Jerry Springer: 'My double is more real than I am!'

As Jerry Springer - the Opera transfers to the West End, James Rampton asks the real-life king of confrontation TV what he thinks of his spookily realistic portrayal by the actor Michael Brandon
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The Independent Culture

What happened when Jerry met Jerry? When, on the opening day of rehearsals, Jerry Springer first encountered his stage alter ego, Michael Brandon, who plays him in Jerry Springer - The Opera, "I offered my condolences," the talk show host deadpans.

"No one should have to go through life looking like me. I told Michael, 'You poor thing, have you considered surgery? It's the pinnacle of your career - and you have to play me.' Imagine having to put that on your résumé... 'I was Jerry Springer.' Oh great!"

This schtick is typical of Springer, someone who is very much on first-name terms with irony. A man whose eyebrows are always metaphorically arched, he lives by the philosophy that it is better to laugh at yourself before anyone else does.

He undoubtedly required a highly developed sense of humour when he first saw Jerry Springer - The Opera at the Edinburgh Festival last year. Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee's show is by no means complimentary - the title character gets his comeuppance and is condemned to hell after being shot by a disgruntled assistant.

However, instead of reaching for his lawyers - as many more uptight stars would have done - the presenter reached for the superlatives. At the Fringe performance, he laughed louder than anyone at the jokes against himself and led the standing ovation at the curtain call.

"I thought, 'Damn, they're good,'" recalls Springer, who at the time of this interview was over here on a lightning visit to attend the West End opening of the stage show. "I've finally got some culture - my mom would have been so proud. I only wish I'd thought of it first."

I wouldn't recommend taking your own mum to this opera. The language alone is strong enough to turn her hair white (if it isn't already), and she may be more than mildly shocked by such sights as a "chick with a dick", a large man who is turned on by wearing nappies, and a chorus line dressed in Ku Klux Klan hoods.

For all that, the opera, which is transferring from the National Theatre and is slated to go to Broadway next year, is a viscerally exciting evening - and I'm hardly going against critical orthodoxy in saying so. The Observer, for one, raved that the opera is "the most explosive theatrical event for years".

Springer is clearly chuffed by the opera's success. For him, it's a win-win situation. It boosts his profile and demonstrates that he has a terrific sense of self-mockery. He sees the stage show as "a great meshing of form and content. Thematically, opera and my talk show cover the same territory. I used to think that country and western was the sound of my show put to music, but now I realise that opera is the sound of my show put to music. They both contain chaos, mock-tragedy, comedy, gender misidentification and a very vocal chorus. If any of us on The Jerry Springer Show could carry a tune, we'd have an opera every day."

What he likes best about the opera is the fact the writers and performers "get it. They realise that The Jerry Springer Show is tongue-in-cheek. That's been part of the success of the TV show... as well as the reason why some people have been outraged by it. It's always been an inside joke."

All the same, it's an inside joke that some critics have obviously missed. Many commentators abhor The Jerry Springer Show, in which guests discuss such weighty subjects as "Pregnant by a Transsexual", "Honey, I'm a Call Girl", "Jerry Rescues a 1,200 Pound Couple" and "I Married a Horse" - in between bouts of chanting "Jer-ry, Jer-ry" and throwing chairs at each other.

Newspapers have called Springer "the King of Sleaze TV", and accused him of taking "the dumbing-down of America to the furthest extremes." The magazine TV Guide went further, voting The Jerry Springer Show the worst in history.

Springer doesn't rise to the jibes, though - indeed, he himself laughs that the show is "stupid". "I never watch it," he admits blithely. "At the beginning, I didn't want to become self-conscious, but now there's no reason to watch it. I mean, I've already seen it once during the recording. It's not like there's going to be anything amazing in it that people will want to remember in 30 years' time. Usually, I don't want to remember it by the time I have dinner!"

He says that, despite the fact that the show, now in its twelfth season, has made him a millionaire many times over, he only does it "because it's a job I was hired to do. I don't feel it. I spend much more time doing other things. I've never viewed it as a career. It merely permits me to do the things I really love." More of which anon.

The presenter continues that critics really shouldn't get so hot under the collar about the show, which has 25 million viewers in the States and many millions more in the 40 countries where it's syndicated. In Springer's eyes, they should be as relaxed about it as he is. "That's part of people not getting it," he sighs. "Compared to most of what's on TV today, my show is not that offensive. What's the problem?"

What about the accusations that he is single-handedly responsible for the dumbing down of American television? "You'd have to be pretty special to be able to cheapen TV any further," Springer grins. "I can't take credit for that. It's like finding a way of making the sun hotter."

In the bar at the Covent Garden Hotel before a preview of the opera earlier this week, Michael Brandon is equally dismissive of the critics who charge The Jerry Springer Show with bringing about The End of Western Civilisation as We Know It.

"Is Jerry responsible for the dumbing down of the public who watch it? Jerry says that God created the remote control to give us choice. Everyone has the choice of switching it off if they don't like it. In the same way, people can walk out of the opera if they don't like it. But in my eyes, the stage show is politically correct, in that it offends everyone equally," Brandon twinkles.

The 58-year-old actor, who made his name as one of half of Dempsey and Makepeace in the hit 1980s police show (he has since married his then co-star, Glynis Barber) and who has more recently been seen in Ally McBeal and Jonathan Creek, is evidently on the same wavelength as his subject - which must help his performance no end.

In the opera, Brandon gives an uncanny impersonation of the 59-year-old TV presenter. Indeed, when they first met, Springer said simply: "You're perfect." The actor thinks he has nailed the character because they share many characteristics. "We're both flirtatious," he reflects. "It's a way of communicating and making people feel good about themselves. An essential part of a host's job is to make people feel comfortable enough to talk. Jerry's great at that." Indeed, he's what is known in the trade as a top-class schmoozer.

It is scarcely surprising that Brandon has captured Springer so convincingly when you consider how similar their backgrounds are. To start with, both are the sons of Jewish immigrants who came to New York after fleeing from the perils of 20th-century Europe - Springer's parents escaped from the Holocaust, while Brandon's grandparents evaded the pogroms.

Then, Springer and Brandon grew up in the same neighbourhood of Queens, within a year of each other. It was not a well-to-do area. Brandon leans across the table and shows me a long scar running the length of his forearm. It was inflicted by a local knife-wielding hard-man when the actor was seven. Why was he attacked? "Because I was there."

Brandon reckons that their comparable upbringing "invests my performance with a basic truth. Jerry and I share the same genetic background. We are both the descendants of immigrants who came to New York to make a better life.

"You can take the boy out of New York City, but you can't take New York City out of the boy. If you grow up in New York, everywhere else is small town. You also know how to cope - you can deal with aggressive mobs. On the show, Jerry's finesse in dealing with people comes from his childhood."

In addition, as children Brandon and Springer were both victims. "We were both picked on," continues the actor. "It's not unexpected if you're Jewish in an Italian-Irish neighbourhood.

"Jerry claims he assimilated when his mother put him in a Yankee baseball suit. I got by pretending to be Italian. Humour saved both of us. If you're fast and funny, you live to fight another day."

This tough upbringing also shaped Springer's liberal politics. "We're all products of our family backgrounds," muses the presenter, who was born in Hampstead before moving to New York as a five-year-old. "The Holocaust was fundamental in showing me what to take seriously. If you've had an experience like that, then you don't take it very seriously when someone complains about a TV show. Get a life!"

Underlining that "politics has always been a burning passion for me", Springer has stood for office in the past. A left-wing Democrat - and self-styled "pinko liberal" - he had an inauspicious start to his political career when he was drummed out of his job as Vice Mayor of Cincinnati after being caught with a prostitute in 1974. But three years later he became one of America's youngest mayors when he was elected to the Cincinnati City Hall at the age of just 33.

Earlier this year, he considered running for the Senate, but withdrew because he felt the TV show might overshadow the campaign. "I won't be taken seriously while the show's still on," he observes. "So if I want to run, I'll have to stop the show."

Don't bet against it. Springer obviously possesses the political fervour to stand in future. "It's not a question of 'give me political office as a reward,'" says Springer. "I just feel that some things are really worth fighting for." For instance? "We suffer from a tremendous amount of elitism in the US. The interests of the wealthy and the powerful are always protected, and low-income Americans are left out of the equation. They're excluded from decisions about the economy or going to war in Iraq or funding schools. I've lived at every economic level, but it was not until I became wealthy... because of the silly show... that I discovered all of the breaks there are for people like me."

He certainly talks like a man on the campaign trail. This is Springer on the subject of the war in Iraq: "I always thought that it was the wrong remedy - I was vociferous about that beforehand. Don't get me wrong, Saddam Hussein was a pig and his regime should have gone away. But at the time we went to war, we had alternatives that were working.

"Also, is going to war a way to get rid of weapons of mass destruction? If you believe the weapons exist, the last thing you want to do is start a war with people who have them. They'll just use them on you. That never made sense."

The opera - and Brandon's eerily accurate impression of the presenter - have helped elevate Springer to the status of kitsch cultural icon. People in this country will forgive you most things - including fronting a televsion show with episodes entitled "Here Come the Hookers" and "Past Guests Attack" - if it's clear that you don't take them, or yourself, too seriously. We are, after all, the nation that gave the world the phrase "taking the piss". So, with his popularity at such a high, could Springer's next step be into presidential office? Sadly, he sighs, the American constitution precludes anyone born outside the United States from running for the White House. (Although the upside is that the Austrian-born Arnold Schwarzenegger is also ruled out.) "Still, if they change the constitution, give me a call," Springer smiles, before leaving me with one final example of his peerless ability to schmooze the birds out of the trees: "You can be my campaign manager."

'Jerry Springer - The Opera' is showing at the Cambridge Theatre, London WC2 (0870 890 1102) and booking to 27 March