Jerry Springer, host of the long-running talk show The Jerry Springer Show, died at age 79 on April 27. According to Cincinnati news station WLWT, he died peacefully at his home in the Chicago suburbs.
“Jerry’s ability to connect with people was at the heart of his success in everything he tried whether that was politics, broadcasting or just joking with people on the street who wanted a photo or a word,” Jene Galvin, a lifelong friend and spokesman for the family, told WLWT. “He’s irreplaceable and his loss hurts immensely, but memories of his intellect, heart and humor will live on.”
Scandal was part of Springer’s career from the start. In 1971, he was elected to the Cincinnati City Council, but was forced to resign three years later after soliciting a sex worker (and paying with a personal check). But instead of denying the action and shying away from it, Springer embraced being honest about typically taboo (especially at the time) practices. That attitude endeared him to his constituents, and when he ran for City Council again in 1975 he won by a landslide. He went on to serve as Cincinnati’s mayor from 1977 to 1978.
His experience in politics is what led him to television — in the 1980s and 1990s he was a political reporter and commentator for WLWT in Cincinnati. The Jerry Springer got its start on the same network in 1991 as a political talk show, but that angle didn’t exactly bring in the ratings. Soon Springer switched gears to ditch a more serious approach and focus instead on sensationalism and tabloid fodder, turning The Jerry Springer Show into a trashy, guilty pleasure television years before reality TV would become commonplace on network lineups. It acted as direct counterprogramming to the feel-good daytime talk shows of the era, like The Oprah Winfrey Show, while offering its own brand of optimism: You may have thought you were having a bad day, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as, say, finding out on The Jerry Springer Show that your step-mom is trying to steal your boyfriend.
Springer was the ringmaster of this televised circus, stepping back and letting his guests (who, for the most part, were not actors) hash out their differences from the sidelines. Springer was almost absolved of the guests' most egregious actions — these people knew exactly what they were getting themselves into, especially as the years went on and the show remained on the air.
“They'd seen the show 100 times before, and so you could have the same people on Oprah and they would have behaved perfectly,” Springer said in an interview with The Daily Mail earlier this year. “It's just that when they came to our show, they kind of knew the drill and they just behaved like that.”
Despite its massive popularity, the show had plenty of haters. In 2002, TV Guide named The Jerry Springer the worst TV show of all time — a title that Springer basked in, using it as an introduction to each episode in the following years. Groups like the Parents Television Council and the American Family Association vocally opposed the show, and even in the U.K. groups called for the show to be taken off the air during school holidays so that children wouldn’t get hooked. The show’s biggest controversy took place in 2000, when a man killed his ex-wife just hours after they both appeared on an episode about love triangles — he was convicted of second-degree murder in 2002. But even that didn’t stop the show, which ultimately ran for 27 seasons, signing off in 2018.
Springer remained mostly unapologetic about his work, though during a 2022 interview on the podcast Behind the Velvet Rope, he did show some remorse for the impact of his series, saying, “I’m so sorry. What have I done? I’ve ruined the culture.” Whether the culture was truly “ruined” or not, the influence of his show is evident in plenty of today’s programming. Without The Jerry Springer Show unlocking a communal desire for on-air brawling, interviews with people keeping a secret from their partners, and confrontations between young mothers and the father of their child, reality shows like The Real Housewives, True Life, Catfish, Teen Mom — pretty much all of MTV’s reality lineup — might not even exist today.
The Jerry Springer Show may not fit into today’s cultural climate, one that’s more critical of exploitation. But there’s no denying that the series defined an era, making Springer a household name. It inspired countless parodies and even an award-winning musical, Jerry Springer: The Opera. And despite all the show’s controversies, Springer remained a fairly beloved figure up until his death. During one of his final TV appearances, on an October 2022 episode of The Masked Singer, even Miss Piggy joined in on chants of “Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!” upon his reveal. He was warm and gracious to the entire audience, saying “There’s so many serious things going on in the world, to be able to just do something that’s fun and silly or whatever, I appreciate it.” It’s emblematic of how Springer approached his entire TV career, never taking anything too seriously.
Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R.
TOPICS: Jerry Springer, The Jerry Springer Show