“Stop hiding your face. You’re already here, you might as well enjoy it.”
I open my fingers slightly and peer between them to see a scruffy-haired man with a heavy-duty camera hoisted onto his shoulder. “Sorry,” I mutter. I let my hands fall.
“Well, look happy,” he snaps.
A few chairs away, a middle-aged woman vaults to her feet and screams, “I want my Jerry beads!” The cameraman thrusts the lens into my face, and only after I have forced a smile does he turn his focus to the woman, who has pulled up her T-shirt to reveal a pair of enormous, fishbelly-white breasts. Shrieking, she spins all the way around, just as she has been instructed — “You gotta do a full 360,” the producer warns. Her nipples are saucer-sized, and her breasts slap, deflated, against her chest as she moves. The people around me break into frantic applause. They chant: ‘‘JER-RY! JER-RY!’’
My stomach churning, I look away from the woman, and for a moment I think I catch the eye of another person who is not watching the spectacle: Jerry Springer. Up close, he seems frailer than I had expected, his forehead deeply creased, his suit hanging slightly too large and off-center on his narrowing frame. I may be imagining it, but as another woman rises to her feet, already thumbing the hem of her sweatshirt, his shoulders seem to slump forward.
Three hours ago, the Springer Break Bus dropped me off with 34 other Yale students in Stamford, Connecticut, where five episodes of the Jerry Springer Show are filmed each week. I was ready to be horrified. I had spent the night before preparing myself with Jerry Springer Show highlights: “I’m Happy I Cut Off My Legs!” in which a miserable transsexual named Sandra confesses to injecting her legs with liquid feces before eventually chopping them both off with a chainsaw, and “I’m a Breeder for the Ku Klux Klan,” where a woman in robe and pointed hat confesses to fathering children with white supremacists “for the good of the race.”
Had I been at home, watching on the CW, I would have been little more than slightly scandalized by the theme of today’s episode, something along the lines of “Betraying Your Blood.” A woman is pregnant with her cousin’s baby; a lesbian has cheated on her girlfriend. Only once in the ninety-minute-long taping session does a guest swear.
In real life, the show’s set is a strikingly small square of pockmarked beige carpet surrounded on three sides by imitation brick. There is no pretense of realism here; the brick has the same plastic sheen as the faux-steel pillars, and industrial-sized windows are set into the false walls like dull, frosted eyes. Beneath a plastic-molded sidewalk curb, a worn section of carpet reveals the set’s thin seam, blue where the lights from backstage have leaked through.
On the stage itself, the “stories” play out like bad junior high school productions. There are long, labored breaths between robotically delivered lines. At first, confessed affairs and betrayals do not even provoke guests to stand; minutes later, after a signal bell has rung and shoes and shirts have been dutifully removed, the participants attack one another, throwing punches and pulling hair. Even as they fight, smiles emerge on their faces. The audience’s reaction is just as manufactured as the rest of the show. We laugh, cheer, and hiss on cue, at one point chanting “Whore!” at the pregnant woman onstage.
The Jerry Springer Show and its producers have made us acutely aware that as Yale students, we are something of an anomaly in the audience: we were ushered in ahead of throngs of people waiting outside in the cold and were given seats in the front three rows. For the first time in the show’s history, the producers ask our entire group to read the cue for the final commercial break rather than choosing a single audience member.
As conscious as I am that I, a student, a feminist, do not fit in here, I am also aware that Jerry, too, is a kind of outsider. With nowhere to hide my face as the show’s rituals play out around me, I find myself identifying with Jerry. It’s not just that he seems truly uninterested in the vulgar spectacle of his own show. Unlike the predominantly working-class studio audience he entertains five times a week, Jerry is an intellectual: a graduate of Northwestern Law School and the former mayor of Cincinnati. In several interviews, he’s admitted that he’s “ashamed” of the show and that “it has no redeeming social value.”
The minute he stepped onstage, Jerry was met by shrieks of “I love you!” and even a string of reverent bows. For a man at the center of what is essentially a cult-following, Jerry Springer seems somewhat detached. He reads directly from the teleprompter and delivers his jokes with a flat, dispassionate voice. While the audience is asked to cheer and scream at every push and shove, I never see Jerry egg on a fight, or even react to one. As I watch him now, flanked on both sides by women doing their topless 360-degree turns, Jerry looks like a politician, carefully — and wisely — monitoring his reactions.
The Springer Show was, in its heyday, as popular as Oprah for one important reason: it enables us, the audience, to feel superior. As guests demean themselves on the stage, whether by stripping, fighting, or simply admitting their mistakes, the audience is unquestionably elevated above them. And Jerry only enhances this sense of superiority. He is a surrogate for the audience, watching the pathetic puppet show created by his guests’ stories play out from a distant, removed perspective. While two men fight, shirtless, Jerry Springer stands behind them in a suit; while a woman’s weave is ripped from her head, Jerry, his hair neatly combed, is the picture of dignity.
When they have finished taping the day’s three “stories,” the guests are brought back onstage for a question-and-answer session with the audience. “Make sure we know which whore you’re talking to,” the producer instructs us. “Say, ‘This comment is for the whore in the black shirt. This is for the whore in the green.’” It is at this moment that my classmates and I are introduced to the rest of the audience. As we stand and cheer for ourselves, Jerry walks down the aisle, surveying us with a bemused look on his face. Then, almost to himself, he says, “This is gonna ruin you guys.”
I think immediately of job interviews, and even future political campaigns: he’s right that a tape of us at his show will hardly work to our advantage in the future. But Jerry says it so quietly, almost wistfully, that it makes me wonder what he might be saying about himself. Because I cannot help but think that Jerry Springer is in no way blameless in what is unfolding before me. Simply because he is intelligent, simply because he is embarrassed by what he participates in, does not mean that he does not fully condone it. After all, it is Jerry’s name that is stamped in foot-high letters against the back wall, Jerry’s cardboard cutout against which audience members pose for raunchy photos. Something — a combination of money, ego, a perverted desire for fame — has kept Jerry Springer coming back to the show every week for twenty years.
As the stagehands set up for the Q & A, turning the big, black camera noses towards the audience, the producers roam the aisles and feed us insults to shout at the guests. Several eager Yale students ask for things to say; I don’t hear what they’re told, but I can see them squirming in anticipation a few chairs away. When Jerry offers one of them the microphone, she can barely make out her comment through her giggles.
“Um, to the fat lesbian in the black shirt: the Jets really could have used you in their offensive line yesterday.”
She spits out the word “lesbian” as if it is a curse. The audience breaks into loud laughter and applause, and her friend stands and offers another gem: “Don’t be too upset your girlfriend left you. At least now you can have another piece of cake.”
Jerry’s mouth turns up in a thin, artificial smile.
As the people around me cheer, I happen to look down at my hands, which, just moments before, were hiding my face in shame. I see that I, too, am clapping.