I Want to Sing Something Beautiful

TV Guide called The Jerry Springer Show the worst show in the history of television. In 1995 critic Janice Kaplan wrote in TV Guide that coming on television to tell one’s secret is like “defecating in public.” I'm sure lots of people (most of whom have never seen Springer) would agree. But then why has it been on the air for more than two decades, to such consistently strong ratings?

It's easy to smile smugly and conclude America is just stupid. Talk show host Sally Jesse Raphael famously said, “Nobody wants to watch anything that’s smarmy or tabloid or silly or unseemly – except the audience.”

But America isn't stupid. As I said in my last post, a big part of the appeal is that humans crave narrative. It's how we learn, how we preserve our history and culture, how we share experiences, how we explain ideas, and how we entertain ourselves. Narrative is the primary form of human communication, and the most universal is the narrative of a human life. The Jerry Springer Show offers up two or three narratives every day, human hero myths in miniature. And in those stories, no matter how outrageous (and no matter whether we think the stories are 100% true or not), we see ourselves because we recognize human themes – love, loss, betrayal, lust, revenge, humiliation, despair. We've all felt these things, just maybe not to the extreme degree we see on Springer.

The Jerry Springer Show offers us what Bat Boy, Little Shop of Horrors, Cry-Baby, and Urinetown offer us, exaggerated but truthful human behavior under a magnifying glass. But the exaggeration doesn't obscure the truthful. And notice that, like Springer, all the shows I mentioned are about the Other, the outcasts. As Elayne Rapping wrote in The Progressive, “The people on these shows are an emotional vanguard, blowing the lid off the idea that America is anything like the place Ronald Reagan pretended to live in.”

As we've been learning this music the last couple weeks, I've been following along, thinking a lot about finding my way into this show. Despite its gleefully wicked humor and its monstrous vulgarity, this is also a very serious show, in a crooked kind of way. It looks at a huge, pervasive cultural phenomenon and asks us to think about two things, which happen to be the keys that I think unlock this show for us.

The first question is why would anyone go on The Jerry Springer Show? It's hard enough to understand why the first guest in each segment is there, but at least they're taking power, by choosing the time and place of engagement. But it's almost impossible for most of us to understand the subsequent guests in each segment, the people who don't know why they're there, but for some inexplicable reason, they've agreed to come on The Jerry Springer Show. Surely they know this can't end well.

We've been talking about this in rehearsal as we block the first act.

I found a really cool book called Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity, by Joshua Gamson, that speaks directly to this question. Here are a few quotes I find really useful...

On the subversion:

“The interesting thing here is not just that talk shows are seen as a threat to norms and normality – as we will see, they are indeed just that, and the fight is between those who think this is a good thing and those who think it is not – but just who threatens whom here, who is ‘us’ and who is ’them'?”

“In fact, the talk show genre has always operated as an oddball combination of middle-class coffee-klatch propriety and rationality, and working-class irreverence and emotional directness. Talk shows, in a general sense, stretch back to earlier public traditions emerging from different and sometimes opposed, class cultures, and they still operate with the awkward tension between sensation and conversation growing from these roots. Propriety, of course, is not a middle-class property, and working-class and underclass people certainly do not own irreverence and emotion, but the talk show genre is fashioned from particular cultural pieces historically associated with different classes: relatively sober, deliberative, ‘polite’ middle-class forms of participating in and presenting public culture, embodied in literary circles and the lyceum, for instance; and irreverent, wild, predominantly lower-class public leisures, such as the carnival, the cabaret, the tabloid, and the nineteenth-century theatre.”

“Puzzle pieces begin to emerge from these criticisms. How exactly do poverty and lack of education, sex and gender nonconformity, and race come to be lumped together and condemned as monstrosities? What are we to make of these equations? Are they the result of exploitative programming that scripts and markets weird people most of ‘us’ wouldn’t talk to in a supermarket, selling the middle-class audience its own superiority? Are they the result of willful distortions by guardians of middle-class morality and culture, part and parcel of the ongoing ‘culture wars’ in the United States? Are they, as defenders of the genre suggest, the result of a democratization process that threatens those who are used to the privilege of owning and defining public discourse?”

“Silly as they can be, daytime TV talk shows are filled with information about the American environment in which they take root, in which expertise and authenticity and rationality are increasingly problematic, and in which the lines between public and private are shifting so strangely. And they embody that information with Barnumesque gusto. I like what talk shows make us think about.”

“A world of goofy lightness turns out to be heavily enmeshed in complicated, contradictory processes of social change.”

On the people:

“Where critics see ‘freaks’ and ‘trash,’ defenders see ‘have-nots’ and ‘common people’.”

“For people whose life experience is so heavily tilted toward invisibility, whose nonconformity, even when it looks very much like conformity, discredits them and disenfranchises them, daytime TV talk shows are a big shot of visibility and media accreditation. It looks, for a moment, like you own this place.”

“Exploiting the need for visibility and voice, talk shows provide them, in distorted but real, hollow but gratifying ways. They have much to tell about those needs and those contradictions, about the weird and changing public sphere in which people are talking. Just as important, talk shows shed a different kind of light on sex and gender conformity.”

“Social conservatives have been notably unsuccessful at stemming the democratization of culture, the breakdown of those class, sex, and race-bound conventions that once reliably separated high from low, ‘news’ from ‘gossip,’ public from unspeakably private, respectable from deviant.”

“… the paradoxes of visibility that talk shows dramatize with such fury: democratization through exploitation, truths wrapped in lies, normalization though freak show.”

The second big question is why do we watch? I'll admit it, I watch Springer. Even before I knew we were producing the opera. And I like it. But why?

I found another good book, Tabloid Culture: Trash Taste, Popular Power, and the Transformation of American Television, by Kevin Glynn, that helped me with this question. For me, a big part of it is how subversive the show is. Here are some interesting quotes:

“If Reaganism entailed a widespread cultural repression of voices and identities representing social difference, Reaganism's repressed others returned with a vengeance on TV's tabloid talk shows, whose numbers grew impressively from the mid- to late 1980s and exploded spectacularly during the early nineties [around the same time Jonathan Larson was writing Rent, also about society's Others]. By widening both the sense of social distance and the power gap between the haves and the have-nots, and by stepping up the surveillance and policing of alterity, twelve years of Reagan-Bushism intensified already bitter conflicts around social difference. The oft-noted intense conflictuality of U.S. daytime TV talk shows is symptomatic of social conflicts that escalated sharply during the Reagan decade and the Bush years.”

"In October 1995 a moralistic senator from Connecticut, Joseph Lieberman, joined forces with the self-anointed secretary of civic virtue and former Reagan and Bush administration official William Bennett to host a press conference denouncing U.S. daytime TV talk shows as sites of ‘moral rot’ and ‘cultural pollution.’ Although Bennett captured media attention by outing businesses that advertise on talk shows, it was Lieberman who came surprisingly close to theoretical prescience when he observed that the programs unsettle distinctions between the perverse and the normal. Daytime talk shows, staples of the new tabloid media, do indeed thrive on contestation over the difference between normal and abnormal. They invite the participation of people whose voices are often excluded from U.S. commercial media discourse, such as sex workers, ordinary women, blue- and pink-collar laborers, the homeless, the HIV positive, people living with AIDS, youths, gay men, lesbians, the transgendered, people with unconventional body shapes and sizes, alien abductees, convicted criminals, prison inmates, and other socially marginalized ‘abnormals.’ Says Elayne Rapping of the daytime talk shows, ‘There is something exhilarating about watching people who are usually invisible – because of class, race, gender, status – having their say and, often, being wholly disrespectful to their ‘betters’.”

“Tabloid television prefers heightened emotionality and often emphasizes the melodramatic. It sometimes makes heavy use of camp, irony, parody, and broad humor. It relies on an often volatile mix of realistic and anti-realistic representational conventions. It resists ‘objectivity,’ detachment, and critical distance. It incorporates voices frequently excluded from ‘serious’ news and often centers on those that are typically marginalized in mainstream media discourse. The ‘bizarre’ and the ‘deviant’ are central to its image repertoire. It is generally offensive to high- and middlebrow tastes. Moreover, it is often equally offensive to masculine tastes (although tabloid discourse is itself gendered: there are both masculine and feminine varieties of address found within it). It frequently violates dominant institutional standards and procedures for the production and validation of ‘truth.’ It thrives on the grotesque, the scandalous, and the ‘abnormal.’ Its images are often stark, raw, unprettified, and unsanitized. It dwells on social and moral disorder. Among its favorite themes are the ubiquity of victimization and the loss of control over the outcomes of events, and of one's fate. Also typical are stories involving gender disturbances and ambiguities, troubled domestic and familial relationships, and paranormal phenomena that apparently outstrip the explanatory power of scientific rationalism. Tabloid media simultaneously defamiliarize the ordinary and banalize the exotic.”

“The most disparaged cultural objects are those consumed predominantly by the most devalued social groups.”

Maybe I enjoy Springer because I am myself a social Other – gay man, artsy, pothead. Maybe the most powerful message Springer offers his audience is the most important message we can get from culture – You are not alone.

In the show, the guests sing to Jerry:
We eat excrete and watch T.V.,
And you are there for us, Jerry.
Jerry, can you understand,
We sit out in nowhere land,
Wanting and yearning,
Our bloated stomachs churning?
Eat, excrete and watch T.V.
You are there for us, Jerry...

I'm still reading a lot about all this, but I am coming to some conclusions. Jerry Springer and shows like it subvert the mainstream culture and mainstream values, so for anyone who feels left out of that mainstream culture, Springer is a welcome poke in the eye to the world that excludes them, whether for economic, social, sexual, or other reasons.

Is Springer's audience all that different than the Romans at the Coliseum or the groundlings at Shakespeare's Globe? Or today's boxing fans? Or football fans? No matter who's cheering for what, it's all a metaphor for the journey of a human life. It's all narrative. And just like when we watch a movie or TV drama, we want conflict, drama, surprise, and always, resolution.

The Springer Show is one of the few places where The Other can have their say, where they can take power and demand that "Attention must be paid." That opportunity to be Heard and Seen can be a powerful, seductive drug. It's also the place where those who've done wrong usually get their comeuppance. Though it may seem to some as an amoral space, it's not. There is a morality in Springer World, but it's not the same morality you might see on The Big Bang Theory. The Springer morality is less arbitrary, really just about personal dignity (yes, I'm serious), freedom, respect, not really much more than The Golden Rule.

During rehearsals, we keep being surprised by the seriousness and poignancy of several of the songs, these few moments when the authors take a real look at the real emotions of these characters. Andrea's "I Want to Sing Something Beautiful," Baby Jane's "This is My Jerry Springer Moment," Shawntel's "I Just Wanna Dance," and the company number "Take Care" all take us somewhere unexpected, into the honest emotions of these people who we've otherwise seen only as cartoon characters.

It's as if the authors are reminding us that no matter how outrageous The Jerry Springer Show gets, these are real people who often have very deep, very profound feelings. Like the TV show, the opera alternately dishes up both mockery and respect for these folks.

In 2010, President Obama hosted an evening of Broadway music at the White House, and he said, "Over the years, musicals have been at the forefront of our social consciousness, challenging stereotypes, shaping our opinions about race and religion, death and disease, power and politics." That's certainly true of Jerry Springer the Opera. Like Cry-Baby, Rent, Passing Strange, and many other New Line shows, Springer is about the outcasts, the Others.

Because they're more interesting.

No matter how much you think you're prepared for Jerry Springer the Opera, you're not. You really have no idea how vulgar and blasphemous this show is, but you also have no idea how much you'll get emotionally involved with these characters, and their very simple, very modest hopes and dreams.

We say this a lot – because it's often true – but this show is truly like no other. By a mile. You know you're dying to see it...

The adventure continues.

Long Live the Musical!