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Talk show host and a former Cincinnati mayor, Jerry Springer, dies at 79

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Jerry Springer has died. His TV show drew high ratings by showcasing low behavior.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JERRY SPRINGER")

JERRY SPRINGER: My guests today say that their life is a big mess. Please, meet Deandre. He says he's here to tell his wife that he's been getting a little more than sugar from his neighbor.

(CHEERING)

INSKEEP: From the 1990s onward, "The Jerry Springer Show" became a huge cultural presence and the inspiration for "Jerry Springer: The Opera" onstage.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "JERRY SPRINGER: THE OPERA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Tremont, singing) Talk to the hand.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Loser.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Tremont, singing) Talk to the hand.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Loser.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Tremont, singing) Talk to the hand...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Loser.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Tremont, singing) Because the face ain't listening.

INSKEEP: Now, in the opera, the character Jerry Springer is shot and takes a tour of hell. The real Jerry Springer died of natural causes at 79. And NPR TV critic Eric Deggans is here. Eric, good morning.

INSKEEP: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What made Springer so popular? I was going to call him Jerry. I feel like I'm on a first-name basis with this guy.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: You really should. You absolutely should.

INSKEEP: What made Jerry so popular?

DEGGANS: Well, fans will recall that "The Jerry Springer Show" featured guests, usually average, working-class people, in these bizarre situations that would provoke conflict and maybe even a onstage fistfight. Somebody might be sleeping with their wife's mom or leaving their family for a porn star or secretly sleeping with a neighbor. And Springer would ask these questions designed to bring out the controversy with the audience, egging things on, chanting his name - Jerry, Jerry, Jerry.

You know, his show helped ignite this tabloid talk show movement of the 1990s that included Maury Povich, Sally Jessy Raphael, Montel Williams. These shows were successful because they were cheap, they were shocking, and they were popular with daytime viewers. And they were a counterpoint to these other hosts like Oprah Winfrey and Rosie O'Donnell, who tried to be nicer and more inspirational. But unlike a lot of hosts, Springer admitted that his show was a circus, like in this clip from "HuffPost Live." Let's check it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPRINGER: Look, my show is stupid.

ALYONA MINKOVSKI: (Laughter).

SPRINGER: It's stupid, but it's fun to do. I enjoy it. It has no redeeming social value. It's an hour of escapism.

DEGGANS: So how do you criticize a guy who's so self-deprecating he already admits that the show that he's hosting is stupid?

INSKEEP: How did he get into this stupid but lucrative line of work?

DEGGANS: Well, he took a really circuitous route. He was an attorney with a law degree from Northwestern University. He got elected to Cincinnati City Council in 1971. But he had to resign a few years later after admitting he wrote a check to a sex worker. He was reelected in 1975, served as mayor for a year. And eventually, he became a popular local TV news anchor and commentator. And he started hosting his syndicated talk show in 1991 while he was anchoring. And at first, it was a more conventional talk show on serious topics. But after a few years, he developed this sensational style of programming to get bigger ratings.

INSKEEP: What did you think of him when you met him?

DEGGANS: Well, he was a very charismatic and down-to-earth guy, way smarter than the TV show he starred in. I liked him. He had an easygoing attitude that audiences also loved, even though the show could be exploitive and damaging. Now, I met him when he brought a town hall to Florida to discuss the case of a white guy who was sentenced to jail for using threats and racial slurs to drive away his African American neighbors. The show was elevating members of white supremacist groups, but Springer insisted it was good to start discussion on the issue. The show was successful. He got to go on "America's Got Talent" and appear on "Dancing With The Stars," among many other things. And it was the talk show that sealed his showbiz legacy, showing the power of serving up confrontation and titillation with a wink and a smile.

INSKEEP: Eric, thanks so much for the insights, really appreciate it.

DEGGANS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR TV critic Eric Deggans on Jerry Springer, who has died at 79. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.