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Marvin Kitman

Jerry Springer an 'appalling diversion'

Web posted on: Monday, June 29, 1998 5:52:30 PM EDT

LOS ANGELES -- I'm sorry, but I loved how the guests started pounding each other on "The Jerry Springer Show." It was even OK by me that the show was faked, I mean, choreographed, sometimes. Are you kidding? Otherwise, the distinguished guests would have killed each other.

Jerry seemed surprised last month to learn that his show's producers had been scripting the fights. The syndicator, Studios USA, also seemed surprised. It was as astonishing a revelation to me as the news that Ellen DeGeneres was gay.

It's not for me to question the credibility of anybody like Jerry, who among previous claims to fame was paying his prostitute bills with a bad check. But all you had to do was look at a videotape of the show. Watch Springer's security guards spring into action to stop a fight even before it starts. If Jerry still doesn't believe it, he should watch tapes of his show in slo-mo, frame-by-frame. It's fascinating stuff how it was done so artistically by members of the Barry Diller Corps de Ballet troupe.

No fighting, no show?

Part of the fun is trying to figure out if the guests are real or actors who have knowingly or unknowingly pulled the wool over the eyes of Jerry's producers. Also, betting on how quickly the talk will turn ugly. "I only watch to see the weirdos and the fights," reader Joyce James of Houston has explained.

So the news that there would be no more fighting on "Jerry Springer" starting on June 8 did not thrill us TV fight fans. The fighting, it said in the papers, was going to be edited out. That was hard to believe: The show would be 30 seconds long!

The run-up to the big no-fight debut of "The Jerry Springer Show" was puzzling. One day this syndicate guy was saying, "Jerry will not have any fights." The next day Jerry says, "Yes, I will." Then the other guy's boss says Jerry won't have fights. Then Jerry comes back and says, "Well, maybe I won't." Then the next day, he clears everything up by saying, "If people start to fight, they fight. How am I supposed to know?"

To fight or not to fight

Total confusion reigned on the talk show fight scene.

It was exciting how Jerry had dared to take on boss of bosses Barry Diller, that paragon of quality television (QVC, Home Shopping Network), who was reportedly displeased with the Springer show: It didn't fit his image. Did Jerry want a videotape thrown at him, the way Diller made management points back in his old days at Fox?

I was expecting to see Diller and Springer in a hair-pulling match on a future program or debating the issue on "Nightline."

To fight or not to fight -- that was the question.

I was on the edge of my couch the week of June 8. On the 9 a.m. airing of the show on WPIX, the panelists were still fighting. I guess they hadn't had time to edit out the fights on the 9 a.m. reruns.

At 11 a.m., they had the all-new expurgated "Jerry Springer Show." The day I watched, there was no fighting. Of course, I don't mean to imply the episode, "My Lover Has a Secret," was like a panel discussion at the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

Like peace in Croatia

During the first week, they still had the usual assortment of weird panelists with shocking revelations. There was the usual foul language, with bleeping, which added intellectual depth to the brawling.

The first week there seemed to be little change in the ratings, fights or no fighting. I suppose lesbian kisses, reunions of one-night stands and fat porno queens may have had something to do with it. Then again, this is Jerry Springer. How do you know if they are real lesbians or real fat porno queens?

There was an air about the new "Springer" environment like the peace in Croatia. The fighting could break out again at any time. Jerry had reserved that decision to himself.

For serious scholars of Springerism, this is having your cake and eating it, too.

The show has developed, with the combination of reruns and new shows, what could be called a one-two punch. Sometimes they fight, sometimes they don't. You never know for sure what will happen.

This is an added thrill.

'Jer-RY, Jer-RY'

The scariest thing about the show, to me, is still the studio audience, chanting "Jer-RY, Jer-RY," mostly YUMs: young, urban males and misses as unrestrained as ever, delighted by both the fighting and nonfighting shows.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), former Education Secretary William Bennett and others campaigning against Springerism should focus on the audience. Look at those happy, flushed faces as they watch the "One-Night-Stand Reunion" episode, as a woman date confesses she used to be a man. I'd put them up against the Roman Coliseum crowd any day.

They are having one good time. People who are upset about "Jer-RY! Jer-RY!" shouldn't focus on the fights, but the stuff in between.

Why is the show so popular? What Jerry is doing is an old-fashioned kind of freak show. It's like going to the circus and seeing the bearded lady, the man who bites off chicken heads, sword swallowers, and so on.

"Watching people trash themselves is an appalling diversion," explains reader Ellie Hawkins of Richmond Hill, N.Y., "and I was initially mesmerized by what people would say and do to get on TV. Many college kids are hooked, to snicker and guffaw, and to feel even more superior. Doesn't seeing these 'freaks' make everyone feel superior?"

Jerry belongs on prime time

The audience, I'm afraid to say, is hungry for this kind of reality show because TV itself is so boring and predictable.

What's really bad about "The Jerry Springer Show" is it's on in the morning, where kids don't understand the nuances. It's really for fully grown adults, 12-to-34.

The show should be on in prime time, where it would fit right in with all the other sex and violence on network TV. If Les Moonves of CBS were serious about appealing to the YUM audience, Dr. Jerry should replace "Dr. Quinn."

It might help also if they added a laugh track to the show. This human zoo is a lot funnier than most new network sitcoms.

And what I would do if I were Barry Diller and didn't want my reputation as "Mr. Clean" sullied by association with such garbage? Sell it to Jerry as a leveraged buyout. Does he really need all this aggravation?

Kitman is the television critic for New York Newsday. His column appears twice a week on CNN Interactive's Showbiz section. E-mail Kitman at

(c) 1998, Newsday Inc. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

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