IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

My 'final thought’ on ‘The Jerry Springer Show’: It was toxic trash.

The talk show with the fighting guests and the cheering studio audience wasn't harmless fun.
Security guard Steve Wilkos, left, tries to separate fighting guests on The Jerry Springer Show. The show's topic was "I Am Pregnant By Half-Brother."
Security guard Steve Wilkos, left, tries to separate fighting guests on The Jerry Springer Show. The show's topic was "I Am Pregnant By My Half-Brother."Ralf-Finn Hestoft / Corbis via Getty Images file

Jerry Springer, who died from cancer Thursday at age 79, didn’t invent the sort of salacious spectacle he would become infamous for as longtime host of “The Jerry Springer Show.” But, as he expertly directed the show that aired five days a week for nearly 30 years, he became the most recognizable face of the genre. With his audience gleefully cheering on the trademark fights between his guests — chanting "Jer-ry! Jer-ry! Jer-ry!" — the bespectacled, well-dressed Springer presented himself as a sober presence in the rowdy crowd, ostensibly pleading for calm.

The bespectacled Springer presented himself as a sober presence, ostensibly pleading for calm.

But his show caused harm: both to the people he invited on to be mocked and exposed, and to the often-marginalized groups they identified with. His show even contributed to the increasingly coarse way we talk to and about one another. Though Springer expressed some reservations about his show’s legacy, it’s not clear he ever truly appreciated just how destructive it was, especially to younger viewers soaking it all in.

For a long time, daytime television had been the purview of melodramatic soap operas, game shows and talk shows, such as Phil Donahue’s, geared toward a discussion of politics and self-help. The Jerry Springer Show had political content when it debuted in 1991, but its host responded to low ratings by backing off those more serious discussions and transforming the program into a modern-day take on the freak show. The most socially marginalized among us, almost all of them from the working class, were subjected to the harsh camera lights and paid to expose themselves for the enjoyment of those watching in person and those watching at home.

Guests clashed over sexual taboos and fetishes, the revelation of affairs and their hatred of others because of their race, sexual orientation and gender identity. There were angry accusations, some teary confessions and, of course, those in the studio audience chanting “Jer-ry!” as if they were at a kegger.

Springer described himself as a ringleader. He said his show, which was syndicated by NBCUniversal Television Distribution, was silly and that he wouldn’t watch it himself, but he also defended himself against charges that he was a creator of gutter television.

But he was.

Like human zoos and their racist history of encouraging viewers to laugh and gawk, "The Jerry Springer Show" revealed less about the people on display and more about the host and about the viewers lining up to mock more extreme versions of themselves.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Springer insisted his show did not exploit its guests.   

Springer said the show must be redeeming, considering that millions tuned in religiously to watch it. Some wondered if his show wasn’t just what we wanted to watch, but a representation of who we are. A 2015 article in Men's Health characterized him as a "contemporary P.T. Barnum who has done little more than hold up a mirror to society." Except it was the mirror inside the funhouse that provides a view that’s so exaggerated and distorted that it’s not real.

Classism, sexism, homophobia and racism are alive and well and a cause for concern, but Springer made a spectacle of those vices and made them laughing matters. Consider the October 1997 show titled “Klanfrontation!” which featured a chair-throwing brawl between robed and hooded Ku Klux Klan members and Irv Rubin, chairman of the Jewish Defense League.

Or consider episodes like “Transgender Throwdown,” “Transgender Triangles,” or “A Transexual Affair” where a cheating fiancé affair with a transgender woman is exposed before she joins the couple on stage only to be shouted at with disgust and repeatedly asked, “What are you?” as the crowd cheers and pumps their fists as if at a sporting match. In fact, humiliating transgender people was a recurring theme on "Jerry Springer" at a time when public conversations about trans experiences were even harder to come by than they are today. Those episodes were especially harmful.  

Humiliating transgender people was a recurring theme on "Jerry Springer" at a time when public conversations about trans experiences were even harder to come by than they are today.

Over its tenure, Springer’s show was a dramatic rendering of what Deborah Tannen calls argument culture, which treats conversation as a war between opposing parties. It’s a style of communication that rewards aggression, exposure and attack. It also features highly emotional and divisive rhetoric that makes little sense but stokes fear and anger; purposely offends as a tactic to entertain and to punish dissent. Before such culture took root in legislative chambers, television news interviews and in our everyday public lives, Tannen notes its prominence on talk shows.

The Jerry Springer brand had an expiration date. After 27 years on the air, his talk show was quietly canceled in 2018. He thought his fans would tune in to see him dole out justice on a new show, Judge Jerry, but they didn’t, and the show lasted only two years. Public interest in Springer waned as the popularity of other, sometimes angrier ringmasters grew on radio, television and social media, and as content creators increasingly yelled at, doxxed and offended others for views and likes.

Springer once apologized for his show and its wider effects, but it’s unclear whether he actually believed there was anything damaging about his show on the personal lives of the guests he brought on or to the country as a whole. It was impossible to take him seriously even when apologizing. Maybe he was really sorry, maybe he wasn’t. But it makes no difference if he was sincere or not. The damage was done.

Taking on the persona of a TV dad standing amidst his young and rowdy audience members, the "final thoughts" segment Springer offered at the end of every episode was one of the most troubling parts of his show. He’d turn to the camera, offer some pablum he pretended was insight — something like how we should be careful about who we surround ourselves with — before signing off with, “Take care of yourself and each other.”

He would deliver those final thoughts and that signoff after nearly an hourlong spectacle of swearing and sobbing, fighting and jeering. That performance of seriousness was a harbinger for buffoonery masquerading as public discourse that would unfortunately become our norm.