Chicago -- I'm here to write about "The Jerry Springer Show." But a youthful assistant director has just commanded me not to take notes until speaking with the publicist. The problem is, the publicist is too busy to talk.
Everybody is too busy to talk.
When I called from Baltimore about attending the show, they said I couldn't go behind the scenes, couldn't talk to Jerry's producers, and certainly not to Jerry himself. He's too swamped with media requests. He's God. He's the anti-Christ. He's bigger than Oprah!
Fine. Who needs to talk to Jerry anyway? He's merely the ringmaster for this madhouse show, an accidental tour guide for these crazy times when love triangles plague the Vatican, a guy shoots himself on live TV, Bob Dole extols the restorative wonders of Viagra on "Larry King Live," and it's no longer possible or desirable or even necessary to tease the truth from the twisted warp of of our lives.
Everyone's in high dudgeon over the Springer show. Critics fume at the violence that regularly erupts among guests because it's real. They fume because it's not. Community activists picket the show. Parents lobby to remove it from its after-school time slot. NBC's Chicago affiliate drops the show; Fox picks it up. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, wages a war against "Springer" and all sleaze TV. The show's producer, Studios USA Networks, promises Lieberman that the bloodletting and hair-pulling will be edited out. Springer says it won't.
Who knows who is telling the truth? Who cares? Lost in the dissonance is a simple fact: "The Jerry Springer Show" is hysterical. It's hysterical precisely because it doesn't discriminate between truth and fiction. The fuzzier the line between the two, the more surreal the show becomes, the more savage the sendup of our bizarre lives.
It's not that truth is beside the point; but it's just one minor frame of reference in a culture more obsessed with its own confessional, messy, self-reverential notoriety than honesty.
It took me awhile to catch on. Once, I, too, dismissed the Springer show as merely tawdry and grotesque. Those wretched people and their small, sex-obsessed lives depressed me. I took their nastiness too seriously. I identified irrationally with the victims. No talk show went so low as Jerry's, I thought, puffing away on the NordicTrack in front of the tube.
I abandoned the NordicTrack, and consequently the show, but the Jerry drumbeat got louder and louder as I went about my own messy life. Several of my students at Loyola watched it faithfully. If people want to air their filthy linen on national TV and get clocked for it, fine, the students said. They're only a threat to themselves.
Scamming your way on to Jerry with a fabricated tale of woe has become the ultimate prank, the way swallowing goldfish or cramming into a phone booth once was. On the Johns Hopkins campus, a friend of a friend of a friend and her friend got on. They pretended they were feuding roommates. Another set of Baltimore Gen-X pals got on as a feigned lesbian love triangle -- ditched boyfriend included.
In my son's fourth-grade class, an altercation between a teacher and student escalated when the young girl claimed that being from a broken family exempted her from punishment. She evidently had learned early on that the "victim" is the attention-getting role in the memoirs, movies and talk shows that guide our lives.
"You have no right to punish me!" she scolded the teacher.
As the teacher showed her to the principal's office, the classroom chanted: "Jerry Springer! Jerry Springer! Jerry Springer!"
As Springer himself has been known to ask, what does it all
mean? Why did this show resonate with kids and adults, and attract a multiethnic and multiracial audience? What was its universal appeal? I went to Chicago to find out.
Entering 'Jerry reality'
While waiting for the taping to start, I spend an hour in an NBC Tower VIP lounge. Thank goodness there's an enormous television screen. I watch as rival talk-show host Leeza Gibbons debriefs the sole survivor of a violently dysfunctional family. Then on the "People's Court," "Judge" Ed Koch hears a case concerning a breast implant that went awry. Didn't he used to be mayor of New York?
Despite the assistant director's prohibition, I jot notes. As Jerry has said, "If you don't protect the edge, if you give in once to someone's censorship, you're no longer free."
Maybe he was kidding.
I approach a fit, mustachioed bald guy dripping with chunky gold jewelry, including a necklace with a golf ball-sized, diamond-studded baseball pendant. Hi, you look like a guest, I say. Would you talk to me?
He and his buff buddies snicker. They appear embarrassed for some reason and decline to talk. Later, I learn the bejeweled man was Derek Bell, in town with the Houston Astros to play the Cubs. Just catching a Springer show before the game.