He was supposed to be the end of quality television as we know it.
Jerry Springer's talk show, featuring dysfunctional, working class folks in a bizarre parody of Oprah Winfrey or Phil Donahue, devolved into fighting so quickly, it was obvious the participants stepped onstage knowing just what was expected of them.
It was a circus, driving critics particularly crazy because Springer — unlike contemporaries such as Geraldo Rivera and Maury Povich — never really pretended he was doing anything other than serving up sordid spectacle for entertainment.
But a funny thing happened on the way to TV Armageddon. Jerry Springer became an institution.
The Oprah Winfrey Show. Donahue. Ricki Lake. The Montel Williams Show. They're all off the air. But Springer, 68, just keeps going, like some scandal-fueled Energizer bunny, presiding over episodes titled "Racist Moms!" and "Oops! I Cheated Again!"
"The show's stupid, but it's fun," said Springer, who began in 1991 with a more serious program, later tackling more salacious topics to appeal to young audiences. "There's always new young people suddenly old enough to watch; that's the secret to its longevity."
The host, who has lived a low-key, offscreen life in Sarasota for 15 years now, will come north to serve as honorary grand marshal for the Sant' Yago Knight Parade in Ybor City on Saturday, leading a raucous celebration bound to be reminiscent of a few past episodes.
Springer describes his job as a workmanlike affair; he tapes three shows on Mondays and two shows on Tuesdays, armed only with a card listing the guests' names. He isn't told what the episode's topic might be, so he can explore the details for the first time on camera.
"Our show, every day is a morality play where the good guys win and bad guys lose," he said. "I would argue when you have shows or movies with violent behavior and all the people are really beautiful and sexy-looking, that could inspire a kid. There's never been a human being who watches our show and says, 'Boy, I wanna be just like that when I grow up.' "
Whether the show is harmless or not, there is a sense, these days, that the outrage train has passed Springer by.
When NBC's Fear Factor can organize an (admittedly unaired) competition where contestants drink a glass of urine and the casts of various Real Housewives series duke it out with regularity, perhaps the coarseness of American culture has finally caught up with Jerry Springer.
"I remember, the first year, we did a show on interracial dating and there were protestors," said Springer. "And now, we have a president who is the product of an interracial marriage. So, you know, to that extent, we've progressed in great ways."
The guy who has seen an opera written about his show, served as mayor of Cincinnati and hosted America's Got Talent could only chuckle at the circumstance.
"Everyone has their jokes about the show, but there's hardly a human being alive who wouldn't do this," he said. "Wherever you go, people are nice, they chant your name, you're paid handsomely. . . . The serious answer is, it's hard to come up with a reason not to."