Obituary: Jerry Springer

Charismatic American chat show host who played ringmaster to the ‘worst show in TV history’


Jerry Springer Speaks To Guests During His Show December 17, 1998. The Show Which Features Violent Outbrusts And Adult Content Has Been Soaring In The Ratings. (Photo By Getty Images)

It was the grubbiest TV show on earth. Warring couples chased each other around the studio, yelling accusations of infidelity. Chairs were flung. The audience shrieked as security guards tried to restore order. And all the while, a smiling presenter with blond curls and glasses looked on.

This was Jerry Springer, ringmaster extraordinary, lording it over the show that ran successfully for nearly three decades.

Springer, who has died of pancreatic cancer aged 79, was seriously academic at first, a man with political interests. A democrat, he advised President Robert F Kennedy on his 1968 presidential campaign.

And he was modestly successful in politics as Mayor of Cincinnati, and even more so as a serious TV news anchor. He was known as a man with a heart and a sense of humour, incisive and witty, an effortless communicator.

But what made him embrace this daytime tabloid-style exposé show? The answer may lie within the complexity of Springer’s own nature.

He recognised that the public expression of inner turmoil was simply an extension of the celebrity confessional, so why not invite the man and woman in the street to the circus?

And the circus is what The Jerry Springer Show was —– it brought out the inner clown and the wild animal. Just because his guests were of the loud, bolshie type — unlike the better educated, better dressed, better spoken — they still had every right to tell their appalling stories, he reckoned.

And so Jerry Springer became the ringmaster to public chaos. He even played a version of himself in the 1998 Hollywood film Ringmaster. And he said it was just luck that separated the people who sneered at his show from those who were on it.

There was more than a touch of irony in the way he called himself a “talk show host, ringmaster of civilisation’s end” on his Twitter profile.

But the show itself had far-reaching effects, generating the era of the selfie, the rise of reality TV, confessionals on social media and the changing populist mood that delivered Donald Trump to America.

Although Springer was horrified by the rise of Trump, his political success underscored the potential of appealing to Mr and Ms Average.

The difference was Trump was real, and populism became the zeitgeist. Writing in the Sunday Times, Camilla Long even described Downing Street as “one big episode of Jerry Springer; me, me, me”.

Yet millions loved his show, even while they admitted to finding it disgusting. Others derided it as a decline in social values. He agreed with them, and said: “My mom wouldn’t have liked the show either.”

The Jerry Springer Show was launched in 1991 as a chat show dealing with social issues and US politics. But producer Richard Donahue adopted the celebrity revelation format and daytime viewing figures peaked at 8 million, briefly topping Oprah Winfrey. Despite Springer’s defence, it was described as the worst show in TV history.

Even Springer’s birth was a public event. He was born in Highgate Tube station where his parents, Margot Kallman and Richard Springer, Jewish refugees from former Landsberg in Prussia, now Poland, were hiding from a German bombing raid during the Second World War.

It was on the BBC programme Who Do You Think you Are? that he learned both his grandmothers and relatives had died in Nazi death camps.

At the age of four he moved to Queens, New York with his parents and older sister, and became active in drama in Forest Hills High School.

With a degree in political science from Tulane University, New Orleans in 1965, Springer went on to study law at Northwestern University in Illinois, and eventually launched his own law firm, Grinker, Sudman and Springer.

After working on Robert Kennedy’s campaign, he became mayor of Cincinnati in 1977-8 but failed to win governor of Ohio. He entered political TV journalism, at first as a reporter on a Cincinatti TV station and then as an anchor. He joined the NBC affiliate WLTW and soon became joint host of the main evening news programme.

But controversy continued to follow Springer. A stage show by Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee, Jerry Springer: The Opera based on the series, ran for 609 performances in London from April, 2003, before touring the UK in 2006.

Its BBC2 broadcast provoked more than 60,000 complaints. Ofcom received an unprecedented 16,000 from religious campaigners, citing blasphemy, but though the watchdog ruled it did not breach broadcasting guidelines, protests continued.

In June, 2009 Springer made his stage debut as Billy Flynn in Chicago and at the Cambridge in London in 2012. In 2019 he fronted the courtroom show Judge Jerry. He married Micki Velton 1973, but they divorced in 1994. He is survived by his daughter, Katie Springer.

Jerry (Gerald Norman) Springer: born February 13, 1944. Died April 27, 2023

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