Geraldo Rivera was hosting his own daytime talk show, where the subject of the day was "racism." Onstage were members of the American Nazi Party, the Ku Klux Klan, and a few skinheads tossed in for good measure, while the audience was mainly made up of African Americans. The only person standing between these two very angry groups was the righteously indignant Geraldo, who happily stirred the pot. Up until this moment in television history, violence in front of the camera was taboo; strictly reserved for professional sports or political protests. But the moment this fight broke out, and that chair sailed across the stage striking Geraldo square in the schnozzola, everything changed.
Now, while it's highly doubtful that the concept for The Jerry Springer Show was born on that day, you have to admit that building a show around flying chairs, at least ratings-wise, is a pretty good idea. Even before this incident, daytime talk shows were changing from host-driven celebrity interviews to a venue where audiences became directly involved with the outcome of the program. Geraldo became a sort of salon for the common folk; a show where weightier topics such as political analysis were shunned in favor of subjects expressly designed to titillate (e.g., family squabbles, sexuality, makeovers).
However, it was the opportunity to watch the host get his ass kicked (as in the flying chair incident) that really opened up the possibilities of daytime talk. Incidents of onstage violence began happening semi-regularly, especially on the now-defunct Morton Downey Jr. Show. Downey (a.k.a. "the loud mouth") pushed boundaries by verbally harassing both guests and audience members. It was only a matter of time before producers began to notice that their ratings soared every time a punch was thrown.
By the time Jerry Springer premiered in 1991, the concept of people trying to murder each other in front of a national audience was a blossom ready to be picked. Fistfights and chair throwing, once only ice cream on the talk-show pie, became a daily occurrence. And it worked; the show became one of the most popular on television, and currently, in major markets such as Chicago, L.A., and New York, Jerry Springer regularly kicks the holy hell out of such late-night, big-rating heavyweights as Letterman and Leno.
For me, one of the more interesting aspects of the Springer phenomenon, other than the program's mix of salacious content and fisticuffs, is the host's seeming distaste for his own show. Here we have transvestites battling lesbian sisters who have slept with the boyfriends of hookers whose daughters are disgusted with the way their mothers dress. Fights and epithets are as common as flies on the dead, but unlike Geraldo, Jerry rarely steps into the fray. Most of the time he just stands there with his arms folded, looking slightly nauseated, seemingly tsk-tsking to himself about how far humanity has plummeted into the abyss. Lording high above the proceedings, he saves any opinions for his "Final Thought," an end-of-the-show moralistic diatribe usually devoted to man's inhumanity to man... ending with a quick reminder to tune in tomorrow for more of the same!
The contrast between this nebbishy nobody's silent observation and a stage full of freaks screaming for each other's blood only adds to the attraction. Springer's taciturn judgment serves as a successful counterpoint to the high-pitched emotional context of two lesbians putting each other in a headlock. And as far as the onstage violence is concerned, the show is sublimely orchestrated in a way the World Wrestling Federation can only wish for. The fakery is so subtle that even the people running the show aren't sure who's real and who isn't--though they make guests sign statements swearing their stories are true. From a purely litigious standpoint (listen up, Jenny Jones!), this works to everyone's benefit. It 's far safer to choose people who are likely to be fakes, and let them duke it out, than to roll the dice with potential psychopaths. And from an audience member's perspective? When there are two transvestites slugging it out in a baby-pool of pudding, reality is the last thing on our minds.
Of course, there are those (many of those) who despise Jerry Springer for continuing to champion the plight of trailer trash, transsexual strippers, and even a man who's fallen in love with his horse. But, hey--what are ya gonna do? History continues to remind us that no matter what crazy art form humankind comes up with, there will always be a jackass around who's gonna take things a little too far. As Jerry himself said in one of his recent Final Thoughts (from an episode entitled "Online Strippers"): "Indeed, whatever means of communication mankind develops, what inevitably will be communicated... will be the message of sex. As with any other technology we will argue about it, and say 'This kind of stuff shouldn't be turned on!' But it will be, so long as men are."
And while pompous fuddy-duddys curse and defy the Jerry Springers of the world, it's never the shrill protests of the pious, or even the objectionable work of the artists themselves that bring about their eventual downfall. Don't worry, Jerry Springer will one day disappear, just like the Geraldos before him--but it won't be because of the cries of the morally outraged. Jerry's fall from disgrace will undoubtedly result from something as sinister and beautiful as any force of nature--the fleeting taste of a fickle public yearning for "more" (whatever "more" means at the time). And after Jerry Springer is gone, the question won't be "Why was he here?" but "Who's next?"