Jerry Springer pioneered on-air trash, precursor to today’s reality TV

Controversial entertainer, whose guests brawled in front of millions, dies at 79

Today's expression: Push the boundaries
Explore more: Lesson #572
May 15, 2023:

Jerry Springer, a politician-turned-talk-show-host, invented a new genre of television: daytime trash. On his show, guests threw food, punches, and expletives, all while a bemused Springer egged them on. It was a precursor to reality TV shows of today. Springer died recently at age 79. Plus, learn the English expression "push the boundaries."

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Jerry Springer, the godfather of trash television, has died at age 79

Lesson summary

Hi everyone, I’m Jeff and this will be a fun one. If you’re new here, this is Plain English, where we help you upgrade your English with current events and trending topics. Part of learning English is learning about the culture in English-speaking places. And I regret to say, a big reflection of American culture was The Jerry Springer Show.

Jerry Springer was the king of trash TV: a whole genre that featured ordinary guests and their outrageous problems. For 27 years and almost five thousand episodes, he presided over raucous battles, expletive-filled tirades, fistfights, food fights and more. And he did it with a bemused calm, as if he were merely a bystander trying to help.

In the second half of today’s lesson, I’ll show you how to use the English expression—this is perfect—“push the boundaries.” And we have a quote of the week from Jerry Springer himself.

This is lesson 572 of Plain English, so that means our trusty producer, JR, has uploaded the full and complete transcript to PlainEnglish.com/572. Let’s get going.

Jerry Springer, king of trash TV, dies at age 79

Jerry Springer once told an audience to pray for him to go to heaven. Because if I get in, he said drily, then we’re all going.

Gerald Norman Springer lived from 1944 until last month, April 27, 2023. His life coincided with the television age and his name features high on the list of influential television personalities—even if you don’t like what he did, you can’t deny that he was influential.

Jerry Springer was the king of American daytime television in the 1990s and 2000s, at one point reaching an audience of millions of people, far and away the most popular thing on television during the day; 11:00 in the morning was his time slot. The show was on the air for 27 seasons and almost 5,000 episodes.

His formula went like this. Each show had a general theme. He would invite everyday guests onto the show—not celebrities, nobody whose name you would have heard. And he would let them share their personal problems on the air, and often they would resolve arguments and disagreements with their friends and relatives on television.

And this would all happen in a studio with a live audience, watching the conflict, egging on the participants, cheering the guests they supported, booing the guests they hated, and always supporting the host.

This was a smashing success . Television, to that point, had been serious. The entertainment coverage was focused on celebrities. But Jerry Springer asked, why should only beautiful and famous people have their lives detailed on television? Shouldn’t normal people’s problems also get the same kind of publicity?

The Jerry Springer Show became known as “trash TV;” for viewers, there was no redeemable reason to watch it. But that’s what made it so addictive. Many people who watched Jerry Springer in the privacy of their own homes would never admit it to their friends: it was that bad.

Springer inspired copycats among daytime talk show hosts: Maury Pauvich, Sally Jessy Raphael, Jenny Jones, and others. They all had their own takes, but they could never match the king of trash. Try as they might, none of the copycats could push the boundaries quite like Jerry could.

Jerry Springer’s name was shorthand for trashy outrage that was so bad, you couldn’t look away. Food fights, hair pulling, paternity tests, men fighting shirtless—even a man who married a horse.

Here are some episode titles: I Refuse to Wear Clothes, I Married a Horse, Homewrecking Affairs, In-Laws on a Rampage, I’m Happy I Cut Off My Legs. And these are only the ones I’m comfortable saying out loud.

A common theme—one he went back to over and over —was the cheating partner or spouse. There were an almost unlimited number of ways to make this compelling television, but it often involved two women fighting over a man or one person cheating on a partner with the partners’ friends and relatives.

Surprise guests were a common ingredient. He would invite two guests on—one suspected the other of cheating. Then the mistress would appear as a surprise guest, the audience would gasp in shock, and the guests would all fight it out on stage.

On camera, Jerry Springer wasn’t what made the show compelling TV. It was the guests. Very few of them walked off the stage looking good—but it didn’t matter. There seemed to be an endless supply of people willing to go on television and embarrass themselves.

They shouted and swore. They insulted one another, they betrayed each other. They taunted each other, they pulled each other’s hair. They brawled, they threw punches. They threw food; they bashed each other with chairs. A lot of them took their shirts off—and I don’t mean just (or even mostly) the men. At the climax of the fight, security guards would rush in from either side of the stage and separate the guests before anyone got seriously injured.

During all of this, a besuited Jerry Springer would roam around the audience, wireless microphone in hand, calmly trying to help settle the outrageous disputes playing out on stage. During even the most raucous conflicts, he played the role of innocent bystander, as if he himself were shocked by what was happening, when actually he was the one who orchestrated the entire thing.

If you think this is shocking, then I have a shocking reveal for you: Jerry Springer was once the mayor of a major American city. He was born in London, in a London Underground (subway) station during the air raids of World War II. This wasn’t uncommon: hospitals moved maternity wards into subway stations to protect them from bombing.

His family moved to America when he was 5, he graduated from Tulane University in New Orleans , and then graduated from law school at Northwestern University in Illinois. He started working for a law firm in Cincinnati. Shortly thereafter, he was elected to the City Council. He then rose to mayor of Cincinnati, a city of 400,000 people at the time , and he served three terms.

He quickly transitioned to television after his term as mayor was up. He started as a news anchor and then had a daytime television show that primarily focused on news and current events.

But then he hit on the magic formula of trash and the Jerry Springer Show became a cultural phenomenon.

Jerry Springer the man didn’t seem to take himself too seriously. He said he would never watch his own show. He was once invited to give a graduation speech. Many of the students graduating from university objected, saying he wasn’t worthy of being their graduation speaker. During his speech, he thanked the people who supported him. And he addressed the people who opposed him, saying that he agreed with them—that even he didn’t think he was worthy of giving a graduation address.

Jerry Springer was featured on an episode of the Simpsons. And he even played himself in a semi-biographical movie “Ringmaster.” In one scene of the movie, he’s in a hallway with two guests; they’re backstage before a show. The two guests start fighting each other, screaming and pulling each other’s hair. The fictional Jerry steps between them and stops the fight. He looks at them earnestly and says, “Save it for the show.”

Reality TV precursor

I’m just going to say: there was a lot I left out of this episode. I cut a lot. I’m not even going to take the risk. If you want to know, just go to YouTube and search “Jerry Springer Show.” There are a lot of best-of clips on YouTube—you can get a much richer flavor of what the show was like.

Jerry Springer was a big deal. I never watched it. I was a kid, I was in school. I wouldn’t watch it today. But this started it all. What is reality TV? The dating shows, the survive the island shows? The producers take people willing to embarrass themselves, the producers tee up an unholy conflict, and then they sit back and watch the conflict play out on television—and they don’t have the pay the guests anything!

This was the first reality TV. They didn’t pay a dime for those guests to come on and provide the primary entertainment. And that’s what reality TV is today. Thank you, Jerry Springer.

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Expression: Push the boundaries