After spending much of his life on television, Jerry Springer says he's finally portraying himself.
"I have always played a role," said the man whose very name is shorthand for outrageous talk TV. "A news anchor, a talk show host, a schlub trying to learn how to dance."
But as host of NBC's America's Got Talent, Springer is scarcely in the spotlight, yielding attention instead to the auditioning performers and celebrity judges. More often he's offstage, giving high fives, hugging the losing contestants or dancing with the wanna-be stars.
"If he stumbles on an intro, he won't want it cut out. He'll say, 'I'm human, I'm going to make mistakes and tell stupid jokes,' '' said Jason Raff, one of the show's executive producers.
Raff said he was initially surprised by the choice of Springer but cites the host's spontaneity as a key to success for a program he calls "part Gong Show, part Ed Sullivan.''
"When we had the male belly dancer on, I looked over at the monitor and there's Jerry Springer (mimicking a belly dancer's moves) without his shirt on," said Raff. "It was such a risk and yet it was perfect and funny, the right thing to do at the time."
The program, in its second summer, has consistently ranked in the top 10, giving struggling NBC a boost by finding an audience that follows the fates of ordinary people seeking center stage and a $1-million prize.
With no age limit and an open door for unusual acts, Talent has drawn hundreds of hopefuls, including acrobats, lariat-twirling cowboys, magicians, musicians, dancers, and performing cats and dogs.
Judges Piers Morgan, David Hasselhoff and Sharon Osbourne sent home all but 20 contestants, with viewers voting to decide who reaches the Aug. 21 finale.
Springer was tapped by executive producer Simon Cowell to replace last year's host, Regis Philbin. "I hadn't watched the show," said Springer. "And I said, 'Who is this calling, really?' ''
Springer readily warmed to the idea. "I grew up with Major Bowes and Ed Sullivan," he said, referring to a radio amateur hour and the classic TV variety show. "But what gives our show an extra edge is that two of our judges are Brits. They tend to be more judgmental, more critical," said Springer.