Jerry Springer, the onetime mayor and news anchor whose namesake TV show featured a three-ring circus of dysfunctional families willing to bare all on weekday afternoons including brawls, obscenities and blurred images of nudity, died Thursday at 79.
At its peak, “The Jerry Springer Show” was a ratings powerhouse and a U.S. cultural pariah, synonymous with lurid drama. Known for chair-throwing and bleep-filled arguments, the daytime talk show was a favorite American guilty pleasure over its 27-year run, at one point topping Oprah Winfrey’s show.
Springer called it “escapist entertainment,” while others saw the show as contributing to a dumbing-down decline in American social values.
“Jerry’s ability to connect with people was at the heart of his success in everything he tried whether that was politics, broadcasting or just joking with people on the street who wanted a photo or a word,” said Jene Galvin, a family spokesperson and friend of Springer’s since 1970, in a statement. “He’s irreplaceable and his loss hurts immensely, but memories of his intellect, heart and humor will live on.”
Springer died peacefully at home in suburban Chicago after a brief illness, the statement said
On his Twitter profile, Springer jokingly declared himself as “Talk show host, ringmaster of civilization’s end.” He also often had told people, tongue in cheek, that his wish for them was “may you never be on my show.”
After more than 4,000 episodes, the show ended in 2018, never straying from its core salaciousness: Some of its last episodes had such titles as “Stripper Sex Turned Me Straight,” “Stop Pimpin’ My Twin Sister,” and “Hooking Up With My Therapist.”
In a “Too Hot For TV” video released as his daily show neared 7 million viewers in the late 1990s, Springer offered a defense against disgust.
“Look, television does not and must not create values, it’s merely a picture of all that’s out there — the good, the bad, the ugly,” Springer said, adding: “Believe this: The politicians and companies that seek to control what each of us may watch are a far greater danger to America and our treasured freedom than any of our guests ever were or could be.”
He also contended that the people on his show volunteered to be subjected to whatever ridicule or humiliation awaited them.
Gerald Norman Springer was born Feb. 13, 1944, in a London underground railway station being used as a bomb shelter. His parents, Richard and Margot, were German Jews who fled to England during the Holocaust, in which other relatives were killed in Nazi gas chambers. They arrived in the United States when their son was 5 and settled in the Queens borough of New York City, where Springer got his first Yankees baseball gear on his way to becoming a lifelong fan.
He studied political science at Tulane University and got a law degree from Northwestern University. He was active in politics much of his adult life, mulling a run for governor of Ohio as recently as 2017.
He entered the arena as an aide in Robert F. Kennedy’s ill-fated 1968 presidential campaign. Springer, working for a Cincinnati law firm, ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1970 before being elected to city council in 1971.
In 1974 — in what The Cincinnati Enquirer reported as “an abrupt move that shook Cincinnati’s political community” — Springer resigned. He cited “very personal family considerations,” but what he didn’t mention was a vice probe involving prostitution. In a subsequent admission that could have been the basis for one of his future shows, Springer said he had paid prostitutes with personal checks.
Then 30, he had married Micki Velton the previous year. The couple had a daughter, Katie, and divorced in 1994.
Springer quickly bounced back politically, winning a council seat in 1975 and serving as mayor in 1977. He later became a local television politics reporter with popular evening commentaries. He and co-anchor Norma Rashid eventually helped build NBC affiliate WLWT-TV’s broadcast into the Cincinnati market’s top-rated news show.
Springer began his talk show in 1991 with more of a traditional format, but after he left WLWT in 1993, it got a sleazy makeover.
TV Guide ranked it No. 1 on a list of “Worst Shows in the History of Television,” but it was ratings gold. It made Springer a celebrity who would go on to host a liberal radio talk show and “America’s Got Talent,” star in a movie called “Ringmaster,” and compete on “Dancing With the Stars.”
“With all the joking I do with the show, I’m fully aware and thank God every day that my life has taken this incredible turn because of this silly show,” Springer told Cincinnati Enquirer media reporter John Kiesewetter in 2011.
Well in advance of Donald Trump’s political rise from reality TV stardom, Springer mulled a Senate run in 2003 that he surmised could draw on “nontraditional voters,” people “who believe most politics are bull.”
“I connect with a whole bunch of people who probably connect more to me right now than to a traditional politician,” Springer told the AP at the time. He opposed the war on Iraq and favored expanding public healthcare, but ultimately did not run.
Springer also spoke often of the country he came to age 5 as “a beacon of light for the rest of world.”
“I have no other motivation but to say I love this country,” Springer said to a Democratic gathering in 2003.
Springer hosted a nationally syndicated “Judge Jerry” show in 2019 and continued to speak out on whatever was on his mind in a podcast, but his power to shock had dimmed in the new era of reality television and combative cable TV talk shows.
“He was lapped not only by other programs but by real life,” David Bianculli, a television historian and professor at Monmouth University, said in 2018.
Despite the limits Springer’s show put on his political aspirations, he embraced its legacy. In a 2003 fund-raising infomercial ahead of a possible U.S. Senate run the following year, Springer referenced a quote by then National Review commentator Jonah Goldberg, who warned of new people brought to the polls by Springer, including “slack-jawed yokels, hicks, weirdos, pervs and whatnots.”
In the informercial, Springer referred to the quote and talked about wanting to reach out to “regular folks … who weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth.”
Sewell, a former Associated Press journalist who retired in 2021, was the primary writer of this obituary. AP journalist David Bauder in New York and former AP journalist Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio, contributed reporting.