Jerry Springer served up tabloid TV for a stunning 27 seasons bringing in almost 5,000 episodes. He craved publicity—even bad publicity—which there was no shortage of. In spite of all the attention, Springer managed to keep his personal life under wraps, but his history is more shocking than people realize.
Jerry Springer’s parents were German Jews with a harrowing history. During WWII, Margot Kallmann and Richard Springer made a dramatic escape from their home country. After arriving in London, Margot quickly became pregnant. Likely, they thought they’d left their troubles behind in Poland but that wasn’t so.
It was the time of the blitz, and life on the streets of London was not safe—not with German planes circling above.
Springer’s mother was more than a little pregnant when she went down to seek safety in Highgate Station. The Germans were dropping explosives from airplanes and Margot and her husband wanted to get out of the line of fire. As soon as they got down to the underground, they were stuck. The only problem was this—it was time to give birth to baby Jerry Springer.
Margot gave birth to Jerry right in Highgate Station, and miraculously, he arrived healthy. The proud parents took him back to their East Finchley home and took stock of their lives. They had narrowly escaped the Germans back in Poland, and now they were still running scared in the UK. Something had to give.
They made a decision then and there: They were going to America. And this decision altered the course of Jerry Springer's life forever.
The small Springer family arrived in the US and quickly settled in Queens, New York. Springer went to Forest Hills High School and then to University in Louisiana where he studied political science. One day while watching TV, Springer saw a man that impressed him.
That man was John F Kennedy who was then still a senator. His admiration for the senator helped shaped a career that was shockingly far from the tabloid talk show he'd one day be famous for.
Following John F Kennedy's tragic assassination in 1963, Springer pursued a law degree from Northwestern University. This path led him back to the Kennedy family in a surprising way. Springer landed a job working for Robert Kennedy as his political campaign advisor. But sadly, the Kennedy curse was destined to throw a wrench into his best-laid plans.
Jerry Springer's plans to entwine his life with the Kennedys went sorely wrong. Like his brother, Robert Kennedy was on the receiving end of a bullet. Pivoting his life once again, Springer began practicing law, but he couldn't resist the temptation of making a difference in the political world. And so, in 1970, he decided that he wanted to be a member of Congress.
But only a few days after announcing his candidacy, he received a call that derailed everything.
Because he was on the reserve list for the US Army, Springer was called up for active duty. He had to put his campaign on hold and head immediately to Fort Knox in Kentucky. But while he was only needed for a short time, upon his discharge, Springer's campaign still turned out to be a bust. He lost, getting only 45% of the vote.
Deciding to set his political goals a little lower, he decided to run for Cincinnati City Council. But as we’ll soon see, setting the bar low would be Springer's key to success.
Springer won his seat on the Cincinnati City Council—but he was also on the lookout for romance. While working on the city council, he met Micki Velton who worked for Proctor and Gamble. They married in 1973, and three years into their marriage, they had a child. However, the birth was marked by tragedy.
Springer's daughter Katie faced startling health concerns from the moment she was born: She had no nasal passages and required immediate surgery. The operation was a success, but there were other challenges. Not only did Katie have hearing in only one ear, but she was also blind.
Although Katie always maintained that her parents always supported her and gave her a good upbringing, Springer still had a scandalous history.
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Springer may have had a wife, but that didn’t stop him from fooling around—or at least trying to. In 1974, the FBI caught Springer trying to hire a woman to be intimate with. He had to resign from his job on the council, but not before coming clean to the voting public. It seemed the public was rather forgiving when it came to Springer.
He got back on the council in a landslide victory in 1975. But what was it that people liked about Jerry Springer anyway?
As a council member, Springer was not comfortable just sitting behind a desk. When the city took control of the local bus system, he decided to pull a risky stunt. He seized a bus and steered it around the block. But that wasn't all.
He also spent a night behind bars in order to make a point about the prison system, as well as gain new insights from the inmates. Clearly, Springer loved to think outside the box—and he seemed to also like the attention it brought him.
Springer had had his first brush with broadcasting on college radio back at university. When the city called him up to be mayor of Cincinnati in 1977, he returned to these roots. While doing his mayoral duties in the daytime, he also hosted a radio show at night. Springer called his spot “The Springer Memorandum” and it became hugely popular with listeners.
Springer was enjoying his little bit of fame. It was like a spark had ignited within him and he just wanted more.
In Cincinnati, there was an NBC affiliate station called WLWT and it had a problem: it was the lowest-rated news program in the city. The producers of WLWT heard Springer on the radio and thought he might be able to boost their ratings. They hired him and gave him a partner: Norma Rashid. All that Springer needed now for success was his signature line.
Springer and some of the staff at WLWT put their heads together and came up with the following catchphrase, “Take care of yourself, and each other”. The line was so perfect—it would stay with Springer for the rest of his career. Success soon followed. Two years after penning it, Springer was the number one anchor in Cincinnati.
He even received Emmy Awards—10 to be exact—for his work on the show. It was only a matter of time until something bigger came his way.
September 30, 1991, was a significant day. It marked the first episode of the TV show Jerry Springer. In the beginning, Jerry Springer was more like an extended version of the commentaries that he did on the radio. The topics were serious and the guests were too. However, the show was on a fairly small scale. If Springer wanted to reach a larger audience, he knew he had to shake things up.
Jerry Springer was doing pretty well in the ratings, so NBC bought it to air it nationally. The show sputtered along for a couple of seasons until it received a chilling ultimatum from the executives. They said they needed to see higher ratings for the show or they would cancel it. Springer and his producers racked their brains about ideas that would get more eyes on the show. What they ultimately came up with altered daytime TV forever.
The team decided to bring more provocative topics to the table. For the new format, guests were not well-known politicians, but everyday people. Or, to clarify: everyday people with bizarre problems. Ricki Lake and others had already frontiered this format, so to get noticed, Springer had to go even further.
It would be pretty hard for audiences not to tune into episodes with subjects like, “My boyfriend turned out to be a girl”. Springer had morphed from a serious journalist to a trash talk host in a New York minute. What would his wife think?
As Jerry Springer gained momentum on national television, Springer’s wife began to withdraw. It seems likely that Velton wasn’t on board with Springer’s move from serious politician to schlocky TV host, and by 1994, the marriage was officially over. As they separated from Springer, Velton and her daughter took a very definite step out of the spotlight. And what did this mean for Springer?
He could now devote all of his time to making his show as freaky—and successful—as possible.
The show did remarkably well. Jerry Springer shot past the queen of daytime—Oprah—in the ratings in some cities. It also caused his competitors—Montel Williams and Sally Jessy Raphael—to step up their games in order to compete. Before long, daytime talk shows had gotten trashier and trashier all because of Springer.
Tabloid TV was now the hottest thing on the airwaves. The only direction to go, however, was down.
By 1995, some people were describing Jerry Springer as a “freak show”. They said that it was just everyday people with deviant behavior in search of their 15 minutes of fame. Call it what you want, but Springer had found a ratings gold mine. The only problem? He had to keep finding more and more bizarre guests to keep the ratings sky-high.
In 1995, Annabel Chong walked on Springer’s stage to make a mind-blowing announcement. She told Springer—and the outraged audience—that she’d been intimate with 251 men. But this rather staggering total was not her lifetime achievement. In fact, she’d accomplished this feat within only 10 hours. And what was Springer’s deepest question for Chong? “Are you ever going to be able to love a man?”
Springer, it turned out, did care about love—as long as it brought in the ratings. But this was just the tip of the iceberg.
Another classic Jerry Springer episode featured a woman who was in love with a guy and then turned around and dated the same guy’s father. When she had a child with the father, she in fact gave her ex-boyfriend a sister. If this is making you feel nauseous, it gets worse.
The woman eventually broke up with the dad and wanted to get back together with his son which would kind of make the baby both the man’s sister and his step-daughter at the same time. Sounds like a Greek tragedy playing in real life.
So what was the appeal? What kept viewers coming back to see more trash?
Jerry Springer's show seemed to have everything, but it was the audience's involvement that was one of the biggest draws. The lucky few who got tickets served as a Greek chorus, their thundering voices heralding their opinions of what was going on onstage. There was also the menacing threat that things on stage could get physical.
It was like watching a hockey game: entertaining enough without a fight, but soaring to new levels of delight when the gloves came off. And they came off frequently.
A classic dust-up on a Jerry Springer episode occurred during, “I hooked up with my wife’s mother”. Here Jerry set it up perfectly. First, the husband confessed to the audience, and then one by one Springer brought out the other affected parties. First the wife, then the mother, and finally—the angriest of them all—the father-in-law. Each entrance made the crowd go wild and also sparked another session of fisticuffs.
It was a perfect recipe, but was it actually real?
Some Chicago area performers have a little something to say about the authenticity of Jerry Springer. According to comedian Corey Holcomb, the show's producers hired him and other Chicago comedians to intentionally cause chaos on the show.
So, maybe there was something not quite real about Jerry Springer, but audiences likely already knew that not everything was as it seemed. They simply didn’t care. They just wanted more. Remember the saying, be careful what you wish for? It’s particularly fitting here.
There’s an expression in the TV business for when a show goes too far. They say that the show “jumped the shark”—which is a reference to a Happy Days episode where Fonzie literally did this. Some say that Jerry Springer jumped the shark with a 1998 episode. Here, a guest named Mark introduced the audience to his wife. The shocking thing? His wife was a horse.
Even Springer thought this was a little too much. Later, he revealed just how dramatic this episode was.
Springer later said that he had no idea what Mark was going to talk about. He didn’t even know that there was an actual horse backstage. While this does seem unlikely, it does explain why Springer became physically ill while listening to Mark telling the audience that he and Pixel had a healthy intimate life and that they never cheated on each other.
It turned out that several stations also had an extreme distaste for the episode—and it was pulled before its air date. But that wasn't all. Springer was also instructed to stop the on-stage brawling. But if Springer did that, would there still be a show left?
Springer did tone down the more bizarre episodes, but the ratings didn’t suffer. There were still sensational topics to cover. For instance, 70-pound baby Zack made two appearances. Once as the adult diaper-wearing sumo-sized baby and 20 years later as the rather well-adjusted competitive gamer who called himself the “hottest fat guy around”.
It seemed that Springer could do no wrong, and the executives were willing to pay him handsomely for his trouble.
Another show that seemed to glorify the negative aspects of American culture was the sitcom Married… with Children. In November 1993, the two shows joined forces and Springer appeared as himself. In the episode, Al Bundy and his buddies blame Springer for their wives’ bad behavior.
In the end, they tie Springer up and humiliate him in front of an audience of angry men. Sounds like a nightmare Springer might have. And speaking of humiliation, let’s talk about Ringmaster.
It was true that audiences wanted more Springer, and they were about to get it. In 1998, Springer played Jerry Farrelly in a movie called Ringmaster. Here, Springer plays a host of a tabloid talk show who has ongoing troubles with his bizarre guests. Sounds like typecasting on overdrive.
It turns out that Springer could only play one role: himself. But this role backfired big time.
As it turned out, Ringmaster was a disaster. It actually lost money at the box office and Rotten Tomatoes presented it with a horrible 21%. If that wasn’t bad enough, Springer received a nomination for a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst New Star.
He ended up winning in a tie with much-maligned Showgirls writer Joe Eszterhas who had a cameo that year. Did this deter Springer from returning to the big screen? Absolutely not.
The Golden Raspberry Award did not dismay Springer and in 2004, he got a chance to be in a film again. This time he wasn’t playing himself, he was playing the President of the United States. This straight-to-video film was The Defender and it was directed by action actor Dolph Lungren.
The production was so schlocky, they even used the wrong map when showing where Romania was. It was actually a map of western Canada. It seemed that Springer was becoming a joke—but, still, one that could pay off in surprising ways.
It was only a matter of time until satires of Springer started to emerge. One of the most popular was Jerry Springer: The Opera. This was a UK production that didn’t hold back on its use of profanity and its skewering of Christianity. Because of this, there were protests wherever the show went.
In the US, the protests were so extreme that the show didn’t open as planned on Broadway. It did, however, play in Carnegie Hall a few years later with Harvey Keitel as Springer. The name Springer always seemed to mean controversy. But could we blame him for ruining the entire country?
In 2005, Springer was up for criticism once again. Political pundit Bernard Goldberg wrote a book trying to find out why America was in such trouble. He called his book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America. Springer came in at a very respectable 32 on the list. The icing on the cake was when Goldberg called him “TV’s lowest life-form”.
After all, though Jerry Springer operated in the name of entertainment, there was one particular episode that had horrifying consequences.
At the turn of the millennium, Jerry Springer was still going strong and audiences wanted more. That's when Springer received an offer: They’d pay him $6 million annually to continue with the show. Springer jumped at the increase in salary and vowed to show that he was worth it. The very same year of the huge salary increase, Springer let loose.
The episode was “Secret Mistresses Confronted”—and the results were horrifyingly real.
One couple on “Secret Mistresses Confronted” was Ralph and Eleanor Panitz. The couple jointly accused Ralph’s ex-wife, Nancy Campbell-Panitz of stalking them. On the show, Nancy said that she wasn’t stalking them and that the three actually all lived together.
Ralph and Eleanor then got the audience going, asking them to call Nancy “fat” and “old”. Springer’s insightful contribution was this comment to the distraught Nancy: “He’s telling you he doesn't want to be with you”. But Ralph and Eleanor were not through with their humiliation of Nancy—it was about to get much worse.
At this point in the show, it wasn’t clear if Nancy was a stalker or a member of a dysfunctional threesome. She was, after all, still living with the couple. To make things extremely clear to her, Ralph and Eleanor made a stunning announcement. They said they had gotten married behind Nancy’s back.
This was clearly news to Nancy, and it was at this point in the show that she walked off the set, saying, “That’s fine, bye”. This was a great end to the episode, but the drama continued off stage—and it ended in tragedy.
Normally, this would have been the end of the road as far as this story went—but it was actually only the beginning. Springer was already on to his next debacle when some horrible news surfaced: authorities had found a lifeless body in the home that Nancy shared with Ralph and Eleanor.
Horrifyingly, the body was almost unrecognizable. When they were finally able to identify the body, it was the worst news: It was Nancy. Suddenly the absurd comedy that was Jerry Springer had become gravely serious.
Authorities soon caught up with Ralph and Eleanor Panitz as they were fleeing the scene and heading to Canada. Eventually, a jury convicted Ralph Panitz and placed him behind bars for the rest of his life. The big question on many people’s lips was: Had Springer and his show made this happen?
The judge in the Panitz case certainly thought so. At the trial, Judge Nancy Donnellan didn’t go as far as to charge the show, but she did give them a stern “shame on you”. Certainly, this was the end for Springer and his tabloid show. Or was it?
While the official word from the Jerry Springer show was that it was a “terrible tragedy," the incident didn’t dampen America’s enthusiasm for all things Springer. There was no shortage of new guests, live audience members, and home viewers. Springer put the incident behind him and carried on as usual.
While the public didn’t seem that affected by this chilling incident, the relatives of the deceased were.
Nancy Campbell Panitz’s son, Jeffrey Campbell did believe that Springer had caused his mother’s demise and he was ready to sue. Campbell claimed that Springer created “a mood that led to murder”. Campbell’s main complaint was a doozy: He accused the Jerry Springer producers of lying to his mother about why they wanted her on the show.
They’d told her that it was to reconcile with her ex-husband. Campell said that this was a lie that cost his mother her life. With little chance of winning, Campbell eventually dropped the lawsuit. The word, however, was out there: Jerry Springer was bad for America.
Many parents thought Jerry Springer was a bad influence. The American Family Association and Parents Television Council wanted Jerry Springer off the air and to do this they went straight to the advertisers. Their protest had some effect, as some companies either decreased or removed their ads on Jerry Springer.
In the UK, complaints from parents forced TV stations to only air the show when kids were at school. To Springer, it must have felt that he and his show were under ceaseless fire. And it wasn’t over yet.
Next up, was the bible of television journalism. In 2002, TV Guide came out with its list of the worst TV shows ever. Sadly for Springer, his show sat right at the top of the list. But was it so sad? Springer ended up using the accolade in the opening credits of the show.
He bragged about being the worst, and the audience lapped it up. Springer’s fans enjoyed wallowing at the bottom with their TV host guru.
By now, Springer’s daughter Katie had grown up and was working. Remember, Katie was blind and could only hear in one ear. She didn’t let her challenges in life stop her from giving back: She got a job as an assistant teacher. Katie’s courage moved Springer and he donated $230,000 to the school where she worked—the money funding a facility for students with disabilities.
The public, however, didn’t want to know about Springer the charitable guy, they wanted more Springer the trash guy.
Springer's show was soon heading into a 16th season. Seeing as everyone was telling him how bad his show was, Springer started to use these criticisms to his advantage. The tagline for the show was now: “An Hour of Your Life You’ll Never Get Back”. Another clever one was: “Wasting Technology Since 1991”.
The show seemed to carry on forever. All good things, however, must come to an end.
Another momentous day on the Jerry Springer calendar was July 26, 2018. This was the airing of the final episode of Jerry Springer. The news broke the hearts of Springer fans everywhere, and they were only somewhat uplifted by this announcement: The CW would be airing reruns of the series starting in September of that year.
So, was Springer done with TV? Not a chance.
Springer had already copied other popular shows when he first entered the trash talk show milieu. So, for his next foray into TV, he got the idea to copy another show: Judge Judy. The unoriginally titled Judge Jerry premiered on September 9, 2019, and ran for three seasons.
Its synopsis was painfully simple: “Jerry Springer puts on a robe and hears actual court cases”. Springer seemed to be an immortal figure on television, but he was somehow able to keep a very disturbing secret.
On April 27, 2023, Springer surprised everyone by suddenly passing in his Evanston, Ohio home. Those outside his inner circle had no idea that his health was suffering. Eventually, a spokesperson for the family announced the truth: Doctors had diagnosed Springer with pancreatic cancer a few months before.
Only those closest to Springer knew the tragic truth.
After Springer's passing, the media began stepping over one another, trying to get that career-defining sound bite. The Guardian weighed in early, saying that Springer “changed US television for better or worse”. Forbes magazine decided not to really give an opinion and just said that the impact Springer had on TV “will live on forever”. The Irish Times was painfully honest.
They said that Springer’s formula for successful TV was “straightforward, despicable and ingenious”. Springer had certainly had an effect on the American psyche—but would his effect last?
Springer had a lasting effect on millennials. You see, this group of young people grew up with Jerry Springer on the TV—most likely blandly playing in the background of their childhoods. The Los Angeles Times went so far as to call Springer the “millennials' babysitter”.
But let’s let Springer have the last word, shall we? Once, when asked about his long-running talk show in a 2000 interview with Reuters, Springer reportedly said: “I would never watch my show. I’m not interested in it”.
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