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The Host With the Most

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Jerry Springer may be king of the tabloid talk show, but there’s more to the man than the show that bears his name

Cultural phenomenon Jerry Springer has plenty to celebrate this New Year. His outrageous syndicated talk show, The Jerry Springer Show, continues to bring out-of-the-norm guests, afflicted with everything from infidelity to incest, face to face with their antagonists. What typically follows is a violent brawl and Springer offering rational commentary from the sidelines. The show has been such a success that it’s now celebrating its 20th anniversary season. And while Springer may be known the world over as the host of what was once voted the “Worst TV Show Ever” by TV Guide, there’s a lot more substance to this Renaissance man than meets the eye.

Springer is also a lawyer, a former mayor of Cincinnati, a political pundit, an award-winning newscaster, a country recording artist, a star of film and stage, an in-demand guest speaker at college campuses across the country, a progressive talk radio broadcaster, a gifted ballroom dancer as seen on Dancing With the Stars and the former host of America’s Got Talent. In addition to The Jerry Springer Show, he keeps busy today hosting Baggage, an innovative dating show on the Game Show Network.

New Orleans Living had an interesting and enlightening conversation with Springer, who is living proof of his own belief that in America, all things are possible. He fondly reminisced about his fabulous college memories that were made here in New Orleans, during his undergraduate experience at Tulane University back in the early ’60s. Smart, humble, intriguing, industrious, kind and quick-witted, he has managed to become an iconic fixture in American pop culture. Our final thought? Springer, whose family immigrated to the United States to flee the Holocaust when he was a young child, continues to demonstrate that among his talents, one of his finest is his nonjudgmental, fair treatment of others, including the troubled guests on his show. He believes that like everyone, they just want a fair shake at love and happiness.

Wow, Jerry, 20 years later and The Jerry Springer Show is still hopping!

Yeah, Christine, there’s no excuse for that. [Laughs]

What does that say about American pop culture that the show is still on the air?

Well, I think it’s probably because we were so different when we started. We had never seen stuff like that on television. There’s nothing on the show that people don’t know exists, so we can’t say, oh, it’s such a shock. But it’s shocking that it would be on television. Because up until then, television had been almost exclusively upper-middle-class white. And now all of a sudden, we were showing another part of society. So that was kind of shocking. And I think it’s got such a niche. There’s no show like it, so that’s why it keeps lasting. It’s not like we’re competing with anyone. When I went on The Simpsons and when I was on the cover of Rolling Stone, that’s when I knew that the show had made a dent in pop culture. That’s really your arrival. [Laughs] Because I never really believed it was anything.

Some television shows are crazy, but yours is the original. Nothing comes close …

Yeah, I think for better or worse. I mean, it’s a crazy show. I’ve never pretended that it’s anything other than that. It’s just one hour of escapist entertainment. It’s not my taste; I don’t watch it. People who don’t like the show shouldn’t watch it, and that’s why God gave us the remote control. But people seem to like it, and it’s not difficult to do, so I keep doing it. I’ve notified NBC Universal that I’m going to be stopping when I’m 107. [Laughs] That’s it, I’m not backing down!

So after 20 years, you’re now seeing the spawn of your original guests appearing on the show today, aren’t you?

Yes, that’s right! [Laughs] We are getting the children of our original guests, which makes us really the only show that grows its own guests. We have a farm system down in Alabama. It’s wonderful!

You actually weren’t interested in doing a talk show when you were approached to do the show. You were anchoring news in Cincinnati for the NBC affiliate.

No, this wasn’t on my radar at all. The company that owned the station also owned talk shows, and one day they took me to lunch and said, “Phil Donahue is retiring, and we’re starting another talk show and you’re going to host it.” So I was assigned to it. I enjoyed doing the news, and that was where my heart was. They let me still do the news at night, but I had to fly to Chicago every day to tape the show, which got old. The show started taking off, so I stopped the news and just devoted my time to the show.

How do you feel about your name being used as an adjective? Like, “That’s so Jerry Springer!”

It’s kind of weird, but I’m so detached from it. Obviously I have my own life, but that’s showbiz. If I played a role in a movie, I wouldn’t believe that I really was the character. I never personalized the show; it’s just my job. I do a show about craziness and people outside the norm. I can’t pretend to be shocked, but I don’t take it personally.

You have to tell us about your Tulane experience, where you got your undergraduate degree in political science.

Oh, God, Christine, I loved it! I even knew at the time it would be the best four years of my life. I don’t know if it was because I was 17 or because it was Tulane or because I was in New Orleans, but the combination made for just wonderful college memories. It was great times; it was the early ’60s, when we integrated the high school there. It was an incredible political time. John Kennedy was just elected—looked as young as we did—and my eyes were opened to the world. There was nothing we couldn’t accomplish, we thought. We really believed we’d put a man on the moon, we were so optimistic. I remember President Kennedy was visiting New Orleans, and I remember the motorcade on St. Charles, and God, the car went by so fast! I told people I saw him, but I don’t think I really did. Of course the tragedy was in my junior year. I was doing the noontime show on WTUL, the campus radio station, on November 22, 1963, and I was playing Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel,” when the bells rang on the Teletype, and said that shots had been fired at the motorcade. I figured that can’t be true, someone’s playing a joke. I wasn’t going to go on the radio and say that the president had been shot. Then it kept coming, so I went across the hall to the Tulane Yearbook office, where they had a little black-and-white television. Walter Cronkite was on, and I went back on the radio and said what happened. I spent the rest of the weekend at the fraternity house I lived at, watching it along with everybody else.

Speaking of JFK, your life changed remarkably when you had a dinner meeting with then-senator Robert Kennedy of New York, and you wound up working on his presidential campaign.

Oh, I loved him. He was my political idol. I got my law degree from Northwestern in Illinois, and I had a job lined up for me at a Cincinnati law firm, but I told them I wanted to work for the senator first. But obviously, when he died, I took the job and got right back into politics.

You had a political career before showbiz got a hold of you—you were even the mayor of Cincinnati. Are you ever compelled today into political action?

Oh, yeah, I spend most of my time doing political work, giving speeches, raising money; I’m very active. I’m just not running for office, although it’s always being suggested and I always consider it. But it’s not likely.

Never say never, Jerry! So what did you really love about New Orleans back in your Tulane days?

I’d never seen anything like it, and since that time, New Orleans is still the most totally unique city in America. New Orleans always had a separate flavor, and there was no other city like it. I loved the music, the nightlife, the culture, and again, I was 17. We enjoyed going downtown and to the French Quarter. I remember Pat O’Briens and a fellow named Emile there, and the guy who would play the tray. These are all flashbacks. I remember Pete Fountain and Frogman Henry played there. I guess you’d consider these traditional tourist spots, but we loved Galatoire’s, Arnaud’s, Antoine’s, Commander’s Palace, the Gumbo Shop. And on Saturday nights, after fraternity parties, we’d go down to Café du Monde and have beignets and coffee. I remember going out to Lake Pontchartrain, and having friends in the fraternity there. The whole life was amazing. I remember those beautiful homes around the Tulane campus and the Garden District. I kept thinking, God, imagine one day getting to live in a place like this!

You’re a total New Orleanian! You’ve been back to New Orleans since Katrina, haven’t you?

Yes, I’ve been back for speaking engagements; I speak at Tulane on different occasions. I have some family there and nearby. So I keep in touch. It’s just a wonderful, wonderful city, obviously touched by incredible tragedy. And how quickly people forget, despite all the talk at the time. New Orleans is a unique treasure in America. And for people who haven’t been there who go down and see it, it’ll be something they’ve never seen in any other city in America. Also, I was the grand marshall of the Endymion parade in 1998, and I would do that again in a heartbeat!

Come on down again! And Jerry, it was great to see you hosting America’s Got Talent, and you just wrapped up the America’s Got Talent Live tour.

It’s been great fun. It’s great to see these kids—mostly kids, actually—just living the American dream, going from obscurity to fame right before ours eyes. And this is what they want to do in life; to see them succeed and the public reactions to them is just really wonderful. It’s the most fun show I’ve done.

You currently host the show Baggage, which is the Game Show Network’s highest-rated show ever. The concept is fabulous: Get all of your baggage out in the beginning before you date someone. We should do that in real life, because people sometimes stay in bad relationships even after they discover the baggage, just because they’re already so heavily involved and committed.

Yes, that show’s a lot of fun to do, and it’s unique. I wish I would have thought about it, it’s a fantastic idea. And it’s doing well; we’ve shot 170 episodes. And yes, eventually you find out about the baggage, but that’s usually six months or six years into a relationship. If you found out ahead of time, then there would be a lot less surprises and probably a lot more happier relationships.

You were born in London, and your family came to New York when you were 5 to escape the Holocaust. I assume that your family background has much to do with your strong convictions and beliefs in liberty and freedom.

Yes, I certainly assume it accounts for my liberalism. Because if there are any lessons from the Holocaust, one is that you never judge people based on what they are, you only judge people on what they do. That puts into your soul the concept of never discriminating because of all the people that died just because of discrimination. You can put it any ethnic group you want; during that time it was the Jews, but in another generation it’s the blacks. You can’t make these generalizations because in bad times, people will look for someone to pick on, and they’ll always pick on the discriminated groups because they think there’s no moral hurdle to overcome. Before you know, evil people take it to the next step and you have horrible things that happen.

I guess your nonjudgmental attitude makes doing The Jerry Springer Show more palatable.

Well, yeah, I am totally nonjudgmental, I think that’s obvious, because if I were, I wouldn’t wind up doing the show. This is not a speech. It’s true that I just don’t judge other people. Of course, if they do something bad, I’m not going to like it. I think we’re all alike, I think some of us just dress better.

Speaking of Elvis earlier, you do a fabulous singing impersonation of the King! Most people don’t know that about you.

[Laughs] No, and that’s a good thing!

You have a really artsy side to you: You’ve played the role of Billy Flynn in Chicago on Broadway and on London’s West End, starred in other plays, written for films like Ringmaster and cameoed in Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me. And the list goes on and on. That is so cool!

Look, I’ve made a very nice living with my show, but it’s only two days a week, which gives me time to do things I really enjoy and care about. I have no regrets, and whoever would have thought the show would last 20 years. It’s all been great, and if I could have this life again, I’d tell you, “Where do I sign up?”

-CHRISTINE FONTANA