Jerry Springer: This Show Is Good for America

Strippers who kill! Killers who strip! We have seen the enemy, and he's on TV

Jerry Springer on April 30th,1998. Credit: Ron Bull/Toronto Star via Getty

When Jerry Springer walks into the NBC building in Chicago, where he tapes his show, The Jerry Springer Show, his head is down and his shoulders are rolled forward. He lopes forward, moving surprisingly quickly over the linoleum, not looking anyone square in the eye. He is the very picture of the vacationing Southern California used-car salesman. He is wearing nice blue-jeans, clunky black loafers, a nice leather jacket and smudged glasses. His hair is still wet from his morning shower. He is keeping to himself. He isn't saying much. Then he rounds a corper, and up comes his head, up comes a smile, up comes his voice. Now he is Jerry Springer, the Jerry of "Jer-ry! Jer-ry!," of exposed breasts, of your girlfriend who is actually a boy.

In the main lobby, there are about forty people waiting in line to step through a metal detector to see Jerry's show. These people have names like Crystal, Carmello, Lynette, Joe, Bill and Greg. They are regular in their looks, mostly in their twenties and not all that happy seeming. Maybe they spend their days selling cigarettes at a smoke shop, or they are an office manager, or they fling baggage for United Airlines. Even so, they are happy to be here. Maybe, in some strange way, seeing the show will lift their spirits. These are the people Jerry claims that he feels most comfortable around, his people, he says.

"I'm here because I think it's funny!" they say.

"I'm here because it's hilarious!"

"I'm here because it's entertainment!"

"I came all the way from California because I want to see some violence!"

"Yeah — fights!"

"Jer-ry!" they shout, seeing Jerry.

Jerry lifts his hand in greeting. "Hey!" he calls out. "How ya doing?!"

"Jer-ry!" they shout again, by way of answer. And suddenly, just like Jerry, they are all smiles, too.

And just as quickly, Jerry is gone.

A few minutes later, he is in his office. He's got a fat-Jerry ceramic cookie jar on his desk, lots of Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra memorabilia on his walls, a vast array of cigars in his humidor. Somewhere along the line, he has changed clothes. Now he's wearing a spiffy Armani suit, a white shirt and a bright tie. He takes his glasses off and rubs at the smudges. "You know what one of the toughest things in life is?" he says, squinting. "Keeping your glasses clean!"

That said and beginning to chuckle, he plugs a cigar into his mouth and lights it with an industrial-type lighter. Pretty soon, the end of the cigar crackles with flames. What he says then is that in this world there are basically two Jerry Springers. The Jerry of The Jerry Springer Show, the show that has all those fights on it and is sometimes credited with thedecline of snivelization, that's one Jerry. Then there's the other Jerry, the real Jerry. And one thing that neither Jerry is exactly sure of is what the other one brings to the show to make it such a success, although he suspects it isn't much.

"What has happened is a total shock," he says between gargantuan puffs. "I have no training in this. No particular talent. Someone signed me. I didn't even try out. So I got lucky and I'm a schlub with a show. There are millions of people that can do it better. But, well, I happen to have the job I have, and now the show has taken off and I'm going along for the ride. I'm loving it. But I can't, with a straight face, tell you, 'Boy, I've figured this all out, and I'm just a genius!' I have no idea. I don't get it. I really just don't. And I'd love to know."

He leans back in his chair, gets just a whole world of stink pouring out the end of his cigar and smiles broadly. His eyes twinkle and shimmer. At times like this, he doesn't exactly look perplexed or even act perplexed.

Then his eyes drift to the ceiling, and just for a moment, it seems that it is about to come to him, an explanation for his part in the show's meteoric, nearly 200 percent rise in ratings during the past year; the show's trouncing of The Oprah Winfrey Show in many major markets, a first for any show since Oprah took the top talk-show slot nearly ten years ago; the popularity of Springer's Too Hot for TV video, more than half a million copies sold; the whole odd swerve that has landed him where he is today.

"The things you get famous for in America," Jerry says, simply and mirthfully, while the smoke from his cigar rises all around him, getting thicker all the time and very nearly erasing him from view. In the end, he can't explain his part, the part of the two Jerrys. It's like they are strangers, even to themselves.

Until only a short time ago, most theorists and critics figured that shows like Jerry's were on their way out, one and all. This was in the wake of Princess Di's death, which itself came in the wake of the Jenny Jones Show fiasco, in which one of her guests murdered another guest. Geraldo Rivera had gone legit. Rosie O'Donnell was snuggling up to celebs. Ricki Lake and Oprah, the queen, turned touchy feely; and all the others — the Danny Bonaduces and the Tempestt Bledsoes and the Richard Beys — simply disappeared or fell apart. Suddenly, Jerry's was the only talk show left that truly specialized in truculence, and the national prayer, as preached by people like former Education Secretary Bill Bennett, was that his would up and vanish, too. But, for reasons no one has yet been able to successfully articulate, though maybe they have something to do with blood lust and a blood-lust vacuum, it didn't. The Jerry Springer Show stayed where it was and got only bigger, despite recent efforts by its new owners to tone down the violence. Now it's a behemoth, with nearly 8 million viewers tuning in each day — and, in quite a few major cities, tuning in to two different installments each day, often one in the early afternoon, one to cap off the evening.

Along the way to this present state of affairs, some pretty terrible things have been said about Jerry's show. Not long ago, speaking to a group of television executives, former head of NBC Grant Tinker said, "It debases all of us." A critic for Newsday has called it "very possibly the worst program in the history of television." And Geraldo Rivera says, "If that's the level that the daytime business has sunk to, I'm so pleased not to be part of it anymore."

And yet Jerry is not one to really care what the critics say. He doesn't take their words personally. He doesn't get hopping mad or red in the face, or want to break anyone's nose. He's more than content to sit in his chair, with his cigar, and just let everything roll his way. Sometimes it's good news, such as the recent news of his $2 million movie deal with the producer of Dumb and Dumber, plot to be determined whenever, a deal that gives him many fun, loin-stirring things to think about, like who might be his leading lady — Uma Thurman, Neve Campbell or perhaps his favorite, Drew Barrymore. Sometimes it's not-so-good news, such as the recent news that Connecticut Sen. Joe Liberman and former Education Secretary Bennett have presented their first "Silver Sewer" award to the show's former owner, Seagram, "for underwriting the cultural pollution of the Jerry Springer talk show."

Jerry takes most everything like this in stride, although, of course, it might do his critics some good to just lighten up a little. The way Jerry sees it, there's nothing wrong with The Jerry Springer Show. "It's chewing gum, it's silly, it's outrageous, it's stupid, it's a spoof, it's a fraternity party on the air, it's crazy," he says, summarizing. The kids who watch the show know this; it's not like they're going to go out and start breaking jaws because of it. Lieberman, for one, should probably be more concerned about the kids in his state who go hungry. Anyway, kids see worse things on television; on CNN, C-Span and the local news, for instance, they are constantly bombarded with rapes and murders and politicians. And don't worry about the show's guests; since the producers get 4,000 calls a week from prospective guests and no one's twisting their arms and they've doubtless seen the show before, they know what they're getting into. Finally, no one ever really gets hurt on the show. The guests may get angry and toss their fists around and throw chairs and pull hair and confess a multitude of sins. But so what about it?

"These people aren't committing crimes," Jerry says. "They're yelling at each other. If anything, they're coming out and being honest. If someone's cheating and saying, 'Hey, I'm cheating,' what's the crime in that?"

He narrows his eyes.

"I mean, American television is so upper white middle class," he continues. "On mainstream television, that's the only perspective we see. And so here you have a show that just defies all these traditions, where the people on it don't speak the king's English, they're not rich or powerful, and most of them don't have an education. But the critics don't want to see that. And that's very, very elitist."

But enough about class. Although he could go on about it for another fifteen minutes (given the opportunity to expand, he often does, saying with great indignation, "Celebrities are always going on television talking about their most intimate moments, who they've slept with, the whole bit; but when regular people do it, we call it trash; it's such a double standard!"), he's very busy today. He looks at his watch. Everyone wants a piece of him. He gets roughly twenty requests for radio interviews a day, not to mention the constant calls from the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune and the Dallas Morning News. (The book that contains his press clippings from February, which hasn't even been completed yet, already weighs in at 4.72 pounds.) 20/20 wants to do a segment on him, which would be OK except that he has already promised himself to Maria Shriver and Dateline NBC. He's got two shows to host today. Then, later in the week, he's going on the road, to glad-hand a couple of affiliate stations and to talk at a couple of universities. As it happens, college kids love Jerry. They cut classes to watch his show. Or they tape it to watch later. Or they find their way to bars to watch him as a mob. It's become the latest college fad, a kind of fad ritual for an age with no actual rituals. It's what they're doing all across the country — in Kenosha, Wisconsin, it's at Friends Sports Bar and Restaurant; in Tampa, Florida, it's at places like Bennigan's and KC's Cove. The kids come together and shout their lungs out, forsaking their education and their parents' money for the pleasure of Jerry's company and the company of his guests, long may they knock each other silly and provide lots of good, crazy yuks.

A few hours later, Jerry has one show in the can. Leaving out nonessential facts and trimming all repetition, here's what the guests had to say:

"Bitch!"

"Whore!"

"Slut!"

"I love you, baby!"

"I love you, too!"

"Honey, there's something I need to tell you."

"Fuck!"

"Fuck you!"

"Fuck off!"

"Motherfucker!"

There's a lot of fisticuffs and slapping, of course, and the requisite hair pulling, and when one lady topples sideways, her dress rides up, revealing a knot of thick red veins and chunky, cottage-cheese thighs. That part of it is disgusting. But the display of fighting and its aftermath is pretty cool. The security guys — led by Steve Wilkos, a Chicago cop who has become famous for his Jerry Springer Show moonlighting — step right up and lay on. Meanwhile, Jerry hangs back with the audience. Jerry likes to say that he doesn't tangle with guests for two reasons: He's a coward, and he doesn't want to rip his Armani suits; they're rented. He also sometimes says that a monkey could do what he does as host, but a close inspection of the spreading chaos suggests that this may not be the case. A monkey — or Morton Downey Jr., for that matter — would probably not be able to hold back the way Jerry does. It'd probably get caught up in the passion of the moment and fling itself in there. Jerry, though, is almost able to disappear during moments of uproar. He's that removed from the action. He's there, but not there. And then, rising above it all, comes a cry compounded of many voices. It's the studio audience. It's their cry. "Jer-ry!" goes this cry. "Jer-ry! Jer-ry!"

It beckons to Jerry, but Jerry does not move. He crosses his arms. He drops his head. Maybe, expressionless, he glances at executive producer Richard Dominick in the wings. But he does not move. In fact, for a while, as the guests chuck shoes at one another and land inadvertent blows to Steve Wilkos' nuts, Jerry seems entirely indifferent. Then, taking his cue from Lord knows what, he chooses a particular moment to step in, ever so slowly, with a few words that calm both the crowd crying out his name and the guests locked in battle. The guests often don't see him coming. He places his hands on their shoulders. They look up, entirely surprised to see him there.

"Yes, sir," some of the men will say to Jerry, softly and almost reflexively, the anger and hurt and anguish of the previous few minutes draining almost as if by his touch. It's quite startling to see this happen. The guests, in their ripped shirts, with their crapped-up hair, look at Jerry as though they don't have a care in the world, as though they never did. Jerry allows this. He does not call them "asshole," "fuck-up," "trailer trash," "scum" or "freak." Jerry does not judge. Everything is OK with Jerry. It's a big, peaceful, loving scene. All is forgiven. Then, of course, Jerry has no choice but to remove his hand, to take back his soft touch so that the commerce of the show can go on, and once again all hell breaks loose.

The way Jerry remembers it, He was the sweetest, nicest, most peace-loving of kids. He eased into New York Harbor on top of a boat in 1949 at the age of five, with his mother and his father and lots of other people of the Jewish faith emigrating from London, shivering and wondering about the significance of the Statue of Liberty. They had come to America to escape persecution. They had lost relatives in the Holocaust. His mom said, "Ein Tag, Alles — one day, everything." They made a life for themselves in Kew Gardens, Queens, his mother working as a bank clerk, his father as both a jobber and a retailer of stuffed animals, or "plushes." Young Jerry never got into trouble, never received a spanking, never argued with his dad, never rumbled, never smoked dope or snorted cocaine, never once drank so much that he threw up, was a huge baseball fan, just loving the Yankees.

His college was Tulane, where he added a foot to his height, acted in a couple of plays, was president of his fraternity and graduated with a degree in political science. He then went to Northwestern Law School. Afterward he worked for Bobby Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign and decided to run for Congress, from Ohio, as an antiwar, civil-rights candidate. He lost by the slimmest of margins but forged ahead to win a seat on Cincinnati's city council. He was twenty-seven. The first thing he did was submit a motion making it illegal for city residents to be drafted into the Vietnam War. He was a man of the people, an idealist, a peace lover.

Then, one day in 1974, some vice cops in Kentucky busted a local whorehouse and found a check from one Jerry Springer for services rendered. At the time, Jerry was vice mayor. He stepped down from office but a year later decided he'd overreacted. It was wrong to visit a whorehouse and stupid to write a check to a whorehouse. "I am an asshole," he thought. But was his deed all that damnably bad? He decided it wasn't, ran for the council again, was elected again, got himself named mayor a few years later at the age of thirty-three, was dubbed the Boy Mayor of Cincinnati, made a name for himself as a good Jewish liberal, handed out keys to the city to all the rock stars he wanted to meet (Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Dolly Parton) and then threw his hat into the ring for the governor's job, in a campaign that turned ugly in a way that years later would become the norm.

The ugliness didn't come from Jerry, of course. It came from the opposition's pollster, Patrick Caddell, who wrote a polling question in which Jerry's moment with a whore was transformed into a tryst with three whores, in a motel room, with him getting busted on a morals beef, with his check turning out to be bad, none of which was true.

Springer countered with an ad of his own. He admitted to visiting a prostitute and went on to make a great big plus out of his act of 'fessing up — he's an honest fellow, "even if it hurts." And isn't that the kind of courageous governor the fine state of Ohio deserves right now? Covering the race, the Washington Post wrote, "No one is sure if the commercial is the act of a political genius or fool."

Candidate Jerry said, "You have to remember, I'm not running for God. What's wrong with the public knowing I'm a human being with warts?"

Shortly thereafter, the public let him know what was wrong with that, which led him to spend the next ten years of his life as television-newsman Jerry instead of as governor.

The next show Jerry will tape today is titled "Mom, Will You Marry Me?" It's about a divorced woman who is engaged to marry her ex-husband's son from a previous marriage. In other words, Brenda, 32, is about to marry her stepson, Bryan, 19, and they're planning to do so on the show. There's a big cake waiting to be wheeled onto the stage. There's a judge to officiate. There's a flower-bedecked archway. Plus, there's Bryan's father, Keith — the ex-husband — sickened unto death by the whole deal.

Right now, a pinched and frenzied producer named Melinda Chait, 34, is storming around backstage, her thin hands fluttering about as she talks to the show's various participants. In a sense, this is her show. It's her job to make sure that the guests are real. It's her job to make sure the guests, once they arrive at the NBC building, know exactly what is expected of them. Currently she is readying Keith, a bantam-size Arkansan with a beard. This is back in a small green room, where he's been sprucing himself up with khaki trousers and a sport coat and tie.

Chait looks at her notes. "Your ex-wife and your son," she says. "You're not going to stand by at their wedding and let them take their vows. It's going to happen over your dead body. It's what you said to me."

"Right," Keith says, smartly.

"So that's what you're going to be saying out there," Chait continues. "'They are doing this to hurt me. It's going to take place over my dead body.'"

Keith leans forward, making his eyes flinty. "Over my dead body," he says. Then he begins talking about what he's going to do to some friend of his ex-wife's, a woman named Tabitha, who is also on the show's lineup: "I will take my damn shoe off and put my sock in her mouth. I don't care. I'm country."

Chait bobs her head up and down. "If that's what you're going to do, do it fast, because security will try to stop you. So, you know, the point is moving objects. Moving objects are what get the attention of the audience. Get up out of your chair, move around. I'm not telling you to slug anybody. You know that for a fact. I don't tell you to slug anybody."

She looks at Keith, to see if he has caught her drift.

"Well," says Keith, "this is incest."

Chait goes along with the stretch of the truth. "It's incest. It's disgusting, and people are going to know it by your physical reactions. I want you up out of your chair but not slugging. Up out of your chair to let everybody know exactly how angry you are. Stand up. Show me. You're here to make sure your ex-wife doesn't marry your teenage son, period."

Keith pulls on his beard and, for no particular reason, brings up a friend of Brenda's who tried to commit suicide.

Chait looks alarmed. She begins shaking her head. "Nope, you're not going to talk about suicide. Period. OK? It's neither here nor there. I don't like suicides on my show. We're not going to talk about that, Period. If you bring that up, I'll stop the taping. I'm not kidding."

"OK," says Keith, contritely. Then he says, "My hands are sweating. I'm ready. I'll be showing my feelings."

"I know," says Chait. "I can count on you. You're an A-list person."

Keith nods. He's an A-list person. Chait can count on him.

A half-hour later, Jerry learns the show's basic plot during a pre-show meeting in Richard Dominick's office. Since the show is hers, Chait does most of the talking. Dominick, a bearded, heavyset man, sits in his chair, hands folded neatly over his belly. Jerry is standing and holding a baseball bat, which he occasionally cuts through the air. He listens and takes swings. Then he ends the meeting with the words that end every such meeting.

"This show is good for America," Jerry says. "Let's make this the greatest show we've ever done."

He doesn't shout these words or even say them with punch. In fact, the words just kind of dribble out of his mouth and fall to the floor. Maybe he means them, maybe he's just saying them. In any case, no one looks at them down there. Everyone just kind of steps around them, on their way out the door.

As a TV newsman, he was an Emmy-winning anchor, an Emmy-winning commentator and a news director. He was firmly entrenched at the top of Cincinnati's news racket when the station owners asked him whether he'd like his own national talk show. They envisioned him as a good-guy host, with good guests. He'd be empathetic, caring, a class act with a class show, A list all the way. And in the very beginning, so it was. His early guests included Oliver North and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Some of the shows were issue oriented. Others were of the heartwarming family-reunion type. He was going to become the next Phil Donahue. Only, Jerry had some problems with that. His main problem was with the furrowing of his eyebrows to show concern over the plight of his guests. Jerry couldn't get that down. That was Phil's move. It wasn't Jerry. To Jerry, on Jerry, it felt phony.

Pretty soon, his show began filling up with male dancers, topless maids, police psychics and the like, none of whom required the furrowed-eyebrow effect. In 1994, Dominick took over as executive producer of the show; from then on, under his direction, it just kept getting wilder and wilder, first with lots more of the sexy stuff, then with stuff both sexy and confrontational. Initially, the violence end of the action was edited out. But then, about a year ago, the show changed hands, and the new owners, the USA Network, told Jerry and Dominick to do whatever they had to do to get better ratings. Dominick gathered his group of producers and said to them, "Don't bring me anything unless it's interesting with the sound off."

Even then, it wasn't instant easy sailing. No one was noticing the changes, so lost was the show among all the other talk shows. When the others started folding or changed their tune, that helped a lot. It also helped a lot when WMAQ, the NBC-owned station in Chicago, asked Jerry whether he'd like to do commentaries for its news broadcasts. Jerry thought it sounded like fun. The station's two anchors, Carol Marin and Ron Magers, thought it sounded like a travesty; both of them made a stink about it and quit their jobs, which led to lots of national praise for them and lots of national publicity for Jerry, who at first came on strong with high-minded talk about his free-speech rights, etc., then quit his new gig after only two outings. It wasn't much fun, after all, being a free-speech-rights, test-bunny-type pincushion. And yet, because of it, industry publications such as Daily Variety were soon able to report, “Syndie Yakker Yanks Rug Out From Under Oprah.”

And, pretty soon, talk-show Jerry was able to say of the entire Marin-Magers flap, "It turned out great for me. In hindsight, I'd do it again."

The truth is, I've never met a person that couldn't be a guest on my show," Jerry says. "They don't exist in the world. Most of us would choose not to. I am among those. But I could fill a week, probably. I'd hope so. You'd hate to go through life with no stories."

He smiles, tipping cigar ashes into an ashtray.

A week's worth of stories, he says. And yet what these prurient, ratings-grabbing stories might be, he will not say. He'll say that he has no dreams of any sort that he can remember; that his favorite fruit is the common banana; that his most memorable orgasm was his first; that his most serious illness has been the common cold; that diving boards of moderate height are the only things that petrify him; that he tends to be punctual; that he doesn't tend to be moody; that he has never been to see a shrink. But that's about as far as he will go. With the exception of talking about his dalliance with a whore, which was already public knowledge, he is not forthcoming, and he intends for it to stay that way. Initial reports suggested that the upcoming Jerry Springer movie would be largely autobiographical, along the lines of the Howard Stern movie. "That's absurd," Jerry says. "When they first approached me, I said, 'If you're talking about an autobiography, absolutely do not continue the conversation.' It will be a comedy of some sort or a day-in-the-life story. But it's not going to be my life story. That's in the contract."

He laughs and lights up a cigar and moves around in his chair.

"I've had this blessed life with no trauma," he says. Nor, he says, has he suffered any others to be traumatized. "I can't ever remember trying to hurt anybody," he goes on. "I don't think you would find someone who'd say, 'He's a son of a bitch!'"

"He's just a nice, nice guy," says Jimmy Sherlock, one of his security guys.

"I can't say a bad thing about him," says Steve Wilkos.

"He doesn't take anything too seriously," says Todd Schultz, the show's stage manager.

"He's so normal, he's abnormal," says staffer Eric Olson.

"It's hard to be alive," says Richard Dominick. "That's what The Jerry Springer Show shows you. This is America. This is what we live through."

It's all rather confusing. On the one hand, Jerry says he could fill a week's worth of shows, suggesting that his life is rife with major incidents of the sort he'd be loath to expose to anyone. On the other, he says that unlike his show's guests, it's been exceedingly easy for him to be alive, that nothing much has touched him, no pain, no anguish, no anger, no guilt, no doubt.

That's got to be a lie, of course. That's got to be talk-show Jerry speaking there. And that being the case, who knows? Who knows what really has happened to Jerry, the real Jerry as opposed to talk-show Jerry, during the course of his lifetime but most especially during his seven-year tenure as host of his show? Maybe it's like Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz once said, in a statement that's perhaps applicable to Jerry's guests and audience, as well as to Jerry himself: "Today man believes there is nothing in him, so he accepts anything even if he knows it to be bad, in order to find himself at one with others, not to be alone." So far, to find himself at one with others, Jerry has taped nearly 1,400 episodes of his show, most every day of it spent among the seeping tragedy and horror of everyday life. Would not this exact a toll?

"In an entrepreneurial culture, success is its own god, even at the cost of morality or soul," says Geraldo Rivera. "I've met Jerry many times over the years. He always seems very nice. But I think he's smart enough to know exactly what he's doing. He's obviously in it for a short-term score. That, I think, is the sin here."

"I had only met Jerry once prior to the blowup in our newsroom," says former WMAQ anchorman Ron Magers. "He had been taping the show for only a couple of months. I passed him in the hall, and we shook hands. He leaned forward as if he was sharing a great secret, and he whispered, 'I know I'm going to hell for this.' I was quite taken aback. Apparently, Jerry wasn't proud of what he was doing. Maybe he is now. I don't know."

Stage manager Todd Schultz warms up the studio audience with a bit of humorous patter, then Jerry jumps onto the stage to crack a few jokes.

"Several years ago my wife at the time ran off with my best friend," he says. "I really miss him."

The audience howls and groans.

"I've been seeing this beautiful woman for about six weeks now," he says. "I got a telescope for my birthday."

This time the audience just groans. He has been telling these same corny and comedically stale jokes for years. Even so, he whips them out like he just heard them for the first time yesterday. It's some kind of miracle how fresh they sound, coming out of his mouth.

Keith and his son Bryan and Keith's ex-wife Brenda and Brenda's friend Tabitha get onstage. The judge stands to one side, not far from the wedding cake, waiting to officiate. Keith forgets all about taking off one of his socks and stuffing it into Tabitha's mouth. At the same time, he also forgets about Melinda Chait's admonition not to fight. Indeed, it doesn't take long for everyone to start brawling. At one point, Keith grabs the wedding cake, intending to dump it on Brenda. Instead, one of the security guys gets it square in the chest. There's lots of cussing and flying fists and whatnot.

In the final moments of a Jerry Springer Show battle, things reach a peak. The guests seem to lose their senses. They have difficulties with the language, king's English or otherwise, and often can only express themselves with gurgles of outrage and deep roars. They become unbalanced and fall off the edges of their shoes. "Today the law defines death, with appropriate blurriness, as the cessation of brain function," writes Sherwin Nuland in How We Die. "Though the heart may still throb and the unknowing bone marrow creates new cells, no man's history can outlive his brain." And so this is what is found at the most furious moment, when reason and civility are at their most distant remove: cultural brain death, the end of the dream we used to call America. It is Jerry's genius, then, the secret of what Jerry brings to the show, to be able at this moment to step in and apply his calm voice and his soft touch, like some kind of faith healer, to those in the midst of mortal arrest.

Finally, a newcomer shuffles onstage. It's Brenda's real son, from some other marriage. He's sixteen, three years younger than Bryan. He sits in a chair. Tears flow down his cheeks. He, too, is unhappy with the impending wedding. He doesn't want a stepdad who is so close to his own age. It seems unnatural, somehow. Brenda and Bryan had not known he felt this way. And, faced with it, they do what Jerry thinks is the right thing: They call off the wedding. Keith sits there, smugly happy. Brenda and Bryan look truly distraught. Their love, and their pain, is nearly palpable. The crowd goes nuts.

Then, at show's end, the camera singles out Jerry. It's time for his Final Thought. "We love who we love," he says solemnly. "And so long as there are no laws of nature or the state being violated, I suspect it's nobody else's business who people choose to marry. And yet this situation here makes us a little bit uncomfortable . . . In today's world, where so many families are a result of separate marriages . . . it is perhaps more important than ever that children know the home is always a safe haven . . . where the mom giving you a bath will always be just that, mom, and not a future date."

After a few more thoughts of this bizarre (but true) variety, Jerry signs off saying what he always says: "Till next time, take care of yourself and each other," a signature tag line that, if everyone took it to heart, would cost Jerry big time: his show, his budding movie career, his Armani suits, the whole deal.

Afterward, Jerry stands at the exit and shakes hands with the departing viewers. He doesn't have to do this, but he always does, because that's just part of who he is. He says:

"Thanks for coming!"

"It's all crazy!"

"Yes, the show's a lot of fun to do!"

"It's nice!"

"It's crazy!"

"Very nice to meet you," he says to almost everyone, almost blankly, with a great big smile plastered on his handsome face.

A few days later, Jerry arrives in Philadelphia, makes his way over to Temple University and finds the place crawling with cops. He peers through the darkened limo windows and says, "Why all this security?"

Steve Wilkos, who travels with Jerry on these kinds of trips, says, "You're speaking, man! You're like Elvis, man!"

Jerry says, "Christ, I'm not a fucking terrorist."

Wilkos says, "You're Farrakhan, baby!"

"Jesus Christ," Jerry says, somewhat amused. "What do they think — I'm starting a revolution?"

"The kids love you, Jerry," says Linda Shafran, his press-relations person. "The girls will be raising their shirts, Jerry."

Apparently, the girls do that a lot. Whenever Jerry shows up to speak somewhere, the girls are lifting their blouses, showing him their breasts, often with his name written on them.

"Like in New Orleans," says Wilkos, recalling Jerry's engagement there.

"New Orleans was unbelievable," says Jerry, rolling his eyes. "A million people, the paper said. So you figure that's half a million sets we saw. I said, 'God love it. This is America.'"

He pauses and looks out the darkened windows again. Some kids are milling around now, and some pretty girls. A crowd is gathering.

"Oh, man," he says, happily. "What a great time to be alive!"

What he really means, of course, is what a great time for talk-show Jerry to be alive. And about that, and only about that, he couldn't be more right.