Jerry’s Kiddings

The lord of the ringmaster is more "Happy Feet" than fine-steppin' Frodo: Jerry Springer, whose Slinky-like spring-in-his step landed him among the favorites in "Dancing With the Stars" two seasons ago — and whose fancy footwork was finessed from years of side-stepping thrown chairs and trailer trash on his pugilistic self-named talk show — truly believes that "America's Got Talent."

Or is it "America's Got Chutzpah"?

"Yeah," chuckles Springer. "I think so."

He should know. A one-time singer whose self-description is flat-out funny — "When I sing, people get involved, because they have to guess where the notes are supposed to be" — and tonsorial titan who doesn't tap dance about why he wanted to dance — "I wanted to learn so I could dance at my daughter's wedding" — more than anything, Springer resembles an aging Bar Mitzvah boy with a very big check in his coat pocket.

Pinch his cheek — leave the armlocks to his daytime guests — and see how sweet and disarming that self-deprecating smile can be.

"Who are we kidding?" he kids. "The reason they chose me" a host for "America's Got Talent," broadcast by NBC on Tuesday nights, "was because next to me, those chosen have talent."

It has been somewhat of an operatic career the past 35 years — including "Jerry Springer the Opera," first staged in England and eventually headed for Broadway. "I enjoyed it, but I wish it were about somebody else," he sighs of the sung-through show, in which he's the central figure albeit he didn't figure in the casting.

After all, how many operas are there about living legends?

"I can't share the experience. I can't call Figaro and ask him what he thinks of 'Carmen'. "

Carmen … isn't that the name of the transgendered bull fighter he once hosted on his daytime TV talk show?

"I don't pretend the show is anything more than it is," he says candidly. "Which is silliness."

Silly sallies are not what one expects from the urbane, bright, experienced Springer, who is more surprised than anyone else that his career has carried him so far for so long.

"No one," he says, "would have picked me out of my high school yearbook" to become a show-biz whiz.

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"Show business is my job; it's not my religion," he replies.

No, Judaism is that — and proudly so. At 63, the English-born Gerald Norman Springer who sprung his charm on Americans arriving as an émigré in Queens at age 5, proudly points to his parents — Holocaust survivors — as sources of strength. The ringmaster of TV raunchfests did so in his autobiographical Ringmaster — not to be confused with the confusing movie he made of the same name — and in conversations over the years.

And over those years, the perennially popular host with the most — okay, as he acknowledges, the most interviews with unfamous people — has made a name for himself as smart with a smack of liberal leanings.

The only real-life mayor to be mentioned on "WKRP in Cincinnati" doesn't give a KRP about gossip to get his goat. (Although it was a prostitute, and not a goat, that caught the clucks of those questioning his morals when he ran for Ohio governor; in typical Springer-speak, he fessed up to his single indiscretion.)

And while the Cincinnati kid never made it to the governor's chair, he elected to make a difference another way; through political broadcasts that led to a news-anchor job, eventually unmoored by notoriety from his daytime lunkfest.

Of course, originally, "The Jerry Springer Show" was a shoe-in for a more serious role, filling the big shoes left behind when Phil Donahue's program left WLWT-TV in Cincinnati.

In the beginning, Springer sprang for a political gambit, but when the gamble didn't bring in the viewers, he turned to trailer attractions that teased out the ratings. But "my passion has always been in the political arena," says the Northwestern University law-school grad and attorney, who at one time was a campaign aide for Robert F. Kennedy.

And if his campaigns these days are to determine whether a magician can make a juggler disappear while reciting kaddish for Harry Houdini while going for the million-dollar prize on "America's Got Talent"? Maybe he's just the modern-day Ed Sullivan — only more limber.

Springer chuckles. "I don't want to put myself on that plateau," but it is all a throwback to the venues of such hit shows as Sullivan's Sunday-night series, or, for that matter, "The Ted Mack Amateur Hour."

Ever the professional, Springer seems to have hosted one too many of his own shows themed to the diffident design of "I'm Not Somebody Special Doing Something Extraordinary That Nobody Else Couldn't Do."

Home on the raunch, where these TV Jerry's Kids are more apt to be illegitimate? A telethon of a cousins club where they're all married to each other?

"What am I going to complain about?" says Springer of whining before his time. "Thank you, thank you, thank you, dear God," he avows of his success in life.

A disingenuous genius who genuflects before others kick him? "I was hired to be quick, to ask the right questions, to be the conductor," he says of the cacophony of phonies and low-class dropouts his daytime show is schooled in.

Atonal ass-kicking? Pass the baton? No, he's not about to retire. It's a job, he wants one to know. But just how did he get this job? "I read in the newspaper that they were starting 'The Jerry Springer Show,' and thought, since I had the name, why don't I try out?"

What he won't try out on Tuesday nights on NBC is his dance act. "Dance in the show? I hope not. We're trying to keep [the show] on the air."

So, if he's not lighter than air, at least he learned to dance for his daughter's wedding. Funny thing about that … "We were in the middle of our dance — and Katie looked beautiful in her dress — when she turned to me and said, 'Dad, they can't see our feet.' "

Indeed, the gown was covering up the fancy footwork Springer had sprung for on the series. "The whole thing was for nothing," he laughs.

But, maybe, just maybe, he lost because he was out of his element altogether? Seriously, Jerry, weren't you at a disadvantage because they wouldn't let you do the hora?

"The hora?" and he lets out an even bigger laugh. "Yeah, the hora." But then again, he muses, "Watching me was a — hora!" 



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