When the Jerry Springer Show debuted in 1991, it was kinda thoughtful, really. It started off as a program in which the former mayor of Cincinnati delved into such topics as homelessness and poverty. Hardly anyone remembers that, though. Most people know the show as a parade of people who have made horrible choices and are willing to rehash those choices before a studio audience, and also get into fights onstage.
The show has been on for 25 seasons, which means there's been a mind-bogglingly huge number of guests, each with their own story of wrecked relationships and secret lives. Getting these people on TV is a complicated, sometimes messy job, but somebody has to do it.
I spoke to one of those people recently, a woman who worked on the show for a summer within the last decade. (I'm omitting any identifying details because she signed a non-disclosure agreement.) Curious about what it was like to be behind the scenes of one of the most notorious TV programs of all time, I asked her about her months of answering phones, wrangling guests, and talking to guys who had sex with their moms. This is what she told me:
VICE: How did you end up getting a job working on The Jerry Springer Show?Telephone Operator: I think it was the summer, and I saw the listing on Craigslist. It was a long time ago, but I think I just sent in my résumé and someone called me to ask if I'd ever answered phones before and if I was easily upset—because I was going to hear some awful stuff. I think I understood at the time what the job was, but it's hard to prepare for the kind of stuff that you're going to hear in that situation.
I started on the phones the next day. I don't remember my very first call. The vast majority of the calls were one family member having sex with the lover of another family member, like "I slept with my mom's boyfriend," or "I slept with my daughter's boyfriend," or "I slept with my aunt's husband." People called that hotline to say any crazy thing that was going on in their life.
So what was the first truly memorable phone call you got?
I think one of the first really memorable phone calls I got was from a little girl who told me she was hiding in a closet from an abusive father. She called because she thought that the security guard Steve [Wilkos] would come and defend her. A lot of children would often call and think that Steve was going to come and defend them from alcoholic and abusive parents.
That's extremely heavy. Was that addressed by the company? Did they tell you the protocol for dealing with that sort of thing?
They said that they really couldn't get involved. [Note: A spokesperson for the show said that has never been and would never be the show's policy but declined to elaborate.]
How did you feel the first time that you got that phone call, knowing that you couldn't really do anything? What did you say to end the call?
I felt extremely helpless and very sad. Eventually the call dropped. I think I went to go find someone who maybe could help or who I could see to be allowed to call the police. I mean, she was also a kid, so I was trying to get an address of where she was out of her. But basically, by the time I got a supervisor-type person's attention, the little girl was off of the phone.
It was very sad. I think I tried to justify it by trying to tell myself that it probably wasn't a real person, or it was a fake call. A lot of people called, and they just wanted money, or they were just extremely crazy people.
How many times do you think you got that phone call from someone who thought Steve Wilkos was going to come help them?
I guess I would say once or twice a day. Usually it wasn't like someone crying in a closet being like, "Oh my God, come save me." Usually it was just like someone who was unhappy and being like, "My boyfriend is an asshole! I think Steve should come kick the shit out of him!" Adults also thought this. I mean, a lot of the people who called in come from these neighborhoods where you really have no idea how poor they are and how little access they have to anything. This is a resource to them— The Jerry Springer Show. This is how few resources a lot of these people had.
In what ways would people try to use the show as a resource?
I think most people seemed to just be really excited for a flight to somewhere else––a city. They seemed just excited for the free fight and the free meal that comes with it, and perhaps the idea that they might become famous off of this.
Did you have a lot of people call that were fabricating stories to try to get a free meal?
Probably. I would have no way of knowing if someone was making up stories. There was a special code—it was like HO or something—which meant "just wants a handout." And that was like one-third of the phone calls I took. If somebody didn't have a pitch, and just called blatantly asking for money like, "My house burned down, and then I lost my job, and I thought maybe you guys could help me out." That call would be like a third of the calls. Were there any calls that you found interesting or humorous that were memorable?
A lot of the time it was just how people told the story. There was this woman who had me on the phone for the longest time, and she had a fetish for sleeping with her daughter's boyfriends and used to sleep with them all of the time. I kept being like, "OK, thank you, I've got it." and she was like, "No! Let me describe to you in great detail how I seduce her boyfriends. They just want the younger version, but I'm even hotter."
There was this one guy who was scared to death because he cheated on his fiancé with her sister, and he wanted to tell her on the show. A lot of the time people want to do confessional things on the show, like one guy who wanted to tell his wife that he secretly preferred having sex with men who were dressed like women.
Did you have any notorious repeat callers?
"Snake Eyes" was a guy who used to call several times a day––probably more than that because it was almost as though every single person would get messages or calls from him every day. He didn't really make any sense. It was more like he would just spurt out a stream-of-consciousness thing like, "Tomato! Tomato! The tomato goes to the sun, and they all build a ship, and the ship is going to go into the sky because outer space is what it's all about!" Something like that but for an hour. And at the end of the day, whoever got the most calls from Snake Eyes got free drinks when we went out after work.
My assumption is that he was a homeless guy standing at a pay phone, but it was really funny to imagine him as a normal person sitting in an office who was seemingly normal but was just calling to make these crazy phone calls all day.
Did you see any of the people on there who you spoke with when you watched the show?
No—I mean I wouldn't have known, you know? In some ways, all of their stories were so generic. "Likes having sex with my dog." I had that happen about five or six times. Guys called because they had an obsession with rubbing things on their junk and then having some type of animal lick it off. At that point, that was like the least upsetting thing I had possibly heard. I was just like, "Yep! Makes total sense. If I had a penis, that's definitely what I would do with it."
That was like the least upsetting? What would be like the most then?
The most upsetting was like people who were being abused and beaten by someone. There were a lot of molestation stories. It's shocking how much they were able to get dudes on who were like, "Yeah, I'm molesting my kid."
Sometimes you would get a $50 extra if you were the person who would babysit guests in between their flight and going to sleep. So I took them to dinner once or twice, but I didn't do it for long because a lot of the times they would hit on me or say something really creepy. You would have to keep them from ordering alcohol, so sometimes you would be convincing alcoholics not to order alcohol.
What would those nights be like?
They'd fly them in, and someone would bring them to the hotel, and I would come and meet them at the hotel, and I would take them to dinner. I would have the company credit card, and I would take them and myself to dinner. It would be a place like Heartland Brewery or something like that. Burgers and sandwiches and roast chicken. Stuff like that.
Based on the very limited thing you would know about the person, which was probably awful, how would you make small talk over the course of a dinner with somebody like that?
A lot of the time, I didn't know which episode they were here to shoot, or what their story was. They'd frequently tell me. They'd be like, "So, don't you want to ask me about my foot fetish?" or something, and I would be like, "No, I'm good." I'm pretty good at making conversation with strangers. I'd usually be like, "So, how long have you been in Arkansas? What do you do?"
Fifty bucks doesn't seem worth it to have dinner with people who have more fucked up reasons to be on the show than a foot fetish.
I feel like some of the most upsetting conversations I had involved men telling me casually that they beat on their wives or their girlfriends. Like, "Oh, my girlfriend and I had a fight, because I was sleeping on the couch, and I was all dirty, and she kept yelling at me to get off the couch because she said I was getting it dirty. So I punched her in the face, and she's trying to divorce me. Now here we are on the show." So I would be like, "Oh. That's weird."
I feel like I've had a lot of deep conversations with a lot of rednecks like, "So why do you choose to hit women? Hmm… Here's why I think you shouldn't hit women." And usually they were like, "Equality, right? Shouldn't I treat a woman the way I treat a man for bugging me?" and I would be like, "No. I don't think that because women are physically smaller and can't hit you back or can't cause the same physical damage. Women have to be afraid in so many places. They shouldn't have to be afraid in their own home." But I feel like a lot of the times, I would just try to reason with them and be like, "Huh. Why did you do that?" But if they just told me straight something less immoral like, "I had sex with my mom!" I was kind of just a little bit like, "Oh… That's cool… I had sex with an older woman one time." Then I would usually just bond with them over my own hedonism and flaws.
Was there anyone who you actually vibed with?
They were all pretty scary dudes. I'm not going to lie. I didn't sign up to take them to dinner very often. There would be a lot of confrontation because they would want to drink, and I would be like, "No, we can't pay for alcohol."
Come to think of it, no, not really.
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