Jerry Springer is preparing for his big finish.
Dressed in a simple dark suit with a microphone held easily against his palm, Springer takes a deep breath under the spotlight and prepares to address the crowd. No angry mothers, jilted lovers or security guards around him, as the host of America’s Got Talent Live at Planet Hollywood, Springer spends five nights a week offering praising introductions to the TV-show finalists who perform mini acts in a grab bag of entertainment. Now, however, it’s Springer’s turn, and he’s gotten suddenly serious.
“There really is such a thing as the American dream,” he tells the audience, which sits somewhat stunned. “I’ve lived the American dream. I can vouch for it.”
Just when the bullshit meter is about to hit the orange, Springer starts telling his own story, the abridged version—his parents’ escape from Nazi Germany, sailing past the Statue of Liberty into New York Harbor, his mother’s words when he asked what the strange statue meant: “One day, it’ll mean everything.”
It has meant everything for the 65-year-old television host, and his rise from outcast immigrant to odd American icon is a story too good to make up.
First of all, Gerald Springer was born in a London tube station. The year was 1944, and Springer’s parents and older sister had fled to England from Nazi Germany. Nine months pregnant in war-ravaged Europe, Springer’s mother slept with other expecting mothers in a train station that served as a bomb shelter. Her baby boy came at night, and five years later, Springer and his family sailed past the Statue of Liberty and into New York.
Adjusting to his new life wasn’t easy. On his first day of the first grade in New York City, Springer says he arrived dressed like an English schoolboy: blue shorts, a jacket, a bow tie, beret and knee socks.
“The kids beat the crap out of me, and they ripped my suit. And the second day, the same thing. Well, I’m running out of suits, and [my mom’s] running out of sons,” he laughs. A neighbor told Springer’s mother that baseball was big with the local kids, so she visited a department store and purchased an outfit in keeping with the advice: a crisp, pinstriped Yankees uniform.
“The kids in school loved it. … Every day to class in first and second grades I wore Yankee uniforms. I was afraid to go to school without it,” Springer says. “That became my acceptance in America.”
Of course, Springer’s acceptance moved well beyond pinstripes. After receiving his bachelor’s degree from Tulane University, he studied law at Northwestern University, taking a spot as a campaign aide to Robert F. Kennedy after graduation.
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For most people, Springer’s personal history comes as a surprise. After all, he is the man behind America’s most revered and reviled daytime talk show. He is an unwitting icon of lowbrow entertainment and America’s perpetual fascination with watching its citizens confront each other in all their hair-pulling, obscenity-screaming fury. Upcoming episodes bear titles like “Oops … I Had Sex With a Tranny!” and “Angry Sisters & Oil Wrestling.” As the title of his 2000 behind-the-scenes book, Ringmaster, suggests, Springer is the dapper gent at the center of the circus, directing traffic with a wry observation and occasional smile.
“There’s something that you do need to know,” a guest told her boyfriend on a recent episode. “I was born a man.”
“Well,” Springer responded, “they have that in common.”
When The Jerry Springer Show first aired in 1991, it wasn’t at all what fans see today. It was conceived as a political talk show. Springer spent his first three years talking about social issues before a new producer steered the show toward its current format of scandal and outrageousness. “If you call with a warm, uplifting story, we’re required to send it to another show. It won’t air. We could be all day taping it, and then they reject it.”
That format has made its affable host a household name, and, now produced by NBC Universal in Stamford, Connecticut, The Jerry Springer Show experienced a 33 percent rise in ratings for its first week this season (September 14) over last year. To Springer, however, it’s still just work.
“I had no interest in [showbiz]. I still don’t,” Springer says matter-of-factly. “It’s not my passion; it’s my job.”
That job is just one line on a very long resume, which includes work as a defense lawyer, a year as the mayor of Cincinnati and a collection of local Emmy Awards for his work as a news anchor in Cincinnati. Recently, he’s appeared on Dancing With the Stars and even done a stint onstage as Billy Flynn in Chicago.
“Nothing I’ve done in the entertainment business requires such focus,” Springer marvels of playing the smooth-talking lawyer in London’s West End and then on Broadway. “I was frightened. Frightened like a little boy. I mean, that first opening night, I was literally shaking like a leaf.”
Watching Springer swap banter with the America’s Got Talent Live performers, it’s hard to imagine him as anything but the polished, wealthy, unaccented showman he is today. “Of all the shows that I’ve ever done on television, this is my favorite. … It’s the most democratic show you can imagine. The winner this year was a chicken farmer from Paducah, Kentucky. That is so great.”
However, Springer’s American dream isn’t about going from rags to riches. “[My parents] clearly believed in the American dream, but they also were very liberal. We defined the American dream as being able to march. What we got out of it was here is a place where justice in the end will win out. The best patriots are always the immigrants.”
Springer is a patriot of sorts. He lives for politics, follows the hot-button issues closely and has a thoughtful opinion formed on whatever the topic du jour might be.
“I’m going to give you a Sarah Palin answer,” Springer jokes when I ask where he gets his news. “Oh well, we get all the papers.”
He’s not kidding. “New York Times, USA Today, usually the local paper of the town I’m in and The Wall Street Journal, that’s the daily stuff,” Springer lists. “And then the magazines: The New Republic, The Nation for my liberalism, The Economist—those are the magazines we subscribe to, and, of course, Newsweek.”
When he’s not racing between Springer Show tapings on Mondays and Tuesdays and Wednesday-Sunday runs in Las Vegas, he says he gives speeches and raises money for his favorite causes. The only thing he’s not doing at the moment, he explains, is running for office. “I still think about it; it’s always a possibility. By the time I had any seniority I would be 90. So I have to think, why would I run? If it’s to put something on my resume, I don’t need to do that.” Springer pauses and seems to consider the possibility of a political move, as he’s likely done thousands of times before. “Would I really make a difference? That’s what I have to figure out. I don’t know if I can make a difference anymore.”
Most days when Springer is in Las Vegas he takes a walk around Planet Hollywood. Escorted by a pair of security guards, someone from the public-relations team or hotel management and a cameraman who has stopped filming the daily ritual but sticks around for effect, Springer makes the rounds.
On the day I join him, he hugs grandmothers from the Midwest and throws peace signs with trendy teenagers. He chats up a pair of young women with yard-long daiquiris, teases a few Red Sox fans and marvels that even the tourists from Ireland have lined up for a photo op. Everyone gets a hello, a picture and a sales pitch.
“Come see the show tonight. It’s America’s Got Talent Live. It’s a great show with last season’s top 10 finalists. You come to the show, I’ll raise your children.”
The man can campaign.
When one woman puts him on the phone with a friend who’s watching The Jerry Springer Show at home, he tells her to turn it off. “Wash your hands when you’re done. It’s horrible!”
If Springer is comically apologetic about his show, he’s almost paternally defensive of the people who choose to come on it.
“There’s no newspaper that I can’t look at that in the first pages I have 20 shows. Famous people, rich people, politicians—they’re all doing everything on my show. Everything!” Springer says. “So, we can’t look at them and go, ‘Thank God we’re better than them.’ We’re not; we’re all alike. Sometimes through education you learn how to hide it, you learn how to use better language when you’re angry. You can be passively aggressive, which is a skill that is taught. These people don’t know how to be passively aggressive; they use the F-word.”
When I tell Springer that I would never go on his show, that I like to keep my dirty laundry in a very small room, he agrees.
“My room’s bigger,” he laughs. “I would never go on the show, and most people I know wouldn’t. So, if 90 percent of America would never go on a show like that, which I think is smart, 10 percent would. And 10 percent of America is 30 million people. That’s a lot of shows.”
Profiles of Springer tend to follow a similar pattern; they contrast the raucous TV show full of bleeped-out curses and sexual betrayals with the intelligent adult who talks knowledgeably about politics with a passion that would be incendiary in the debate room. How could these two men be related? How could he be responsible for that?
But there’s nothing so unthinkable about the two going together. For Springer, the arguments, relationship battles and sibling abuse that find their way onto his show aren’t shocking or rare. Some people want the attention, and lots of people like watching the fireworks that follow. Springer himself likes the authenticity of his guests.
“It’s not a show in their minds. They are who they are. They’re not trying to put on airs. Sometimes I like to say I’m more comfortable around them than the people that own us, the suits.”
Perhaps Springer appreciates his guests’ authenticity because he’s spent most of the last 30 years being the opposite. Other than competing on Dancing With the Stars, as mayor, news anchor or talk-show host, Springer’s work has always involved an element of acting. The man on the show is a character. He just happens to share Springer’s name.
“You know if you’re a good person,” he says. “The rest is just showbiz. It’s manufactured.”
Outside of Planet Hollywood, shaking hands and grinning for cameras, that’s manufactured, too. It’s Springer playing his strange role halfway between father figure, political voice and entertainment icon and master of a three-ring circus of his own creation. Only for a few minutes during the hour-plus parade does Springer slip fully into real Springer. Bending over a stroller with a smiley, chubby-faced infant, he goes into grandfather mode.
“I don’t know anybody as cute as you,” he coos.
By the time he’s straightened up and smoothed out his slacks, Springer is back in character. As he walks into the casino, a security guard and a dealer begin chanting, “Jer-ry! Jer-ry!” Springer gives them a wave, and walks on.