For one night, Jerry Springer tried not to be "Jerry Springer" -- ringmaster and purveyor of television's most talked about daytime smut-show where guests slug it out instead of talk it out.
He was looking to be thoughtful and insightful and to seriously explore how the media mirror society as part of a lecture symposium at Johns Hopkins University.
But when he walked onto the stage Friday night, he was laughed at.
Several hundred hooting students, who until then had been amusing themselves by sailing paper airplanes through the auditorium, burst into wild applause. They wanted Jerry the schlock-meister, not Jerry the academician.
"I was told I would be here as part of a lecture series," Springer told the audience with a hint of earnestness in his voice.
The students guffawed. The symposium organizers blanched. Then the students gave him a standing ovation and began chanting "Jerry, Jerry, Jerry," as his unruly television audience often does when a fight breaks out.
Springer, always one to give an audience what it wants, immediately dropped the pretense and began talking about his show.
The 54-year-old former Cincinnati news anchor, mayor and councilman (who incidentally was forced to resign in 1974 after he'd written a check to a prostitute) is having a tough time showing the other side of his personality. He isn't just the mild-mannered host of a "stupid talk show" as he calls it, the top-rated daytime show in the country. He's a thinker, he says. One day, when he tires of the circus he leads, he would like to settle down and become a political-science teacher.
Between questions from students who wanted to know if he pays his guests (he says no), if the fights are staged (he says no) and whether they could get up on stage and sing with him (he agreed), he slipped in some political points:
On gun violence: "Starting in the first grade, everyday I'd have kids recite certain things like 'I will never ever touch a gun.' "
On news organizations: "I believe the media has trivialized politics, the White House and the government The rest of the world worries about the Middle East, genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia. People look at Americans like we have too much time on our hands."
On Congress dealing with the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal: "There was a time when Congress was trying to shut down our show; now they are trying to copy our show. Let's not change the government because you don't like that fact that [President Clinton] is a lousy husband."
On censorship: "If they are successful in shutting down a show, like Howard Stern, look at the chilling effect that it has on all of us. The lesson is that you may stay on television as long as you don't tick off anyone. That means we are not free anymore."
On smut TV: "Why should everything be sanitized? Because some people don't speak the King's English or are wealthy, suddenly they are trash and shouldn't be on television? That's the highest form of elitism."
On his own show: "No one watches our show and says tomorrow, I'm going to be a transsexual. Don't worry about this silly television show. Worry about what government is doing to our lives."
For a while there, it looked as if the Hopkins students were going to get into some serious issues about the media's role in society, the very subject Springer had come to town to discuss, but, alas, it was not to be. A gang of students began chanting "Jerry, Jerry, Jerry" again, and the mood was broken.
Nevertheless, it's these serious subjects that Springer claims as his passion. Not transvestite hookers who come on his show to be pilloried by an unsympathetic audience.
So, Jerry Springer has a soul. But is he kidding himself? Are people going to let him be anything other than his television persona?
Springer seems to think so. Less than 12 hours before, he had been shilling in New York City (in an interview with ABC's Barbara Walters) and Atlantic City for his just-released book, "Ringmaster," and coming movie, in which he plays himself. And after a night in Baltimore, he would go to Los Angeles to rejoin the promotional tour.
He said he stopped in Baltimore because it was important. And, it should be noted, he did not hawk his book or movie at Hopkins.
"I still have my serious political sides and views and it is very much a part of my life," Springer said a couple hours before he was scheduled to talk to the students. "I'm more of a book man than most people are. You can't see the floor in my house because of the books."
"It's not a matter of people letting me be anything else other than who they see on television. I would not let anything jeopardize what I felt was important. If I thought the show was hampering anything, I wouldn't do it."
Perhaps, but the Hopkins students laughed at his turn toward the intellectual and the serious. Guffawed.
Dan Adhoot, a junior, was the one who asked to sing with Springer on stage. Later, he said Springer lacks the moral authority to discuss serious issues. "I think his reputation is a little too tarnished," Adhoot said. "I think a lot of the justifications that he used for his show were pushing it a little."
Robbie Fisher, who put together the Milton S. Eisenhower symposium, which seeks to answer the question of national identity, said Springer's lecture wasn't a disappointment even though it was not on target.
"We really had no way on knowing what he was going to say," Fisher said. Then, on second thought, he said he knew what Spring was supposed to say. It's just that the audience wouldn't let him.
Springer thinks audiences will come around.
"Remember, Reagan went from 'Bedtime for Bonzo' to president of the United States."
Pub Date: 10/26/98