Interview: Jerry Springer
The famously controversial talk show host and star of Chicago explains his haimishe philosophy of life, and how Zionism is in his blood
Jerry Springer: “I know I’m successful but I’m not talented.”
Every Jerry Springer interview would not be a Jerry Springer interview without including two facts. One is that he was born in London in Highgate tube station in 1944 while the Luftwaffe dropped bombs overhead. And the other is that the world’s most famous talk show host — so famous that they named an opera after him — is Jewish.
This last was made very clear during the BBC’s family tree show Who Do You think You Are?, in which Springer found that the pictures of relatives on the wall of his parents’ home all died in the Holocaust. One of his grandmothers was murdered in a gas van, part of the killing machinery at Chelmno concentration camp; the other grandmother died in Theresenstadt, which served as a holding camp for Auschwitz.
Springer is still haunted by what he found out by participating in that programme a year ago; still finds it hard to cope with the knowledge that his grandmother was deliberately poisoned by carbon monoxide. “I found it unbelievable,” he says now. “Obviously I knew about the Holocaust. And I saw the pictures on the wall of people who died while I was growing up. I do think about it, but I have difficulty talking about.”
The inspiration for the famously irreverent and, to some, blasphemous Jerry Springer – The Opera is now himself a star of stage. He plays the central role of lawyer Billy Flynn in the long-running West End production of the musical Chicago. The reviews have been good. But then so they should. Springer is, after all, every inch the Chicago attorney.
He is sitting in a posh hotel sipping English tea — “no sugar, honey”. At 65, he looks exactly what he is — relaxed, successful and utterly at ease. A lot more relaxed, one might say, than many of the people who meet him. There are those who continue to accuse his tabloid talk show of contributing to the destruction of western civilisation (one of the themes of the Opera). And there are the ex-Jerry Springer guests who might bear grudges about the way he exposed their dysfunctions to millions of TV viewers. But probably least relaxed of all is Bob, the shaven-headed cockney bodyguard who eyes me with a fair amount of suspicion as I attach a microphone to Springer’s sweater.
In the hope of appearing relaxed like Jerry, I ask Bob if he has ever had cause to leap between employer and an attacker? “I can’t tell you,” he says in a way which suggests that if he did tell me, he would have to kill me. Springer seems satisfied with Bob’s professionalism.
In an hour, Springer will join the rest of the Chicago cast for voice exercises. Considering this is his first stage performance since college, you would think he might look a little less comfortable. The first night was different, he admits.
“I was scared. I felt nauseous. I was shaking. And I’m never nervous in front of a crowd,” he says. “I don’t dread any of it now. But the part I used to dread was the singing. The acting, I figure I can do — I’ll convert the character to me if I have to.”
That should not be hard. Of all the jobs that Springer has done — including news anchor and Mayor of Cincinnati (he resigned after evidence was found that he had paid a prostitute for sex, and then was promptly re-elected for his honesty), Chicago lawyer was one of the professions that came most easily. Now that he has got Billy Flynn’s moves and singing down pat, the rest comes easily.
“Showbiz, politics and law all have something in common,” he says. “You’re selling something. In showbusiness you’ve got to sell your act; in politics you’ve got to sell your views; in law you’ve got to sell your client. But I never spent one second of my life thinking I would end up in showbusiness. I had no great desire to be in it. I mean, I know I’m successful with it, but I’m not talented.” Producers disagree. There is word that he might reprise the performance on Broadway, although he will not confirm this, or the possibility of appearing in pantomime, even though he says panto is up his alley — “playing the crowd. That would probably be easier than what I’m doing now.”
All of this success is down to luck, he says self-deprecatingly. Luck and God, the two things for which he says he’s most grateful: “I do believe life is 99 per cent luck. Totally. You could be walking down the road and a guy is driving the other way, maybe he’s just found out his wife’s been sleeping with his next door neighbour…”
(Sounds like a guest on the Jerry Springer show.)
“…He goes over the line and you’re killed. Life is 99 per cent luck. One per cent is left to your own effort. But I also believe in God, because someone created this wonderful thing that I experience every day. And under any moral code you say thank you.”
The moral code with which Springer gives thanks is Jewish. “My parents happened to be Jewish so I use Jewish traditions to thank whoever is responsible for it. If I was born to Catholic parents, I would use the Catholic tradition. So I’m not saying Jews have the answer more than Catholics. I don’t know. I don’t what it’s going to be like after we die.”
Bob is apparently keeping his eye on the time as well as me. He points to his watch. Time to ask Springer how his belief in God informs his politics, a subject closer to his heart even than his TV show.
“When I give my political speeches in America to my Jewish friends I tell them that no American president is going to let anything happen to Israel.” Israel is not always right, says the seasoned Democrat campaigner, but leaning on another country — as many hope Obama will lean on Israel — is wrong.
“I’m old enough to remember the Cuban missiles 90 miles from our shore in 1962. We were ready to go to war.” So you would be more likely to defend than criticise Israel? The answer is a no-brainer — to use a Jerry like term.
“Of course not. It’s in my blood.”
Chicago, Cambridge Theatre, London WC2, www.cambridgetheatre.co.uk