Family circus

Jerry Springer: Ringmaster Reviewed by Gary Kaufman The movie is every bit as loud and raunchy as the television show -- so what's not to like?

Published December 2, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

"Ringmaster," the comedy that pretends to be a look behind the scenes of Jerry Springer's raucous daytime talk show, is exactly what you'd expect it to be: loud, fast-paced, funny, stupid and raunchy. Unfortunately, we're only at the end of the first paragraph here, so what else would you like to know?

Springer isn't much of a threat in the Howard Stern King of All Media sweepstakes, and to his credit he seems to know it. He's not the star of the movie. He kind of ambles through it playing himself as a bemused, overwhelmed, slightly embarrassed doofus. It's not at all believable or amusing, but it is preferable to the self-aggrandizement he could have thrust upon us. His only self-indulgences are a pointless but short scene where he dresses up in a sparkly cowboy suit and sings a country song in a bar and one modest, brief sex scene. Hey, the guy's made it. Let him live his dreams. The thing is, in real life, Springer the TV host is a droll, witty guy, and I found myself missing him here.

Class issues are never far from the surface of any discussion of Springer and his ilk, including the usual dismissals of them as trash, part of a centuries-old tradition of the middle and upper classes snorting at the entertainment choices (bear-baiting, boxing, vaudeville) of the lower. And "Ringmaster" makes no bones about what it is. This is low-class entertainment featuring (and aimed at) low-class people, and we know it because the movie opens with the exterior of a trailer, the international sign for "low-class, no-count white people inside."

And here they are: Connie Zorzak (Molly Hagan) is a South Florida roach coach operator (she reads Soap Opera Digest on the job -- class signifier!). Her daughter, 19-year-old spitfire babe Angel (Jaime Pressly), and her husband, unshaven beer-drinking dog-race-watching-in-his-underwear Rusty (action movie guy Michael Dudikoff), are having an affair they barely bother to try to keep secret from her. "This trailer isn't big enough for all three of us," Connie says after interrupting a slap and tickle session. After laying a trap for the lovebirds, she seduces Angel's slow-witted, naive boyfriend, Willie (Ashley Holbrook), by way of revenge, and calls "The Jerry Show" to get them all on the "You Did What With Your Stepdaddy?" episode.

Another group is headed for the show from Detroit -- they're low-class, black division. In one funny scene, Starletta (Wendy Raquel Robinson of "The Steve Harvey Show") calls "Jerry" to get on a "My Traitor Girlfriends" episode while she's in the act of catching her best friend Vonda (Tangie Ambrose) in the act with Demond (Michael Jai White), Starletta's dog of a boyfriend. Another pal, Leshawnette (Nicki Micheau), has also enjoyed Demond's well-muscled charms, so she gets to go, too.

This is all set up with a fair amount of energy and fun. (It looks at first like it's going to be a boob-fest -- there are eight, including Jerry's, in the first few minutes, but then none after that.) Pressly, a pin-up model type who looks like Pamela Anderson's delinquent kid sister, is great in a scene where the short-tempered, foul-mouthed Angel tries unsuccessfully to get her misspelled paycheck cashed. Hagan, best known from the not-quite classic TV show "Herman's Head" -- she played Herman's good side, or something -- actually makes you feel for her Connie when she bucks herself up in the mirror ("You're just as pretty as a peach. Yes you are.") or apologizes to Angel for bringing her into the world as a 15-year-old mom who had no idea what she was doing. Robinson, Ambrose and Micheau are a three-ring circus, alternately insulting and supporting one another.

When they all get to the show, the pace slows and we get to see the behind-the-scenes stuff, which is pretty fake. Either that or Jerry needs to get better security. The would-be guests roam the offices freely, accosting Jerry for autographs, fighting in the hallways and hooking up for some heavy breathing (Angel and Demond, of course) in a supply closet. They're all just happy to be there (well, the women are; the men either don't care or don't like the idea, but go along), convinced that their lives are going to be better once they go on TV.

Why? Well, that's the question that always leaps to mind about shows like Jerry Springer's: What makes people want to go on TV and humiliate themselves and each other in front of millions of people? And not only that, but why do we -- come on, you do so -- watch? The movie offers an answer, and Jerry gets to mouth it in a climactic speech during the taping: Rich, famous people get to talk about their humiliating problems on TV every day, and we all lap it up and love them all the more for it. Jerry is giving poor people a chance to be heard, a chance to see people like themselves on TV.

Yeah, well. And encouraging them to attack each other physically. It's all very empowering in Jerry's version of things, but the fact is these people go on TV because it's TV. People have been humiliating themselves on television for decades. Chuck Barris, who created "The Dating Game," "The Newlywed Game" and "The Gong Show," made a fortune from the realization that people will do anything -- anything! -- to get on TV. Television is the great shining thing that all of us have in common. It's in all our houses, or trailers, or whatever. It tells us most of what we know of the world. Nothing really exists until it exists on TV. I don't exist until I exist on TV. Jerry's going to put me on TV. What's to understand?

The movie does capture this. Angel and Connie's battle over Rusty and the girls' game of musical beds with Demond are problems in their lives, but problems that get them all on TV, a common victory that brings them closer to each other. It's a net gain, and they really are happier afterward.

And we watch -- come on, admit it, once in a while -- because it's dramatic and because it's outrageous and because it's funny. These people are in real pain, going through real traumas, and you just don't get to see that very often without being personally involved, which of course always takes the pleasure out of it. They often say outrageous, ridiculous, hilarious things, not because they're "poor," but because they're just whacked-out people, or at least their whacked side is encouraged by the show's producers and audience. Even the violence seems cartoonish and choreographed: Guest attacks another guest, burly security guys leap onstage and pull them apart, the crowd chants, "Jerry, Jerry, Jerry!" It's pro wrestling without the goofy costumes.

"Ringmaster" is a good way to pass an afternoon. You probably won't mention seeing it when you pick up your Nobel Prize, but it probably won't destroy civilization as we know it, either.

Come to think of it, maybe it is civilization as we know it.

By Gary Kaufman

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