The Chicago City Council gave schlock-show host Jerry Springer a public spanking yesterday--and he liked it.
Springer "voluntarily" appeared before the council, under threat of a subpoena, to discuss the violence among guests on his syndicated television show, which is taped in the Windy City.
Alderman Edward Burke, a former cop, had called the hearing of the council's police and fire committee. Burke thinks the off-duty Chicago policemen who serve as security guards on the show should cuff Springer's guests and haul them off to jail when the inevitable brawling breaks out.
Unless, that is, the on-camera fights are staged. In that case, Burke thinks that "The Jerry Springer Show" should be required to get a city entertainment license--the same license WWF would need if it came to town. Springer's show doesn't have one.
It was more than an hour into the hearing before any of the aldermen actually asked Springer if the violence is staged. Up to that point, they took turns making "statements"--about Springer's show and the moral decay of America.
It was their 15 minutes of fame, with Court TV, MSNBC and Fox News Channel recording every word. Springer had a camera there, too, and one alderman tried to take him to task for using the occasion to his advantage.
"With all due respect, this is your show," Springer shot back.
But Jerry was the guest star. Before the hearing got underway, Springer told a Reuters reporter that the televised hearing was bound to help his show's ratings. "If they want to promote the show, God love 'em," he said.
Outside City Hall, dozens of pro-Springer demonstrators marched on the sidewalk, claiming the hearing was unconstitutional. Inside, dozens of Springer supporters filled the public gallery and applauded and hooted whenever Jerry scored one off the council.
Springer, who arrived with an entourage of about 20, including two bodyguards, took the high road in his performance. Not only is his show not a public menace, he told the aldermen, his fans in the gallery and the TV audience at home, it's a public service: It teaches people that violence is bad.
"People on our show never look glamorous, . . . just the opposite," he said. "The people who fight on our show, they never look glamorous. The guy who fights loses the girl in the end. The audience boos him . . ."
The show also discourages viewers from dabbling in alternative sexual orientations. "No one watches our show and says, 'Tomorrow I'm going to become a transsexual,' " he said.
And, for viewers who still haven't got the message, there are the videotapes of the "too hot for TV" footage that ended up on the edit-room floor. Yes, the brawling that even the show's censors deemed unsuitable for television was screened in the council chamber and beamed into America's homes compliments of Alderman Burke.
Springer spent most of his time sparring with Burke, who got things rolling by asking Springer for his home address and, when he wouldn't reveal it on camera (he said he'd write it down), Burke did it for him. Burke then went on to ask Springer personal questions in a prosecutorial style that led Springer to hold up his hand and say, "I am not a member of the Communist Party."
Springer warned Burke that he was invading his privacy and wandering onto dangerous free-speech grounds.
"We have to be very careful here. You are the government and this is America," he said. "Don't go overboard and think you control [us] . . . this is a national show," he said.
But when at long last Springer was asked, by another alderman, whether all the chair-throwing, head-bashing and hair-pulling was for real, the former attorney and show host--dodged the question. The show is "overall for real," he said and the violence "seems real to me."
The grilling was somewhat irrelevant, since Studios USA, which produces the show, recently announced that it had begun to edit out "violence, physical confrontation or profanity" and had scrubbed such Springer episodes as "Guess What, I'm Bisexual" and "Proud to Be a Prostitute." On the other hand, Studios USA said much the same thing last year, only to reinstate the fighting when the show's ratings took a dive.
One alderman tried to impress on Springer that he had a boss even bigger than Studios USA topper Barry Diller whom "you will have to eventually answer to, and that is God."
Responded Springer: "My belief in God is no less than yours, sir. If I thought for one second that my show was hurtful to society, I wouldn't do it."
CAPTION: The talk show host at yesterday's hearing: "Don't go overboard and think you control [us]."
CAPTION: Jerry Springer: "If they want to promote the show, God love 'em."