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Jerry! Jerry! Jerry! Jerry! The freak show hits 20

As Springer, the godfather of trash TV, marks two decades at the top, here are 10 of his most bizarre outings

It will, in many ways, be a typical 20th birthday party: noisy, vulgar and full of people doing things that they later regret. By the end, some guests will be crying; others will be patching themselves up after a fight.

On Wednesday, Gerald Norman "Jerry" Springer – born in London, raised in New York, loved and loathed around the world – will celebrate two decades at the helm of the inimitable chat show that has borne his name for more than 3,500 episodes.

A "best of" edition will be screened in New York's Times Square, an appropriately gaudy location to pay tribute to such historic episodes as "Hot-Headed Hookers," "Unusual Love Triangles" and "I'm Having Your Husband's Baby!"

If this special programme does its job, it should remind fans that behind the craziness of Springer's freak show, which over the years has prompted 30,000 guests to throw many times that number of punches, there lies a cultural institution. The Jerry Springer Show is not just the ne plus ultra of gutter-scraping tabloid TV; it is also a popular phenomenon which, for better or worse, helped to revolutionise broadcasting, ushering in the era of modern reality television.

Without Springer plumbing new social depths in the 1990s, we might never have witnessed shows such as Big Brother, or Pop Idol, or Jersey Shore, which revolve around allowing the sofa-dwelling masses to sneer at the flotsam of society.

"Jerry calls himself the ringmaster, and he's dead right," says Ian Markham-Smith, who co-authored Springer's biography with Liz Hodgson. "He created a circus in which humans act like animals. It whetted the public's appetite for watching people humiliate themselves on TV."

His guests, in a typical week, could include Ku Klux Klansmen, dwarfs, porn stars or prostitutes. Shows may involve themes of bestiality, infidelity or incest.

Sexual infidelity is the show's meat and potatoes. Part of Springer's charm lies in his efforts to circumvent American standards of sexual prudery. He rewards women who flash their breasts with "Jerry Beads", yet nudity is pixelated before broadcast. He encourages swearing, yet bleeps out obscenities.

Springer, 66, has often been close to scandal. His 1970s political career, on Cincinnati's city council, was jollified by a sex scandal after police raided a brothel and found that he'd been using personal cheques to pay its staff. At 38, he stood, unsuccessfully, for Governor of Ohio. After that, he moved into journalism, and by 1990 was working as a local news anchor when the city's NBC affiliate asked him to replace the retiring Phil Donahue on a little-watched talk show.

In its first three years, The Jerry Springer Show was serious fodder. Guests included Jesse Jackson and Oliver North. But soon, it emerged that ratings would spike each time a "lowbrow" story aired. In 1994, Universal snapped it up, and issued a decree: henceforth, Springer would only do lowbrow. Viewing figures rocketed, particularly among the young, so coveted by advertisers. Soon it was syndicated across America, then the world. At the height of his powers, Springer boasted 30 million daily viewers in 51 countries.

His iconic status was cemented in 2002, when he inspired an opera staged at London's National Theatre and in the West End, before being screened on BBC2, to the dismay of Christian organisations that objected to an "obscene" scene featuring Jesus, Satan and a pole-dancer.

Over the years, many have wondered if the programme's "real-life" scenes are contrived, or if guests might be actors. But though many attempts have been made to unmask fakery, by a variety of journalists, none has ever succeeded. Springer's ability to bring out the worst in people is more likely the result of careful research. A team of more than 100 people work on each show in Connecticut, verifying stories and screening guests for their propensity for volatility.

His default response to all criticism is humility. A programme in which men marry horses, or husbands discover their wives are transsexuals shouldn't be taken seriously. "It's just a silly little show that has a niche," he recently argued. "It has absolutely no redeeming social value whatsoever."

Yet even while Springer's star has waned (its US audience is now 1.9 million, up 200,000 this season, but down from 11 million) his refusal to shuffle off into retirement has social commentators furrowing their brows.

"There has been a bump in his viewing figures recently, and I wonder if that's related to the recession," notes Janice Peck, author of The Age of Oprah, an influential study of daytime chat shows. "There's a worrying level of anger everywhere. What does it say about our culture that middle-class people still like to watch poor, uneducated people go at each other, for entertainment?"

'Mom, will you marry me?'

9 July 1998

The show begins with a wedding ceremony between Brenda, then 42, and her 19-year-old stepson Brian. Keith, 46, objects midway through, saying: "That is my son and my ex-wife. She fed him, bathed him, put him to sleep, and now she's sleeping with him?" Brian replies: "Yeah, and she still bathes with me and to you she don't" – resulting in a fight between father and son.

'I slept with 251 men in 10 hours'

20 September 1991

Annabel Chong, a porn star and University of Southern California student, admits to the bizarre sex marathon on Springer, a documentary entitled Sex: The Annabel Chong Story was a hit at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival. She currently works as a web developer in California under her real name, Grace Quek.

A very Klan Christmas

14 January 2002

Ku Klux Klan members J D Alder and disciple "Mr X" bring a white Christmas tree plastered in red swastikas to the stage, while both are dressed in Santa Claus outfits similarly decorated. They use the N-word frequently. Jerry Springer's reason for featuring them, he said, was: "So the whole world can see how absurd you are."

'I cut off my manhood'

14 July 1997

Earl Zea, 34, talks about how he cut off his penis to deter an unwanted gay admirer, Ronnie. He was "sick to God-darn death of being stalked". So, he froze his genitals, cut his penis off with garden shears and flushed it down the toilet. Ronnie later claimed they had had a five-year relationship.

'I married a horse'

1 May 1998

Mark tells how he "married" Pixel, his horse, divulging graphic details. He says that after a bad prom date he had intercourse with the mare, and said it was "so good I almost passed out". Throughout the episode he kisses Pixel, prompting Springer to say: "Stop that, I'm about to vomit."

'My day as a dog'

4 October 2010

Chris has a sexual fetish: he likes to pretend he's a dog. He pays a dominatrix to scold him while he scratches at her bedroom door, barks, and defecates in her garden. He reveals all to his girlfriend, who says: "I'd rather you told me you were cheating, than I see a video of you with your face in a toilet bowl and licking some woman's feet."

'Hands down, our best show'

10 March 2007

Trudy has a prosthetic arm, and her boyfriend, David, says he cheated on her because, according to him, she did not make an effort to look attractive. David says: "You leave your arm half all the time. You only put it on when your friends are around." Minutes later Trudy removes her arm and throws it at him, narrowly missing his head.

Kung-fu hillbilly

22 October 2007

David allows brother "Lil Wayne" to reside in his trailer. As rent, David insists Wayne allows him to pimp out Wayne's girlfriend, Ashley, even insisting Wayne pay to have sex with her. He threatens: "If he don't let me I'm gonna kung-fu him ... and I ain't even paying for no doctor bill."

Jerry and the vampire

13 July 2007

Zach, 19, went to the show in a coffin. "I can't have those ultra-violet rays hit on me," he says. He grew fangs four years earlier, after a vampire girlfriend bit him. He met his new girlfriend in a graveyard; she says he is trying to "brainwash" her and her friends into becoming vampires.

'I'm happy I cut off my legs'

2 November 2006

Sandra, a transsexual with two children, cut off her legs with a power saw when she was 21. She says: "From the age of 14 I just decided I didn't want my legs no more, and then my brain said just get rid of 'em. So I did." When Sandra mentions she is seeing two psychiatrists Springer is not above retorting: "Is that one for each leg?"