Tuesday, October 30, 2007


A couple of weeks ago, we covered "Why I Love Trash" by Josh Gamson in Social Problems (SOC 222). It is an argument about the ways in which talk shows construct social problems. Gamson argues that while talk shows may be exploitative in that they profit from their guests' misfortunes, they are also useful in that they tell us the ways that the producers draw boundaries between the deviant and normal. In class we had a discussion about this and then watched a "reality" type show,The Springer Hustle (2006), which depicts the production of the Jerry Springer Show. It follows producers in their search for stories, their pitches to the head honcho producers, and the somewhat involved "briefings" in which guests are coached to argue, scream, and fight on camera.

Aside from depicting the many ways in which guest's stories are distorted for the benefit of viewership and advertisers, "The Springer Hustle" also brings to light the tenuous grip the Jerry Springer Show has on reality. Reality, remember, is simply an agreement (implicit or not) between two or more people about the definition of the situation (Goffman). If you and I agree that we are married but hate each other because one is cheating on the other, we can begin to construct a scene, real or fabricated, which has the potential to be convincing. Most dramatic performers know that the ability to be convincing is only a matter of a few things:

1. embracement the characters' motives and emotions in the scene. Belief in one's identity. (The more you believe you are Colonel Mustard in the boudoir with a candlestick, the fewer steps away you are from legally being him.)
2. the norms of the scene and how well known they are. Plot points are particularly useful.
3. skill. The "Yes, and..." philosophy in improvisational comedy is such that actors in the scene agree beforehand to believe in the scene and to go with anything the other character says, building its reality as necessary. This also works for "actual" scenes in our daily life but it is implicit because we generally believe that scene participants have legitimacy... unless they prove incompetent. Fortunately, the "Yes, and..." philosophy and technique can be learned and honed.

I would guess that most consumers of the Jerry Springer Show (myself included) believe that the dramas depicted on stage are not fabricated by its guests for our amusement. Incidentally, it is far easier to do a scene on stage if you already have a history with the other guests, feel personally invested in the outcome of the conflict, and have a bone (the bigger the better) to pick. In the extremely small amount of times that I have had the occasion to be someone besides myself on stage, it would have been much easier to enact my assigned character had I convinced myself that I was actually them. But while participants in the show feel that they need their scenes to be played out (in order to actually resolve their conflict and, perhaps, to please the producers), the producers of the show could probably care less, as long as one key element is present: physical fighting. And why should producers care if plots are fabricated? Their needs are that the advertisers keep paying and the audience keep cheering the fights. Even if the producers could be legally responsible in some way should it turn out that their scenes were fabricated and entirely fictional, it is this author's opinion that short of some temporary embarrassment, this is the extent of their investment in actual reality.

In this way, the Jerry Springer Show has a true weakness: it does not need to be real. For those who want the opportunity to get a little acting exposure, this would be a nice setting. A free flight to Chicago, an included hotel stay, who could beat it? The reveal could take place in a behind-the-scenes amateur video documentation of the manufactured reality. But why stop there?

The Jerry Springer Show is the most popular TV show in its time slot. It is broadcast around the world and the host, Jerry Springer, has a 30 million dollar contract. On May 12, 2006, Springer celebrated his show's 3,000th episode. It is highly influential and has caused other shows such as Ricki Lake and Maury Povitch to change its format to be sensational. Now YouTube and TiVo make the show accessible to anyone who wants to take the time to see it. If one had a message and a dream, a little engineering, time and organization would be all it took for you to get on international TV. Stephen Duncombe has a new book which proposes that public enactments of visionary realities can help us define and make possible a new political future. Groups like Billionaires for Bush and the Cacophony Society perform scenes and pranks that say what they want in playful ways. The Springer Show could be another venue for such performances.

Some things to know about constructing your plot:
1. As I indicated above, the key element of the show is physical fighting. Some may lament that the show has devolved to this level. But there's a reason why people watch fake wrestling - it's fun. The show has hired security guards (sometimes reveling in this element. On September 24, 2007, for the episode "Rockin' Reverend", Joe Corvo, defenseman for the NHL team Ottawa Senators, served as a guest security guard.) It is imperative that they be used.
2. The conflict between the characters tends to be infidelity. Don't panic - there are variations. For example, I saw an episode last season which had young man who thought he was a vampire and the conflict was that he was literally cutting his wife's friend and sucking her blood. Still infidelity, but totally out there. Get creative, people!

The Jerry Springer Show has profited from real reality since 1991. It is fun, bizarre, and in bad taste. Some have even called it pornography. It's time to remind these folks that "the media" is more than just selling. It's consuming, too.

Be on the Jerry Springer show


Jamy said...

Excellent sociology-ing!

catfantastic said...

Apparently, and I think I might have read this in Stay Free Magazine, some members of the Church of Euthenasia did exactly that - they went on the Jerry Springer Show and did a lovely performance art piece opposite some right-to-lifers. Apparently it was a very intense experience so this is not something to undertake lightly - but they did get their message about overpopulation out there and had some fun doing it.