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Jerry Springer obituary

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For the better part of three decades, The Jerry Springer Show took the talkshow format into increasingly outlandish areas. Springer, who has died aged 79 of pancreatic cancer, presided over what amounted to a three-ring circus, as guests revealed a steady stream of betrayal in relationships they seemed to model on tawdry pulp novels and porn films.

This led to a cycle of what the writer David Sedaris described as “championship wrestling in street clothes … Curse, fight, disentangle. Curse, fight, disentangle … repeated with tedious precision”. Meanwhile, the studio audience would be pumping fists in the air, chanting “Jer-ee! Jer-ee!” while, just outside the fray, stood Springer, at once bemused by the antics and aghast at the way his guests treated each other.

Not just the ringmaster, Springer also tried to play the empathetic therapist, like Oprah Winfrey, but in a bar brawl. “The truth is, in most cases, we get treated the way we permit ourselves to be treated,” he told us, and each show ended with Jerry advising us to “take care of yourselves, and each other”.

The formula worked. The Springer show ran from 1991 until 2018, nearly 5,000 episodes, and, at its peak in the late 1990s, passed Oprah as the most-watched daytime talkshow. It wasn’t the first of its kind: Geraldo Rivera had evolved from news to trash, while Jenny Jones specialised in revealing guests’ sexual secrets. But Springer’s appeal to chaos influenced countless imitators, and, more crucially, the rise of so-called reality television, in which contestants chosen for their exhibitionism tried to outdo each other in humiliations and conflicts created and scripted by the producers.

The influence seeped over into politics, with the rise of Donald Trump, but Springer got there first. In 2003, as Springer contemplated a serious run for the US Senate from Ohio, the conservative magazine National Review worried he might attract “non-traditional voters who believe most politics is bull … slack-jawed yokels, hicks, weirdos, pervs and whatnots”. In other words, the way many viewed Springer’s audience.

Springer actually came to American television via serious politics. Born in Highgate tube station, London, during an air raid, he spent his early years in East Finchley. At the age of five he moved to Forest Hills in Queens, New York, where his father, Richard Springer, owned a shoe shop and his mother, Margot (nee Kallman), was a bank clerk. Both parents were Jews who had fled Landsberg in Prussia (now part of Poland). Years later on the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? he learned the details of the deaths in concentration camps of both his grandmothers; he lost most of his relatives to the Holocaust.

Springer was active in drama at Forest Hills high school, then took a BA in political science at Tulane University in New Orleans and a law degree from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, in 1968. That summer, he worked on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign; after Kennedy’s assassination, he began working at a law firm in Cincinnati, at which he had interned while a student.

In 1970 he lost a race for Congress, but was elected to the city council as a Democrat in 1971. Three years later he resigned for “personal family considerations”, which turned out to be his visiting a sex worker across the Ohio River in Kentucky, and paying her with a personal cheque.

In 1975 he was re-elected to the council for the first of three terms, serving as mayor in 1977-78. During his comeback, he argued that his use of a personal cheque to pay for sex at least proved “his credit was good”. He also opened his own law firm, Grinker, Sudman and Springer. After finishing third in the Democratic primary for governor of Ohio in 1982, Springer turned to broadcasting, joining the NBC affiliate WLTW as a political reporter, then becoming joint host of the main evening news show, which catapulted the station from last to first in the local ratings.

Jerry Springer greeting supporters in front of a fountain in a city square
Jerry Springer greets supporters in Cincinnati during a failed campaign in 1982 to become the Democratic candidate for governor of Ohio. Photograph: Ed Reinke/AP

In 1991, Multimedia Television, which owned WLTW, began syndicating The Jerry Springer Show, in a political format much like Phil Donahue’s. It soon began to change, especially after Richard Dominick arrived as producer. He had worked on National Enquirer-style tabloid supermarket papers, and for Jones. His real genius lay in taking the talk format away from celebrities and experts, and focusing on ordinary people and their own scandals.

At its peak, Springer was getting upwards of 8 million viewers in daytime, and TV Guide named it the “No 1 worst show in the history of TV”. Dominick also produced two spin-offs: a VH1 backstage documentary series about making the show, and a show starring Springer’s top disentangler, the security chief Steve Wilkos.

Jerry was spun off on his own as well, playing a thinly disguised version of himself in the film Ringmaster (1998) and the US president in The Defender (2004), directed by Dolph Lundgren. He replaced Regis Philbin as host of America’s Got Talent for three years, and from 2010 to 2015 hosted Baggage, a dating game on the Game Show Network.

He guested on television shows, everything from The X-Files to Roseanne; hosted Miss World and Miss Universe beauty pageants and appeared on World Wrestling Entertainment shows. In 2006 he went on Dancing With the Stars to learn how to waltz at his daughter Katie’s wedding.

He was also a success in his country of birth, where imitators such as Jeremy Kyle were not free to generate the same intensity with their content. Springer had more straightforward talkshows on ITV in 2000 and Channel 5 in 2001.

In 2003, Jerry Springer: The Opera, written by Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee, debuted, and ran for almost two years. It won four Olivier awards, including best new musical, before going on tour. In 2005, a BBC broadcast of the musical drew 55,000 complaints, and protests at BBC studios.

The same year ITV ran The Springer Show against Trisha Goddard, who had left it for Channel 5; despite being toned down he triumphed over Goddard in the ratings. He acted in a West End production of Chicago in 2012, guested on Have I Got News for You, and covered Trump’s 2016 election as president for Good Morning Britain.

The Jerry Springer Show ended in 2018, though it is still syndicated by the CW Network. In 2019, Springer began Judge Jerry. It ran for three years. As Springer said: “Television does not and must not create values; it’s merely a picture of all that’s out there – the good, the bad and the ugly.”

While TV might not create values, Springer showed it certainly could amplify them, especially the bad and the ugly.

He married Micki Velton in 1973; they divorced in 1993. Springer is survived by Katie.

Jerry Springer, talkshow host, born 13 February 1944; died 27 April 2023

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( With inputs from : www.theguardian.com )

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