Ever since I began publishing my experiences in New York on Bizarre Big Apple, my objective has always been very precise: to observe and report the strange locations, individuals, and behavior that one can witness if they are an inhabitant in New York. As a result, this objective points me in the direction of some environments some people would not have an interest in subjecting themselves to. The idea of witnessing something truly unique drives much of my explorations.
Which is why I was elated when I was approved to attend a taping of “The Jerry Springer Show”.
Now a few things that should be clarified before I describe my voyage to the Trash TV Mecca. Technically, “Jerry Springer” is not filmed in New York. It’s filmed right outside of the city in Stamford, CT. However, I still qualify it as a bizarre thing to do in New York because the show has free shuttle buses that drive you from New York to Stamford, and therefore is still easily accessible as a New York resident. Also, becoming a member of the audience for a taping is not as difficult as one might expect. You can secure free tickets for the show at http://jerryspringertv.com/tickets, and as previously mentioned the show provides bus service from New York to the studio. I’ve been to several TV tapings in the New York area now, and surprisingly my experience with the Jerry Springer show might be the most accommodating.
Once I requested tickets, in a matter of days I received a call from the show verifying that I intended to be present for a taping, which I verified. I received an e-mail shortly after confirming I was approved to attend the show. The e-mail, at least in my estimation, was quite humorous as it explains the rules and regulations that one is expected to adhere to, while attending the show. Most of them are routine questions (no taping of the actual show, no resale of tickets, etc.), but the one that took me by surprise was the dress code specifications. All solid colors, presentable clothing, and they requested no t-shirts. The reason? “You will be on television and we wish for you to maintain a respectable appearance”. As silly as it my seem though, this is a wise decision. When Charlene the stripper explains how she is cheating on her boyfriend with his brother, the last thing I’d want to do is harm the integrity of the product with my attire.
The show is courteous enough to provide a bus that transports you from the Penn Station area of New York City to the studio where the show is filmed. I got there at 8:30 AM and filed into a packed bus, which after accounting for traffic took approximately an hour and a half to reach our destination. Once passing through security, the guests for the show were asked to wait in a waiting room before filming began. The studio provided complimentary bagels and a screen that was showing “classic Jerry Springer moments”. I was not aware Jerry Springer had “classic moments”, but among the episode titles for some of these gems were “Klanfrontation”, “Stripper Wars”, and “It’s Your Mother or Me”. Classic moments indeed; I am sure this is the “Sgt. Pepper”, “Revolver”, and “Abbey Road” of the Springer enthusiasts. There were also Christmas decorations hung all around, which made the situation that much more surreal. I don’t know there’s something off-kilter about seeing yuletide decorum on display, and then peering from behind it is Jerry Springer.
A member of the crew finally came to retrieve us after about an hour for the studio so we could be properly prepped for the taping. Once we entered the studio, the first thing that is noticeable is the same thing I’ve noticed for each television taping; the studio is much smaller than it appears on TV. As the audience was being seated it became clear by the conversations and comments being shouted, they were split into two very distinct camps: sincere fans of the show and those who came to watch the spectacle (I’m in the second camp). The fans are definitely a huge part of the audience though: one woman explained that she and her mother drove all the way down from Toronto to be present for this taping because they loved the show so much. There were a handful of other individuals in the room who had driven far and wide, though most of the audience was from the New York area.
The show is divided into three segments. Each segment has a different “story” at the core of it that Jerry is trying to provide “counsel” for. I put these terms in quotations because two things were abundantly clear watching the events of each segment unfold. Number one: Jerry and the rest of the crew are completely aware of how asinine their show is, and their responses and reactions to the audience telegraphs this fact explicitly. Whereas a lot of these shows attempt to make the host seem like a de facto counselor for those onstage, this is done to the bare minimum on the Jerry Springer show, and his main job seems to be to make sure the focus is remains on driving the narrative of the segment forward. It is a skill Springer is quite good at.
In response to this point, I would be remiss to not discuss the host himself. After going to this taping, I love Jerry Springer. Is he the Satanic Overlord of a genre of television that is destroying America? Probably. In fact it’s fascinating how both the studio and segments of the audience treat him as if he is some twisted deity. A perfect example is in the waiting room there’s a picture of Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, and another trash TV host (I was ill-informed as to the identity of the third) hanging on the wall. The way the lighting was orchestrated in the room illuminated the face in a way that made it not quite visible in the photo. It was lit in much the same way a pastor’s photo is lit in a mega-church.
While this is a somewhat or a troubling commentary on Springer, it’s nigh impossible to really dislike him. When he walked onstage, he was greeted with an eruption of adoration, and almost immediately began delivering a rapid fire series of jokes. He begins by telling the audience this is the 26th year of the show, and they have filmed over 5,000 shows with approximately 50,000 guests. He then said “that’s a lot of perverts. And you wonder why we have Trump for President”. He then segways into an actual comedic monologue, with pre-written jokes. Surprisingly, some of the jokes are reasonably funny. An example of a Springer joke:
SPRINGER: let’s give it up for the Jerry Springer Band!
AUDIENCE: (Applauds, then slowly realizes there is no band)
SPRINGER: We’ll be doing drug tests at the end of the show.
SPRINGER: I’m joking. I don’t like cocaine, I just like the smell.
Springer clearly understands what his audience is looking for, and is effective at playing to it. Despite how absurd the show is, Springer might be the brilliance behind why longevity. Most of the show doesn’t feel real, but every time he smiles to the audience when madness is occurring onstage, it reminds us he might be the sole component on the show that is truly authentic. Yes, he may be the Devil provoking severely dysfunctional people into mortifying scenarios, but his willingness to embrace this role without a hint of shame is fascinating to watch. I wondered if a man who was formerly a mayor and had worked for Bobby Kennedy is miserable in a job that seems so contrary to his previous professions. If there is any regrets, Springer certainly doesn’t reflect it onstage. He looks like he’s having a blast the entire taping.
The first segment began with a scantily clad woman sitting in the center of the stage. When Springer asks what brought her to the show, she explains that she had a one night stand with one of her customers. While she found it enjoyable, she believes the gentleman wants a real relationship and she does not, and she’s on the show today to clarify that for him. But oh there’s a twist….he has a girlfriend! Now, as salacious as this might sound, the immediate thing that became clear in the first segment is that this show is blatantly a work of fiction. That isn’t to say the issues that the couples are expressing onstage aren’t authentic, as they very well may be. But it is apparent there is theatrics at play. When the stripper’s one night stand emerged onstage, he immediately walked and angled in a very intentional manner that clearly verifies it was a designated spot. If the show was really portraying a “slice of reality” I doubt it would have such proper stage blocking. When the man’s wife comes onstage to confront the stripper for being with her husband, she takes her shoes off before rushing towards the stripper and a fist fight ensued. It should be noted EVERY woman that got into a fist fight during the taping first removed their shoes before lunging at their target. Which makes sense, as most people are concerned with their footwear before being consumed with enough passion to assault another human being.
The choice for the second segment was easily the least exciting, but revealed a very interesting intent of the show. A young 19-year old sat in the center of the stage. He looked like an adolescent version of Woody Allen, and projected that he was quite nervous. His story? He had slept with a girl and then she blew him off, only to find out over a year later he was the father of her four month old child. He maintained that despite the deception he wished to be with her to raise the child. When the mother emerged onstage she explained she had texted him several times to let him know he was the father, but he did not respond because he was wounded from her rejection. Jerry then intervened, expressing his desire to see them work the situation out, which the couple seemed eager to do. All in all, a “happy ending” for a Jerry Springer segment. Then it dawned on me why this segment was approved: it is attempting to give the impression of “legitimacy” to the show. Sure it has salacious, uncouth behavior, but if couples truly are finding civility and resolving their issues with one another, then the show really is helping their fellow man. The organization of the three “stories” is clearly not scattershot and random. They were attempting to create an atmosphere of civility before the inevitable climax.
Then the crew brought out the chicken wings.
Yes, you heard correctly. The crew rolled out a cart with chicken wings; one plate marked “Mild”, another marked “Hot”. There was also an arrangement of carrots, celery, and ranch dressing. The next guest, a black woman, sat to the right of the table and began to explain to the audience upon prompting the reason for the wings. She believed her boyfriend is cheating on her, and she knows he hates hot food. She plans to ask him a series of questions; for each time he answers “Yes” he eats a Mild Wing. For “No”, a Hot Wing. The theory would be that if he values being honest with her, he will be willing to take the heat of the wings to show his devotion. As if it is some sort of makeshift lie detector test. I don’t know why law enforcement is spending so much money on a polygraph when they can simply escort a suspect to Buffalo Wild Wings.
The boyfriend enters the stage next. And the questions begin. The first one is “you told me my favorite dress didn’t make me look chubby. Was that true?”, at which point he leans over and grabs a “No” hot wing. He suffers through it and is applauded for his honesty. Pretty tame. The questions get progressively more difficult, and the boyfriend keeps eating an alternating collection of Hot and Mild wings. The last question was, predictably, “have you ever cheated on me”. He chose a Hot Wing. In the context of this system, it seems to suggest he truly loves his girlfriend. Happy ending to this story. UNTIL…Jerry reveals that GASP! He had an affair! WITH HER COUSIN (DAH DUM DUMMMMM!)! The cousin emerges from the back (and of course takes off her shoes), and proceeds to lunge at the girlfriend. She immediately has her weave ripped off and thrown in the air by the girlfriend. There’s a hilarious moment where the two women are viciously pummeling one another as countless pieces of weave float gently in the air like feathers directly above them. The “Security” comes onstage to break the two up, and they begin to compose themselves. But as the girlfriend is getting herself properly situated, the cousin walks over to the table, picks up the vegetable tray, and hurls it at the girlfriend. Ranch dressing soaks the left side of her face, and filled with rage the girlfriend attacks the cousin and another fight ensues. The women roll on the ground, covering each other in ranch dressing. The wings are thrown. Weave is flutrering in the air like it is being dispersed in a tornado. The segment concludes with both being carried offstage. The entire audience was elated. Half of them were enthusiastic because, based on their commentary the entire show, they believe 100% of it is real. The other half of the audience, primarily a lot of college students, is amused by the spectacle of it all.
And how did I feel about the whole experience? Honestly in some respects I felt a sense of validation. I am originally from South Carolina, and have moved to New York City. When I explain to people where I am from I often told I don’t “seem Southern”, because I don’t speak with much of an accent and I am not prone to redneck tendencies. Sure, there are certainly rednecks in the South; but that is not a collective of individuals exclusive to that area. The majority of the guests were from the Northeast. The overwhelming majority of the audience was from New York. Many of them were hollering and ranting in the same manner a Southern-fried redneck would be saluting a monster truck rally. There’s also nothing inherently wrong with that either. Everyone I encountered and had any discourse in the audience with was very polite. Just because someone finds enjoyment in something rather peculiar doesn’t mean they can’t be a quality individual. Sure it’s a weird form of entertainment, but then again I perform stand-up comedy. Yelling your issues at a room full of drunken strangers isn’t that conventional either.
Some people feel if “Jerry Springer” is entirely staged, it’s a sham. Honestly, I disagree. The entire appeal of “Springer” is that most family units have dysfunction, and there’s a comfort in the schadenfreud of watching a family whose own dysfunction far exceeds your own. So by that rationale, if the family isn’t a family but are in fact actors and performers helping to instill that sense of comfort, isn’t that better than a truly unhealthy family instilling that same feeling? Also, if a show gives you a free coozy and t-shirt for attending, is it really all bad?
As one of my friends pointed out, there really is only one victim in this story: the plate of wings. Anyone who wastes an entire plate of wings and ranch dressing in a food fight is a monster. Shame on you ma’am.