As I’m banging on the restroom door inside NBC Studios Tower, the gravity of the situation finally begins to materialize. In ten minutes, I could potentially throw myself at Jerry Springer. If so desired, I could barrel into at the Pay-Per-View television icon, whisper my hopes and dreams into his aging ears, and proclaim my undying guilty pleasure for his television program to the free world (or at least the portion subscribed to Cablevision).
The likelihood of all of this is highly improbable. First, I can’t even go to the bathroom without being escorted by security. Second, I didn’t come to the taping of Jerry Springer for Jerry Springer. I came on a mission: sympathize with the talk-show guests, paint them in a good light, discover the humanity that lies within each and every one of them.
The guard finally hears my knocking, so I’m allowed to follow her down the hallway back into the waiting room. Apparently, I’ve been granted some VIP treatment. Before the show began, 20 or so audience members were randomly chosen to enjoy the amenities of a salad bar and the Ellen DeGeneres Show on the 20th-floor lounge. Just as I start to feel as if I really am a very important person, I see the talk-show guests walk single-file towards the studio. Forlorn and scantily dressed, they exact a patronizing pity from me. Maybe they’re just misunderstood, I think. Justice could be served today?
After about an hour or so has passed, my bathroom escort leads everyone towards the studio. It’s our turn to walk single-file, and whenever chatter becomes excessive, we are sternly shushed by a skinny man wearing a bulletproof vest. Little do I know my VIP package also includes good seating: seats close to the stage, but not so close that I will get hit by a chair. Particularly racy past episodes play on the televisions suspended from the ceiling. When the studio fills to capacity, a stagehand walks onto the stage and signals for us to quiet down. Eager for the ensuing bloodshed, the audience complies.
What followed did not surprise me as much as it unsettled me. A man, who is about five foot seven inches tall, probably around 35 years old, starts to delve into “proper Jerry Springer etiquette.” I had always assumed that the audience members were free to do as they pleased during tapings — a controlled anarchy, so to speak. After all, they were always tame observers compared to the rowdy talk-show guests. Nevertheless, the stagehand’s main purpose is to signal for us to cheer, boo, laugh, and of course, chant “JERRY, JERRY, JERRY!” when appropriate. If anybody decided to violate these rules during the show, he or she would be ejected from the studio immediately. In addition, any such disturbances would result in a so-called cancellation of the episode, basically meaning that the show would not be chosen to air. Another factor in “cancellation” would be the enthusiasm of the audience. If we didn’t holler with all our might (when appropriate), the producers would deem us too “boring,” and cast aside our episode.
My true discomfort, however, stemmed from the manner in which these rules were delivered. The stage hand’s monologue was peppered with perverse anecdotes and warnings of what lied ahead. For instance, he explained the rationale behind why naked women are permitted to fight and why naked men are banned from doing the same: reviewing the replays of the former is sexually stimulating; breaking up the latter often presents “sticky situations.” Literally.
Don’t get me wrong. As a longtime fan of Jerry Springer, I knew what to expect: calculated, shameless, and possibly premeditated fights between secret hermaphrodites and baby’s mamas. And yet, I never anticipated the antics behind the scenes to hold the same weight. Lo-and-behold: The episode is entitled “Problems with Prostitutes.” Jerry appears, and we chant not only for him,
but for the culture he has created, the empire he has built and the reputation he has established for himself. A paradox surrounds the man who tries to prime us for the show by delivering bad stand-up: A paradigm of wealth and success constructed upon the very misfortune and shame of others.
The various webs are introduced not long after Jerry’s appearance — the prostitutes, the customers of the prostitutes, the spouses of the customers of the prostitutes. One by one, each character pleads his or her case to the camera. We boo and cheer accordingly. At first, I participate whole-heartedly. I stand up whenever somebody gets knocked down, I “ahhhh” whenever a prostitute’s shirt gets ripped off in the heat of battle. I chortle whenever a wife tearfully discovers that her husband has been unfaithful.
Only when the stagehand stops the show because we are reacting “weakly” do I discover the true ingredient behind Jerry Springer’s success: the audience. By egging on the guests, the producers intend to exploit us in order to perpetuate the chaos that is Jerry Springer. Maybe the prostitutes aren’t the only whores in the studio.
Why do Americans revel in extravagant displays of sensationalism? For the past eighteen years, Jerry Springer has served as a beacon of entertainment. The steady ratings prove that we love to watch people’s lives unravel before our eyes. But the simple question remains: why? Luis Reyes, of Chicago, is in the “VIP” room with me. He claims he watches the show “for the strippers.” Luis and his girlfriend Myra Marquez are avid fans and won tickets to the show.
“He’s just kidding,” Marquez laughs across our table in the “VIP” room. “About the strippers, that is.”
“Do any of the past guests on the show resemble anyone in your group of friends? Could you see yourselves being friends with the guests on this show?” I ask. Myra looks at me with almost a look of disgust. When I press further, asking if Luis and Myra would be interested in getting a drink with the guests after this particular show, Luis replies, “Only if they paid me.”
Perhaps shows like Jerry Springer fuel a superiority complex within the viewer. The everyday person is less than likely to be the transsexual prostitute who has fallen out of favor with his/her pimp-lover. If our lives haven’t yet sunken to that level of destitution, then there must be hope for us to become productive, normal members of society. Nevertheless, not all the mockery is laid upon the guests. A Q&A period follows the actual show. Audience members can either ask the guests embarrassing questions or ask for “Jerry Beads”, Mardi Gras-esque jewelry that can be acquired by baring one’s breasts.
Of the women whom Jerry approached, only two asked legitimate questions—and this was after all the Jerry Beads had been distributed. The rest of the women led us into the realm of Pay-Per-View material. One man even pole-dance on stage in order to obtain the coveted beads. Honestly, I had expected Jerry to exploit his guests by showcasing their emotions and turmoil for all of America to see (and shame on them for allowing him to do so!) However, with the airing of the show largely dependent on audience participation, who are we to say that we’re any better than Shwayne, the prostitute whose services were paid for with a cheeseburger? We’re no more than a cog in Jerry’s machine.
“I WANT MY JERRY BEADS!” shrieks a girl sitting near me. She doesn’t look much younger or older than I am. After all is said (and flashed), I occasionally look back at her while the Q&A continues to spiral out of control. Surprisingly enough, an older woman is sitting next to her, not saying a word. Via whisper, my friend Priyanka informs me that this woman with the ornate gold cross around her neck is the girl’s mother. Head bent, the girl silently fingers her beads for the remainder of the show. She looks just as forlorn and scantily dressed as the contestants who had scuffled into the studio two hours earlier.
“What is this dummy doing here?” the man behind me asks Jerry near the beginning of the show. He is referring to the plastic dummy that is randomly placed in a different seat for every episode. Jerry laughs.
“He’s not the only dummy in this audience, you know.”