It's easy to look back on Jerry Springer and be instantly dismissive of it.
First airing in 1991, Jerry Springer was working off a similar template to Phil Donahue and, to some extent, Ricki Lake. The first couple of seasons were relatively tame and, by all accounts, it looked Springer was headed for the chopping block. But, in the winter of 1994, the production team began to embrace the quirkier elements of the show. Instead of trying to straddle the middle of the road, Springer went fully into the wilderness with his guests. Each week brought forth a new and more demented scenario.
There were episodes such as "I Married A Horse!", "I Want My Man To Stop Watching Porn!" and "Shock Rock!", which featured noted power-metal band GWAR appearing on the show to explain their music and their attitudes to both audience members and fans alike. All the subject matters and topics were fringe and on the margins and the weirder, the better. Almost nothing was too out-there or provocative and it all went out during daylight hours, often with nothing more than a disclaimer at the top of the show to warn people that the material was of an adult nature. All walks of life made their way on Jerry's stage and all left with a thought for the day which actually acknowledged their plight and offered some sage wisdom. By 1996, Jerry Springer was a household name across most of the US and in English-speaking countries where the show was carried.
For all the criticisms that are levelled against Jerry Springer that he was exploitative of his guests, there's one thing that is always overlooked. The level of compassion and understanding Springer brought forth in each show. With his good-natured laugh and gentle temperament, Springer didn't necessarily raise the level of discourse, but made it so that - on some level, at least - the audience could relate to what was going on. If we couldn't relate, then that's fine too. There was no need to fully understand what was going on in his show and there was, most importantly, no judgement coming from Springer.
In an odd sort of way, Jerry Springer was as close to social anthropology as one could hope for in mainstream television in the '90s. It wasn't until Louis Theroux came along with Louis' Weird Weekends that we began to see that level of insight and hands-off exploration of the fringes of society. It was masquerading as a freak show, but really it was more telling of ourselves. The disgust we levelled at guests was always challenged by Jerry's Final Thought, casting incidence over our own preconceived notions. The guests were no better than us; sure, their issues might be more heightened, but it was humans dealing with problems in their family or relationships. What came out of it was genuine.
In a way, the show was almost a blank space onto which the burgeoning culture of insta-celebrity, reality television and the fickle nature of the Internet was being projected. What made this all so acceptable was that Springer himself never judged and was always accepting of who was in front of him. With a simple question or a heartfelt chuckle, Springer could bridge the gap between the sheer madness on the stage. It was up to us to judge what we saw and whether we'd accept what we saw.
When you compare Springer to the current crop of daytime 'freak' chat shows of the day, it's clear that both audiences' tastes have shifted and so to have the hosts. You only need to look at Jeremy Kyle to see that there's a much more angrier, confrontational style of hosting going on. Kyle marches through the audience and directly interjects on stage, barking his opinion at his guests and giving them both barrels about their behaviour. The audience then backs him up with applause and chants and it's more closer to a public scourging than the free-wheeling, openly tolerant atmosphere that Springer propagated. It's easy to see why the likes of Jeremy Kyle have flourished in the interim, of course. People are now more willing to put voice to their opinion and far more quick to cast judgement on their fellow man than ever before. Moreover, the likes of Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo have cut out the middle-man entirely.
When we look at Jerry Springer and his cavalcade of craziness, there's something more closer to Louis Theroux than carnivalesque chat shows. You could see that Springer was on the guest's side and trying to understand them at some level. He made no assumptions and casted no judgement on them, rather let them have their say and their piece. At a time when homosexuality was only just legalised in Ireland, Springer was proudly talking about being gay wasn't a choice and openly discussing how difficult it was to be gay. In other instances, Springer would talk about something as simple as taking back a cheating lover, offering calm and collected wisdom with a simple, well-meaning sign-off. Sure, some of the episodes denigrated into complete mayhem most of the time and, yes, the security had to get involved. What we were seeing was ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, being given a platform to air grievances.
During the moral panic of the '90s with regards to Satanism, Geraldo Rivera hosted an episode where he berated the viewing public for denying that there was an underground Satanist cult working in America. Springer, on the other hand, had on his show practising teenage Satanists and their parents to discuss their problems. At the end of the show during his customary Final Thought, Springer commented that the reasons these teenagers feel they need to practice this controversial religion is because they feel alienated by their parents. That level of understanding was unheard of back then, especially in the wake of the West Memphis Three and countless other reports of so-called Satanic Ritual Abuse.
Like Jerry Springer, documentary-maker Louis Theroux focuses on the more weirder, less mainstream areas of modern life. Like Springer, he approaches from it an objective standpoint and tries his best to understand their motivations, their plight and even interact with them - always on a basis of understanding and respect for what they are and what they do. While Theroux's method might have been more to allow his subject to talk themselves into a compromising position, thereby subtly exposing the farcical nature of their beliefs, Springer was less so.
For all the quirks, the madness, the chair-throwing and the bleeping, Jerry Springer Show was the wilder excesses of the fringes of Western society shown to all. While it was us, the viewing public, who might have scoffed and ridiculed them, it never came from Springer and that's something special in today's world - a tolerant, open-hearted host who doesn't care and doesn't judge.