Q&A: Jerry Springer on interviewing regular people

A great interview is one of the journalist’s most powerful tools. It can be informative, entertaining, thoughtful. For the next five weeks, the Columbia Journalism Review and MaximumFun.org will broadcast conversations with some of the world’s greatest interviewers. Hosted by NPR’s Jesse Thorn, the podcast, called The Turnaround, will examine the science and art of journalism.

This episode features Jerry Springer, television personality. An edited transcript is below.



Jesse Thorn: You were a television anchorman early in your career. Did you get into that job because you wanted to go into journalism?

Jerry Springer: No. For 10 years, I was a city councilman and mayor of Cincinnati. When I couldn’t run again, NBC offered offered me a job to anchor their news on the NBC affiliate there in Cincinnati, figuring that if I had been a councilman and mayor for 10 years that I knew the city and therefore might have some credibility. So I never even thought about it, but they offered me the job and I didn’t know yet if I would run again for another office or something like that. So I figured [I’d] give it a shot. And, basically, that’s how I got into it: It was handed to me. I wasn’t so interested in anchoring. I was more interested in doing political commentary. So we worked out a deal that I would agree to anchor the news at what turned out to be 5:36 and 11. But at the end of every newscast, I could do a two-minute commentary on something that happened in the news that day. And that kind of became the staple, and it became popular in Cincinnati for 10 years, and that’s how you wind up getting a talk show.

Jesse: That’s interesting. I mean, it’s rare to end up in a journalistic job like that when your interest is doing commentary. Especially in broadcast journalism, mostly people are reporters. Was it weird to be in a situation where your colleagues were people who [had] reported on you as a politician?

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Jerry: Yeah, it was. Well, the politics of it was such that the NBC affiliate was last in the ratings. So, basically, the company was thinking this may be something to grab some attention. And it was unique at the time. There were obviously stations that had editorials and stuff like that, but that was normally given by the general manager or the station manager. And he or she would come on at the end and do a commentary. But, you never crossed the line of having someone who was doing the news for an hour at the end giving his opinion. That was something new. None of us knew if it would work. And it wasn’t like I was looking to have a career in journalism, so I certainly was willing to do it. Either it worked or didn’t, and I wasn’t thinking that this would be something I would do the rest of my life. But it took off, and even though I’m very liberal in my politics and–this was the 1980s, so this was Ronald Reagan–I really worked hard at not letting my personal politics seep into the news. And you have to consciously do that. I assume there’s always going to be some kind of ultimate bias, but the only difference between me and every other journalist is that you knew where I stood. With every other journalist, you don’t know, because they don’t announce it. So there wasn’t anything that was substantively different, but at least the appearance was different, and I was conscious of that.

So when I was talking about Reagan, I wasn’t rolling my eyes doing the news. And then if I had something to say about what he was doing or what was happening in Washington, then I would save that for my commentary. Cincinnati is a conservative city, and so obviously if it was totally slanted, it wouldn’t have worked. People wouldn’t have watched, and the station would have suffered. So there was also that kind of pressure to keep it straight. And we became pretty dominant in the ratings. I suspect it wound up working; it was pure luck, and no one knew ahead of time. It wasn’t like I had this great idea. I was just offered a job and and did it and I got to enjoy it. And it was 10 really good years, exciting times. And then the company that owned the station, the NBC affiliate where I did the news every night, also owns talk shows. It was multimedia. And they own Phil Donahue, Sally Jessy Raphael, etc. and Phil was getting close to retirement. So one day the CEO of multimedia took me to lunch and said, Phil is going to retire, and we’re going to start a new talk show, and you’re going to host it. So I was assigned it as an employee. It wasn’t anything that I ever had any interest in. I can’t even remember ever watching daytime talk shows. I mean, if you were grown up and you had a job, you probably were working during the day, and it’s just nothing I had any particular interest in. And so that, too, was handed to me. So I have had this lucky life, where the only job I ever applied for was running for mayor. But short of that, everything else has been in a sense handed to me.



Jesse: What was the first time that, as you put it, [the show] “went crazy,” and you notice this is kind of a different thing?

Jerry: Well, the first time it went crazy it was scary, because we didn’t have any security. We did a show on the Ku Klux Klan. And literally a riot broke out. Some people from the audience charged the stage, and for about 15 minutes people were fighting, and we called the police and everything. My thought at that moment was, Well, there goes the talk show. And instead, the reaction from the company was: From now on, starting the very next day, we’re going to have security here during the show. And so that’s when the local police hired off-duty cops as being our security. But that’s how that happened. So it wasn’t like [any] of this was planned. The only decision that was ever made by me was, Let’s go young.

I’m not allowed to know what the show’s about. The only thing I get handed is the card that you see me carrying around during the show.


Jesse: When you show up to the office on a taping day, what do you get handed before the show starts?

Jerry: I’m not allowed to know what the show’s about. The only thing I get handed is the card that you see me carrying around during the show.  But all the card has on it are the names of the guests, because I haven’t met them, I don’t know who they are. And so my job is to ask questions that you would ask sitting at home watching, and then make jokes. So basically, I’m hired to keep it going and make jokes. But that’s why every segment always starts with me introducing the name of the guests and then saying what’s going on. And then they start telling me their story, and–just like you’re doing as an interviewer–I start asking questions that come to mind. So I’m always trying to think of quips and how to make this lighter and funny or whatever. And that’s what I’m paid to do. But I never know what the subject matter is.

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They keep that separate, because if they told me ahead of time what’s going to be presented, then any reaction I had would be fake because I would already know what’s going to happen. It would look awful. So this is much better. And it keeps me more engaged in the subject because for that hour that we’re on, I’ve really got to be focused. I’ve got to listen to exactly what they’re saying; and you’re not dealing with professional entertainers here. Ninety-five percent of the time, if not more, you’re dealing with someone who’s never been on television before, has never been in front of a crowd before. It’s one thing to interview a celebrity, because they have the skills; they know how to present themselves. They know exactly what they’re doing and how to turn a question into an answer they want to give. When you’re talking to someone who has never been on stage makeup on, bright lights, screaming audience that’s pretty powerful that can shake someone up. And it’s also ennobling in that so many of the guests we have never get asked their opinion on anything. Some of us who have wonderful jobs, you’re asked every day your opinion on something. So many of our guests don’t have kids who listen to them. They don’t have a spouse who listens to them. They don’t have a boss who listens to them. No one ever asks, What’s important to you, what do you think we should do in this situation? And now for the first time in their lives, my gosh, they get flown to where we do the show now in Stamford, Connecticut. They get put up in a hotel. They come to the studio, they get makeup. They meet the producers. They come out on stage. People are cheering, whatever the reaction is. And it’s like, wow. Because you and I, [with] many of these stories they tell, say, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe they’re saying this stuff.” And then they get involved in a heated situation, and when the show is over and they’re standing around backstage asking for pictures, and “Jerry, will you hold my kid while I snap a picture?” and “What’s a good restaurant to go to around here?” like everybody else. And they always ask, “Can we come back on?” And that made me think, wow, we take this microphone and the attention for granted. And for many people, this just is never a part of their lives, and it’s pretty exciting that once in their life someone is paying attention to what they’re saying.

So many of our guests don’t have kids who listen to them. They don’t have a spouse who listens to them. They don’t have a boss who listens to them.


Jerry: I was in politics first. And when you’re in politics, you just talk every day to regular people. From there, [with] the news, you’re covering stories with regular people every day, you’re going into neighborhoods. And then, obviously, my show [has] regular people. I’m less comfortable talking with celebrities, and we don’t permit celebrities on our show. I’ve always just talked to regular people, because I’m just a regular schlub myself. I don’t have any particular talent. I think I’m a nice guy and I’m reasonably bright, but I don’t have a talent. No one would pick me out of the high school yearbook and say, “This guy is going to be in show business.” I mean, there’s nothing I have that you would put in the talent category. And yet I’ve had this very successful life in show business. It’s because of social media and television and talk shows, which basically was the beginning. Well, talk radio really was the beginning of social media, in a sense. The audience became the entertainment, and we the people listened to our own cause and enjoyed that. We are the entertainment. It’s not a few people sitting–with a few exceptions in Hollywood or New York–deciding who the next stars are going to be. We vote for the next stars, we decide what our entertainment is. It’s very democratic. There’ll be some who complain and say, Well, the level of talent isn’t as great, but it’s democratic. We vote the people off the island. Sadly, this has resulted in a Trump presidency.



Jesse: Part of your job is managing a kind of complex. In some ways, it’s simple for a television show, because there are only a few signposts right? One person walks out, you hear their story. The other person walks out, you hear their story. Sometimes a third or fourth person is added to that, or sometimes there’s a reveal of some kind. It’s a simple dramatic structure. But you have to manage it in a pretty short amount of time. Are ever just left on the wrong foot?

Jerry: Well, I’m always left on the wrong foot, because I never know [what the show will be about]. But one time, we had this show, which is one of our more well-known shows. We had this guy who married his horse, who lived outside of Branson, Missouri, and his home had extra-wide hallways because the horse lived inside with him. Anyway, he married his horse. And that was the story. But, of course, I didn’t know that. So the show starts as they all start. There’s this guy, I don’t remember what his name is; let’s say it’s Bob. There’s Bob sitting in the chair on stage and I say, “Hey, Bob. What’s going on?” It’s always my first question. And Bob says, “Well, Jer, I’m having trouble with my neighbors.”

“Well, what’s wrong?”

“They don’t like my wife.”

“Why don’t they like your wife?”

He says, “I don’t know. She keeps to herself. She’s quiet. She doesn’t start any arguments and…”

Well, I can see this is going no place, so I look down on my card and I see the next guest’s name is Pixel. So, well, okay, let me [talk to] Pixel. Out comes this horse. The crowd goes wild. I start saying, “Oh my god, stop the cameras,” because I’m thinking the wife fell off the horse backstage, that the horse just came out. It wouldn’t dawn on me, or why would it dawn on anyone, that his wife was the horse. So then the producers yell from the side, “No, that’s his wife.” Which is why I have one of the best jobs in the world. Here’s the reason: Let’s say I go to dinner with anyone, and we’re sitting at dinner, and I say, “Hey, how was your day?” And you tell me about your day and, you know, it was a tough day at the office, a funny thing happened by the water cooler, and you tell me this story and we chuckle about it. Yeah, that was weird. And then you say, “Well, Jerry, how was your day?” And I say, “Well, I got this guy who married his horse!” I’m always going to have the better story. And that’s what makes this such a fascinating job. I mean, what haven’t I heard?



Jerry: My three [lines] are: You did what? Come on out! We’ll be right back. If you can say those three lines, you can be a talk show host.

Jesse: Well, I mean, it depends on how good your segment producers are.

Jerry: Yeah. Well, that’s true, but that’s it really. Honestly, it is not a difficult job. I’ve had real jobs in life. Being mayor, that’s a real job. Being a journalist, that’s a real job. Being a talk show host, you’re the maître d’ at a restaurant who’s just showing people to their seats and making sure everyone’s okay. It’s just not a difficult job, and I don’t want to make it seem like it’s really big. “Oh, wow. Boy, the burdens I have. You have no idea.”



Jerry: Look, I have a healthy ego, and there are things I think I’m really good at, and that is in the political arena. I have very liberal politics and, boy, I go for that. I don’t step back at all on those issues. But I also recognize that when I’m doing this show, I’m not being falsely humble. I’m just doing what my mother taught me and all our mothers taught us. Ninety-five percent of the people I know in this world are nice, and we were all nice to each other. Well, I’m not judgmental. That’s true. I am not judgmental because I realized when I say we’re all alike, I really mean that. And, you know, I didn’t grow up with money. I didn’t grow up in a family of fame. No one knew who I was; I’d been [an] immigrant. I had my five friends in high school like everyone else. You go back to a high school reunion of mine, no one remembers that I was in that high school. They know who I am now. So, I’m just behaving like all my friends behave. And if someone is being a jerk, they’re no longer your friend. Think about it: If someone in your circle is suddenly acting like a jerk, you just don’t hang around with that person anymore. So it’s not unique, how I’m behaving when I talk to people on my show. That’s how I would talk to someone in a frame shop or in Starbucks. You see that they drop something. You help them pick it up. You see an older person trying to get through the door, you help them. That’s just being a normal person, like we all are. You go to a ballgame, virtually everyone except the people who get drunk is nice! So that’s what I mean. It’s not a talent. If you’re not judgmental, and you realize that we’re all alike, then I’m not going to act like a jerk, because I’d be embarrassed to be a jerk, and my mom would have punished me. And that’s how we’re all raised.



Jesse: Do you feel like you always were the kind of guy who wanted to make people around him feel comfortable?

Jerry: I am non-confrontational. That is true. I mean, there was never any yelling in our house. No one ever cursed. But that was old-time European upbringing. The world has changed. I was raised [so that] if a woman walked into the room, I had to stand up, and if it was an elder, I couldn’t be sitting there on the floor. I had to stand up. My friends would make fun of me because I was this kid that came from Europe and had all these manners and kind of things. So it’s all part of your upbringing, I believe.


The Turnaround is available on MaximumFun.org. You can also subscribe on Apple Podcasts to get new episodes as they become available.

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The Editors are the staffers of the Columbia Journalism Review.