Jerry Springer never set out to be "Jerry Springer." In an eclectic 40-year career, he never purposely set out to be anything except an aide to President Robert F. Kennedy.
"Politics was what I loved," he says when asked to reflect on the path his life has taken. "Politics was what I wanted to do."
Fresh out of Northwestern University Law School, he was recruited by Sen. Kennedy's presidential campaign. But Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, and Springer never made it to the White House. Instead, he practiced law in Cincinnati, ran for Congress (he lost) at age 26 and became mayor of Cincinnati at 33.
A Cincinnati TV station hired him as a news anchor, then assigned him to host a talk show. He wasn't thrilled. That was 1991, and the rest is "The Jerry Springer Show," now in its 20th season of shedding light on such topics as "I'm Leaving You for a Stripper" and "Lustful Lesbians."
Every day on what TV Guide called "the worst show in the history of television," Springer is greeted like a rock star by a young audience chanting, "Jerry, Jerry, Jerry." Guests curse and flash and punch one another while the cheering, jeering crowd eggs them on and beefy guards stand by to break up scuffles.
"I know it's crazy," Springer said by phone from Connecticut. "My job is to host. I don't endorse the behavior. I never thought the show was me, but I realize it does have my name on it."
America saw another side of him, however, when he competed on Season 3 of "Dancing With the Stars," explaining that he'd promised his daughter he'd dance with her at her wedding.
"I was surprised that people reacted so favorably," Springer says. "My wife told me, 'That's because they've never seen you being you.'"
The mild-mannered, grandfatherly Springer also turned up as host of "America's Got Talent" for Seasons 2 and 3. And he's the one audiences at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis will see when the Springer-hosted "America's Got Talent Tour" makes a stop here Thursday.
And yes, for the record, Springer does believe America has talent.
"What's nice about the show is that we don't usually have a chance to see talented people before they're famous," he says. "Here, we see the process of going from nothing to fame. In a way, I see this show as a real manifestation of the American dream, where if you work and try hard enough, everyone gets a shot."
Springer's work load would seem staggering even if he weren't 66. On Monday and Tuesday, he tapes "Springer" in Connecticut. The rest of the week, he flies from stop to stop on the 15-city "Talent" tour, opening the show with a monologue and introducing — and joking with — the performers. Until the latest season wrapped up, he was also spending four days a week taping 170 episodes for the GSN show "Baggage."
"I'm a workaholic," Springer says. "I don't think I'd be happy on the couch."