Irony of ironies: Jerry Springer—who has made gazillions of dollars exploiting the perverse secrets and outrageous exhibitionism of his fellow human beings—is fiercely protective of his own privacy.
“People know virtually nothing about my personal life, which is good, and I like it that way,” Springer tells me. “And my family likes it that way—they insist on it. You can’t mix your personal life with your public life, because if you do that, you ruin both.”
“If people want to come on the show, I tell them flat out, I would never do it,” Springer says. “I’m just more private.”
That seems a commonsensical approach to existence on earth, albeit a rule frequently flouted by Springer’s fellow celebrities—to say nothing of the wretched souls who appear daily on The Jerry Springer Show, which is about to start its 20th season. (For a while there back in the last century, he was even beating Oprah in the ratings.)
You can call him the Maestro of Mayhem or the Titan of Too Much Information—or his more popular title, the King of Sleaze—but he is much more than that: I think of him as the Thomas Edison of Self-Reinvention. The son of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, Springer was born in wartime London (actually, in the Underground, in the East Finchley station) and immigrated to Queens, New York, at age 6. In his 66 years, Springer has been a presidential campaign worker for Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the mayor of Cincinnati, that city’s top-rated local television news anchor, a lawyer, a Dancing With the Stars contestant, a country music recording artist, the inspiration for an eponymous hit musical in London: Jerry Springer: The Opera, and despite not being able to sing a note, an actor in the London production of the musical Chicago, playing sketchy lawyer Billy Flynn.
With his strangely likable persona, Springer has demonstrated an uncanny knack for finding the sweet spot in the zeitgeist, wherever it may be, and then mining that rich vein for all it’s worth.
Now the syndicated television star is adding a new production to the Springer canon: He’s the emcee of a dating show titled Baggage, premiering Monday at 6:30 p.m. on the Game Show Network.
The way Springer describes it, Baggage sounds like a cross between The Dating Game and Long Day’s Journey into Night—wherein potentially terrible failings are revealed to a would-be hookup (and the studio audience) instead of the usual perky pleasantries.
“Normally on these dating shows, everybody’s trying to sell themselves as to how great they are,” Springer says. “Everybody’s on their best behavior and you don’t find out anything bad about them, and it’s only later on in the relationship that you start to find out about what the flaws or annoyances are, or, even worse, things you just can’t deal with.”
Springer elaborates: “Let’s say on one show, there’s a guy and he’s looking for a date, and three beautiful women come out, and they each have these three bags—small, medium, and large—and they get to open the bags one at a time. The guy may be leaning toward one woman or another, and all of sudden she opens her bag and he says, ‘Oh boy, I can’t live with that!’ And then he starts looking at another woman and finds out what her baggage is. Finally, he selects one, but it’s not over yet because then she decides whether she can handle his one big bag.”
In the 40 episodes Springer has taped so far, the baggage has ranged from divorced with three kids to five months in jail, with the practice of witchcraft and Facebook stalking of exes thrown in for good measure.
“It can be crazy stuff, but whatever it is, the audience wants this couple to succeed,” Springer says. “I can see people sitting around watching it, married couples having conversations among themselves, saying, ‘I could never accept that,’ and then they start talking about their own baggage in life. If this show catches on, I can see people actually having Baggage parties, where you have dates and everybody brings one piece of baggage that you’re set to reveal.”
Would the advent of Baggage parties be a sign of the Apocalypse?
“Yes!” Springer jauntily replies, quickly adding that his tawdry syndicated show is probably a more accurate harbinger of the End Times.
And what about his own baggage?
“I don’t have baggage; I have a trunk,” Springer answers. “It doesn’t fit in a bag. It’s all out there.”
Indeed, there’s very little one can say about Springer that he hasn’t said about himself. He is, for instance, always happy to agree with critics who rail bitterly against his wildly successful Springer show as trashy, prurient junk—with its chair-throwing “Klanfrontations” between hooded ignoramuses and Jewish Defense League thugs, or a very pregnant redneck wife admitting to having had sex not only with her redneck husband but also with his two redneck brothers (more chair throwing), with the overexcited studio audience chanting “Jer-ry! Jer-ry!” while bedlam ensues and Springer smirks. His homilies at each show’s end, with the admonitory tag line “Take care of yourself, and each other,” don’t exactly ring with sincerity.
And yet it’s hard not to notice a moralistic—even socially redeeming—aspect to the whole sorry spectacle. “The show is out there for entertainment,” Springer says, “but a side effect—and that wasn’t the purpose—is that each show is like a little morality play where the good guys get cheered and the bad guys get booed and they have a negative consequence as a result of their bad behavior. My comments at the end are from a pretty mainstream moral point of view. But I am not pretending that this show was put on to take the place of the Sunday morning sermon.”
He adds that his producers don’t need to scour the countryside for willing victims; instead, they cull candidates from a list of volunteers who write in and offer themselves up. “If people want to come on the show, I tell them flat out, I would never do it,” Springer says. “I’m just more private. There are some people, including celebrities, who love doing this stuff. It’s part of the culture.”
There has even been, in recent years, a proliferation of celebrity sex tapes—from Pamela Anderson to Paris Hilton to the (so far mercifully unreleased but much chronicled) performance of John Edwards and his pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter.
“There’s nothing shocking anymore,” Springer says. “Once you’ve established that people can do it, you can’t really be shocked if somebody does it—and they [the sex tapes] will come from different fields. There will be the first doctor, whoever does it.The first astronaut, whoever does it. Obviously, there’s going to be a first for every profession.”
But why? Why? Why would a public figure make a sex tape?
“It makes no sense to me,” Springer says. “Listen, for people who want to do it, maybe they find it titillating. Today sex is not seen as something sacred. It’s not put on the same pedestal that it was in my generation. That’s just the reality. It’s just looked on as just another exercise.”
Has Springer ever made a sex tape?
“I would hope not,” he says. “I would never want to be in that kind of movie.”
Despite his checkered past—the exposure of his relationship with a prostitute in the early 1970s (he paid by check, which nevertheless didn’t prevent his subsequent election as mayor); and his alleged dalliance with a porn star who was a guest on his show and may indeed have taped their close encounter without his knowledge or consent—the private Springer seems a fairly boring guy. He has been married for 36 years to the same woman, with whom he lives in the Chicago suburbs.
“I have a child and a grandson,” he says. “My life is very normal, and I’m very happy with it.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.