By Gregory Korte | Gannett News Service
“The Jerry Springer Show,” long maligned as the worst show on television, degenerates into its 25th season Monday with a champagne-soaked spectacular that includes cabaret dancers, midgets and cabaret-dancing midgets.
But all Springer wants to talk about is Donald Trump.
“I think he’s very, very, very smart. When I get upset, it’s because he’s not a guy who doesn’t know better,” Springer says in an interview last week, in between taping shows from his studio in Stamford, Conn. “When you say, ‘Make America Great Again,’ you can’t take an anti-immigration position. You can’t leave out the very thing that makes America great. That drives me crazy.”
Yes, Jerry Springer is accusing Donald Trump of pandering to his audience, and you can’t help but to think there’s a bit of begrudging admiration in Springer’s assessment of the billionaire Republican presidential candidate — for his showmanship, if not his politics. Springer is an unabashed liberal who worked on the 1968 presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy.
Springer is, in some ways, Trump’s mirror image. Trump made a lot of money, became a television star, and then went into politics. Springer started in politics, became a television star, and made a lot of money.
“Yeah, he’s a reality television star,” Springer says of Trump, star of “The Apprentice” and “The Celebrity Apprentice.” “Which, by the way, is the reason he can do what he does. It’s not because he owns hotels. He can go over the head of the Republican leaders and go straight to the people. The masses will decide, and it’s not always using the same criteria that the institutions would.”
The masses have been tuning into Springer’s show (11 a.m. weekdays on WCIU-Channel 26) for a quarter century now, for better or for worse. And for Springer himself, it has sometimes been for the worse.
Halfway through the show’s run, 12 years ago, Springer spent $1.1 million of his own money in an aborted campaign for the U.S. Senate.
It wasn’t as preposterous as it sounds. Springer first ran for Congress as an anti-war candidate in 1970, he became mayor of Cincinnati in the 1977 and later had a career as anchor on Cincinnati’s highest-rated newscast.
(If you’ve heard the story about how a prostitution scandal ended Springer’s political career, it’s not entirely true. He resigned in 1974 after writing a check to a prostitute, but was re-elected to City Council the next year. And, Springer would eventually tell voters, “That check did not bounce.”)
The show’s “Final Thought” has its roots in nightly commentaries he wrote out by hand, and for the first few years “The Jerry Springer Show” was a serious public affairs program, modeled after Phil Donahue. But that was a crowded market in the early 1990s, and so Springer’s producers made a conscious effort to pursue a younger audience by booking more outrageous guests.After 10 years of that, Springer clearly wanted to get back into politics, but found himself constantly having to address questions about his show. “It would be so hypocritical for me to say, ‘That show is terrible,’ ” he said then. “I’ve always said it’s stupid. It’s just camp. It’s chewing gum. It’s an hour of escapism. It has no real value.”
Eventually, two statewide polls, four focus groups, and a statewide tour of Democratic events convinced him that his television show was too big of a liability with voters.
“For me to be heard, I can no longer be doing the show,” he said at a press conference announcing his non-candidacy. “There has to be separation between my show and my entering the public arena.”
That separation never happened. Springer had up to two years left on his contract then. It’s since been extended until 2018.
And the show hasn’t changed at all, other than a move from Chicago to Stamford five years ago. (Friday’s episode: “My Transsexual Cousin Wants My Man.”)
In fact, Springer says, he couldn’t tone it down if he wanted to. “I’m contractually obligated,” he says. “What the affiliates are buying is a show about craziness.”
To hear him tell it, Springer has very little creative control over his own show outside his “Final Thought.” He knows nothing about the guests until they come on stage — all the better for him to play the straight man and pretend to be perplexed at the outrageous human behavior he’s been giving an international audience to for nearly a quarter century.
The show precluded a return to politics, but it’s opened up other opportunities. Springer has parlayed his syndicated daytime success into roles on “Dancing with the Stars,” “America’s Got Talent,” “WWE Raw,” “Baggage” and “The Price is Right.” And he also seems to pop up any time the script calls for kitsch: he had a cameo in the low-budget summer sequel “Sharknado 3.”
And he has found other outlets for his political passions. He’s returning to Ohio next month for a series of political events for the Ohio Democratic Party, and he hosts a semi-regular podcast featuring corny jokes, political commentary and live bluegrass-tinged folk music.
He seems to have made peace with the idea that he hosts what TV Guide once called “the worst show on television,” and that his name has become an idiom for everything trashy in culture.
In fact, he’s sentimental about it.
“Know this,” he says during his “Final Thought” in Monday’s season premiere. “There’s never been a moment in the 25 years of doing this show that I ever thought I was better than the people who appear on our stage. I’m not better. Only luckier.”