Jerry Springer's American Life
Back in the late 1990s, when Jerry Springer's talk show first beat Oprah Winfrey in the ratings, my fellow TV critics would look at me like I had three eyes when I'd say that Springer once was a brilliant writer and an effective, passionate politician.
Those who remember Springer the charismatic young Cincinnati City Councilman, and his eloquent commentaries as a Channel 5 news anchor – or those have only heard about what a totally different person he was in Cincinnati for two decades, before becoming the trash TV king -- should listen to Ira Glass's "This American Life" from last Sunday (4 p.m., WVXU).
Half of the one-hour show (the first half) is a terrific, comprehensive piece about Springer. ("This American Life" producer Alex Blumberg, a Cincinnati native, called me last spring asking for resources for the piece.) "TAL" interviewed Jene Galvin, Patricia Garry, Tim Burke, Guy Guckenberg and political strategist Mike Ford for the story. It includes 1970 audio from his first Cincinnati campaign (for Congress) in which he sounds like Robert Kennedy; a WEBN-FM spoof ad for the "American Expense" card (referring to the check he wrote to a hooker in 1974); and 2003 audio from his speeches to Ohio Democratic Party leaders as he was testing the waters about returning to politics by running for the U.S. Senate seat from Ohio.
The story points out that most people outside Cincinanti get the Springer chronology wrong. They think he lost his job as mayor because of the prostitute, then started the daytime trash TV show. We know he was elected mayor (1977) after resigning over the prostitute situation (1974), then became news anchor/commentator (1982-93), and didn’t start his TV show until 1991, 15 years after he was mayor.
There are some great quotes in the story. Ford explains that Springer was very serious about re-entering politics in 2003, but couldn't get out of his TV contract. Ford, who has worked for Clinton, Carter and Teddy Kennedy campaigns, says Springer the politician was "the best I've ever seen – bar none." And it includes Springer's recounting of coming to America as a 5-year-old in 1949, and seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time – which was his Fourth of July commentary on Channel 5 for years.
Springer is interviewed at the end of the piece. He rationalizes his TV show by explaining he's just playing a character, as he has for years. Patricia Garry calls Springer's life a Greek tragedy, noting that he ended up "being the joker, instead of the king."
Blumberg clearly was moved by Springer's passion for politics, and his Statue of Liberty story. He concludes: "Wouldn’t it be funny if what the world really needs is more Jerry Springers?"
Two more "This American Life" notes:
--Fans can watch a live closed-circuit telecast of a live show from New York, "This American Life - Live" at two area movies theaters at 8 p.m. on May 1 -- the Springdale Showcase and the Regal Theaters at Deerfield Town Center. You can order tickets at
--"This American Life" returns for a second season on Showtime at 10 p.m. Sunday, May 4.