m still on television, I don’t think it’s realistic to do both. Because you can’t do either well then. If you treat either as a half-time job, it won’t work.

springergoesyeah110908.jpgC: How about any hopes to get back into politics?

JS: I may. It’s not a hope thing – I’ve got this wonderful life, and I don’t need a job. But I do politics every day. Virtually every day - I’d say 5 out of 7 days a week, [it’s] something political. Yesterday was St. Louis, the week before was the Clinton Presidential Library in little Rock, tomorrow it’s Cincinnati. So I’m constantly going around giving political speeches, so I’m in it.

Whether I run for office – well, everything would have to align. It would have to be an office that I’d want to be in, want to serve in. And I don’t know any more that I could ever have a political job that would have as much impact, as much influence as I do now, traveling around the country . Even if I ran for the senate, I’d be one out of a hundred, lowest in seniority… and Senator one out of a hundred has very little influence in what’s going on in the world.

But someone who’s on television all the time, giving speeches all the time, raises money and organizes – there’s so much more clout in what I’m doing now. As well as personal considerations about whether at this time in my life I want to give everything up and become a politician.

C: What if someone said, “we’re firing Chris Matthews, we want you to take over on Hardball” or something like that?

JS: Well, clearly I think they’d be crazy to get rid of Chris Matthews. Because he’s superb. I would love doing that show, of course. But it would also mean I couldn’t do anything else. And that’s the issue with all those jobs – it’s can be the only thing you do. What I now have is this wonderful opportunity to be all over the world doing everything. So yeah, I spend two days a week doing this show. But then I can be travelling around the country doing America’s Got Talent, and then I can be 3, 4, 5 times a week doing politics. And I get to do shows in England, or I get to do shows in South Africa, or I get to go to Vietnam.

You’re crazy to give this up for just. One. Job. Since I’m luckily in a position where I don’t need to make a living any more. So now, it’s how do I best spend my time? It’s just because I have a job that everybody sees, and therefore you get invited to all these things…every time a job is offered, if it’s an exclusive job where it’s the only thing you can do, I tend to give it up. Because it’s too much to give up, in return for what you get. As much as I’m addicted to cable news, it’s still got a tiny audience. So your influence, having one hour on one cable show – unless you’re a political groupie, your influence is very minimal.

TOCheroes110908.jpgC: You were on the cover of Time Out Chicago for their Cultural Heroes issue, which had you embracing Carol Marin. What was that meeting like?

JS: It was great. She’s totally gracious, we laughed…we get along famously. She’s a lovely lady. I would never have a bad thing to say about her.

C: Was there ever any animosity there? Or is it all water under the bridge at this point?

JS: I think it was a big issue in the media. I don’t think it was ever an issue with us personally. I mean, I had never met her and she had never met me. She had a position regarding what their newscasts should be like. And obviously, she didn’t know what my background was, doing commentary and stuff like that, so that’s understandable. But it’s not personal.

Plus, it wasn’t my job – so it wasn’t like, “Gosh, I really want to do this.” This was the GM of the station here, [he] got me in the elevator and he says, “I love what you did in Cincinnati, we want you to do it here.” And I wasn’t getting paid for it – It’d be, once a week I’d go down and do a two minute commentary. Well, fine, he’s a nice guy, you know? But it wasn’t anything that I had any desire to really do anything like that.

So we joke about it when we see each other. Yeah, I have only nice things to say about her. She’s a good lady.

C: Have you ever done a show that you thought was over the line?

JS: No. Because that’s the job of the show. You’re supposed to do things that are outrageous. So as long as it’s outrageous, it qualifies. If we did a normal show, we’d get in trouble for that. We’d be called on the carpet, etcetera. So as long as we keep it crazy, no…we don’t define what the crazy is. For example, when you’re a news anchor, you report on the news. You never say to a news anchor, did you go over the line reporting that story?

springeronset110908.jpgC: Well…yeah, sometimes you do.

JS: No…if there’s a war – what’s worse than that? Killing people. If there’s a murder, or rape? Isn’t that over the line? No. That’s the job of the journalist. To report what’s happening. The job of this show is to show people who are outrageous. So you can’t then say, “How can you do that, it’s outrageous.”

C: I read somewhere that you said you’d never been hurt doing the show. Do you ever wish you got a nose broken a la Geraldo or had a collarbone broken, just for some street cred?

JS: [laughs] No. But he made himself the center of the show. If you notice on our show, I do everything to stay out of it. The less you see me on the show, the better the show is. My job is just to bring ‘em out, and keep it going sometimes with funny lines or questions – but I’m never at the center of the show. It’s not about me. So [guests] never get angry at me. Because if they didn’t like me, they wouldn’t come on the show. The only people who get on the show are fans, really. The people are always very nice.