As his talk show celebrates its silver anniversary on Monday, Jerry Springer knows better than to wheel a cake onstage with him. No sense tempting fate.
He didn’t anticipate he’d be fighting back tears as he addressed his audience.
”Know this,” said Springer, who wore a tuxedo for the show’s taping. ”There’s never been a moment in the 25 years of doing our show that I ever thought that I was better than the people who appear on our stage. I’m not better. Only luckier.”
Don’t mistake that for a valedictory. Springer, 71, is all aboard for another year on the crazy train, and plans to stay as long as he’s healthy. Upcoming episodes include ”Spontaneous Sex Mistakes,” ”Big Girls Bring It!” ”Sorry Sis, Your Man is Fair Game,” ”I Sexed Your Ex” and ”Lesbian Stepsister Hook-Up.”
It’s been a long time since ”The Jerry Springer Show” was a sensation, and a threat to Civilization As We Know It. Now it’s a dependable daytime comedy, seen regularly by about two million people each day and rarely noticed by others.
The days of Springer being shunned or scolded by people at cocktail parties are over, too.
”We don’t hear it anymore,” he said, ”because I’m not part of the pop culture. It’s not shocking anymore … You can’t be a grown-up and say, `oh my gosh, they’re talking about a gay person.’ The world has changed.”
Springer has theories about why his show has endured. Since the dawn of civilization, people have been fascinated by the behavior of others, particularly when it is outside of society’s norm. Television is dominated by upper middle-class white people and his show regularly features others. It also appeared at the beginning of an era marked by people looking to themselves for entertainment, and not always celebrities.
And, of course, it’s a freak show that is hard to take your eyes off.
”I can’t sit here and tell you I know why I’ve lasted 25 years,” he said. ”I don’t know. There’s a niche. If I’d been hosting another show, I wouldn’t have lasted 25 years. And I mean it. People aren’t watching the show because they want to see me.”
He’s prone to joking that anyone can do his job if they learn three phrases: ”You did what?” ”Come on out!” and ”We’ll be right back.”
Truth is, Springer’s air of benign bemusement, his light hand on the tiller, is one of the show’s secrets. He passes no judgments. Everyone knows he’s in on the joke.
”Any show that has a zany supporting cast, you have to have one person who’s the calm in the middle of the storm,” said Marc Berman, an analyst for TV Media Insights. ”And that’s him.”
Springer is a lawyer and former news anchor who got into politics and became mayor of Cincinnati. He’s still a proud liberal. Being a grown-up before he got into television gives him a different perspective, he said.
”Can anyone do it?” he said. ”No. Can most people do it? I can take most people on television, give them my show and probably in five or six months, they’d be comfortable. Maybe why it works with me is because what you see is what I am. I don’t mean the subject matter but, I don’t have a different personality onstage.”
Springer’s show is taped in the same theater 30 miles northeast of New York City that Maury Povich and Steve Wilkos use. Talking to the audience before the 25th anniversary episode began, he tells some of the same corny jokes they’ve probably heard from their grandfathers.
Taking a hands-off approach, he does little preparation before a taping, often knowing only that day’s general theme. Knowing too much would turn him into an actor. That’s why when he invited one guest’s ”wife” onstage and turned his back to walk into the audience, the loud roar surprised him; he didn’t know the man said he’d married his horse.
”If there’s a wedding cake, there’s no way that the wedding cake is not going to be thrown,” he said. ”We’ve never ended a show with a wedding cake still in one piece. There’s just stuff that you know. I’m not dense. But do I learn the specifics? No. It’s much better that way.”
The improbability of making it in this world – few things in television are more lucrative than a successful syndicated talk show – fueled his unexpected emotion onstage.
”This is show business and there are so many talented people, and I don’t have any particular talent,” he said later. ”Where is the fairness? It just suddenly struck me. It’s not just a saying. We’re all alike, and I just got incredibly lucky.”