Stranded in the Jungle--25

Jerry Springer

SLAM. The women scream at each other. They are arguing over a man. Each of them says he belongs to her alone. Each accuses the other of trying to steal him. Each boasts that she had sex with him just last night. The words come fast and furious: "bitch!" "slut!" "'ho!" The TV censors bleep out the rest. Suddenly, one of the women snatches off her shoes and hurls them at her opponent. Before you know it, a full-scale brawl has broken out. The women trade kicks and punches, and pull each other's hair. Cameramen rush in to get close-ups. The studio audience whoops and hollers and laughs. Finally, the security men come up on stage. They brutally drag the women apart. They stop the fight, but not before we've had plenty of time to enjoy it. Now it's time to break for a commercial. That also means we'll see an instant replay of the fight, in slow motion. I am watching, of course, the Jerry Springer Show, at its height of popularity in 1997-98. Love triangles are Jerry's favorite subject. The combinations are endless. A woman is sleeping with two men. Or a man is sleeping with two men. Or a woman betrays her man with another woman. Or a man and a woman both have secret affairs with the same woman. Or a woman steals her daughter's boyfriend for herself. Or a man leaves his girlfriend for another woman, not realizing that the latter is really a man. The most frequent situation, however, is a man sleeping with two women. He says he can't choose between them. He claims to love them both. They are both the mothers of his children, after all. The women hate each other, but they never blame him. As they battle it out, he just sits there and smirks, basking in all the attention. The people in these triangles are both white and black. Black men with white women are common, while white men with black women are rare. Other racial groups seldom appear on the show at all. But white or black, straight or gay, cross-dressers or whatever, Jerry's guests are almost always lower class. I know this from their clothes, their speech, and their behavior. They tend to favor cheap synthetic fabrics, the sorts of things you can find at K-Mart. The men wear casual attire. The women like to dress sexy, in velour dresses, or low-cut sweaters and short skirts in polyester blends. The guests don't speak the sort of English that's taught in school. Their language is full of slang, profanity, and nonstandard grammar. Their accents come from the rural South or the urban ghetto. And they yell a lot. Indeed, they are so riled up, so ready to act out, that I think they must be drunk, or high on crack. Middle-class people would never air their dirty laundry like this. They prefer to take their drugs, and pursue their sexual affairs, in private. The broadcast often cuts away from the guests, to shots of audience members laughing at their antics. Though most of the audience is poor, the camera unerringly picks out perky young white women. Of course they are far better off, and far better dressed, than the guests on stage could ever hope to be. For his part, Jerry is smooth and professional, with his Armani suits and his proper diction. He was a politician before he became a talk show host, and it shows. He is always trying to ingratiate himself. Sometimes this means putting on a reassuring air of authority. Where his guests are emotional, he is the voice of reason and common sense. He calms them down with a pat on the shoulder, or a corny joke. He asks them "in fairness" to explain their behavior, and reminds them always to put their children first. At the end of each episode, Jerry offers us his "Final Thought." This is a pat little moral reflection that he reads off a teleprompter. It doesn't have much to do with what actually happened in the course of the show. But it gives a nice sense of closure. At other times, Jerry curries favor by playing the clown. He runs away from the stage, in exaggerated haste, when a fight seems likely to break out. He grimaces in feigned surprise at hearing yet another tale of infidelity. Or he gets cheap laughs by mocking a guest's manner of speech. Jerry is the self-professed ringmaster of a media freak show. He puts poor people on display for the amusement of their betters. The more abject, painful, and embarrassing things are for the guests, the more hilariously entertaining they are for us, the viewers. That's what keeps me glued to my set, night after night. I watch to see if Jerry can outdo himself. Can he possibly find a situation even more grotesque and humiliating than the one he showed us just last night? An episode of Jerry Springer has all the twisted emotions and demented characters that you'd expect to find in a great nineteenth century novel. Only Jerry is on five days a week, and the people are real.

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