Eric's Bad Movies: Ringmaster (1998)

Did you know that The Jerry Springer Show is still on the air? It is! The syndicated trash cavalcade is just wrapping up its 21st season and is contracted for two more. This surprises me -- not because the public's interest in seeing jack-o-lantern-toothed troglodytes embarrass themselves has waned, but because those needs are being met by countless reality shows on countless cable channels. Almost anyone appearing on an average Springer episode could easily become the subject of his or her own series on TLC. The show now feels like a quaint relic from the '90s, when an hour of televised schadenfreude per day was all you could get.

It was in 1998, during the height of Jerry Springer's reign as King of Sadtown, that we got Ringmaster, a grotesque effort to cash in on the TV show's success by turning it into a movie. But for legal reasons, Ringmaster couldn't acknowledge that it was a barely fictionalized version of The Jerry Springer Show, and had to assert the opposite with this hilarious disclaimer:

"All characters and events in the preceding motion picture were entirely fictional. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and unintentional. Nothing is intended to depict any actual participant in, or aspect of, The Jerry Springer Show, which is broadcast on television. [Oh, it's not a radio programme?] This motion picture is not connected to The Jerry Springer Show and is not licensed from its producers."

This is after we've seen a movie in which Jerry Springer plays a TV host named Jerry whose show is identical in format and content to The Jerry Springer Show. Those similarities are coincidental and unintentional. They did NOT happen on purpose. In fact, the movie is a little offended that you would even suggest a thing.

As you'd expect from a movie about poor white trash, this one starts in Florida. (Save your outrage. We all know Florida's state flag is shaped like a Dorito and has a picture of a one-armed man punching an alligator.) A hotel maid named Angel (Jaime Pressly) performs sexual favors for hotel guests and, when she's not "on the clock," is also sleeping with her grizzled stepfather, Rusty (Michael Dudikoff). Angel's mom, Connie (Molly Hagan), is only 15 years older than she is, so they tend to compete for the same men, like a Tennessee Williams version of Gilmore Girls. When Connie learns of the affair, she marches right out of her trailer and over to Angel's trailer, where she administers revenge fellatio on Angel's boyfriend, a taciturn dope named Willie (Ashley Holbrook). Connie and Angel are devoid of decency, scruples, and, most of the time, brassieres.

Then Connie hears that her favorite TV show, simply called Jerry, is doing an episode on skanky whores who sleep with their nasty stepfathers. This is the perfect chance for Connie and Angel to become gen-u-wine tee-vee celebrities, hyuk hyuk! They're gonna put on their nicest tube tops and least-filthy stretch pants and get famous!

Meanwhile, somewhere else, lest you think Jerry Springer is racist, there is a group of black people who are just as awful as these white people. A muscular stud named Demond (Michael Jai White) has been cheating on his girlfriend, Starletta (Wendy Raquel Robinson), with her two best friends, Vonda (Tangie Ambrose) and Leshawnette (Nick Micheaux). Jerry is doing a show about skanky women with stupid names whose skanky friends with stupid names sleep with their sleazy boyfriends, and Starletta's crew all have the same attitude as Connie's: it doesn't matter if airing your dirty laundry on TV is embarrassing, because at least you get to be on TV. (That's actually in the Constitution.)

The "skanks and stepfathers" and "skanks and friends' boyfriends" episodes are taping back to back, so everybody gets flown to L.A. at the same time. (Actually, as we will soon learn, the episodes aren't "taped" at all, but are aired live, as they happen. Ringmaster believes its target audience is too stupid to know how TV works. An assumption of ignorance would be reasonable in most cases, but believe me, if there's one thing Jerry Springer fans understand, it's how TV works.) Connie and Angel immediately start trying to out-whore one another by flirting with Jerry himself, and then they go after Demond. Rusty finds the whole affair distasteful -- this is the man who has been sleeping with his stepdaughter, remember -- and heads back to Florida, while Starletta and her friends say "Aw, HELL no!" and pull off their earrings and get into fights a lot.

Then the filmmakers realize they have made a crucial error: their movie about Jerry Springer has precious little screen time allotted for Jerry Springer. To rectify this, there is a scene in which Jerry goes to a country-and-western bar and sings a song. Jerry the character is reluctant to do this; one suspects Jerry the real person was just as reluctant, if only because Jerry the character's reluctance is convincing and Jerry the real person is not that good an actor.

There is also a scene where Jerry has lunch at a local diner and is besieged with people seeking his advice and desiring to flash their boobs at him. Jerry the real person seems OK with this.

The parts of the fictionalized Jerry show that we see are exactly like the parts of the real Jerry Springer Show that we've seen (mostly when we were in college, in the '90s, when we would flip through the channels late at night and pause for a moment when we saw screeching floozies arguing with mulleted dirtbags while an audience of writhing howler monkeys befouled their pants in ecstasy). Regardless of what topic is being discussed, it quickly turns into a brawl that Jerry's security guards attempt to pacify, in much the same way that Captain Renault tried to eradicate gambling at Rick's Café Américain. Jerry stands at a safe distance, pretending to be mystified and saddened by the outbreak of violence that he and his staff actively encouraged before the show started. Sometimes women expose their breasts like they're in New Orleans on Mardi Gras -- which is risky, as the only place teeming with more disease and filth than New Orleans on Mardi Gras is a Jerry Springer taping.

All of this is wretched and sleazy enough, and not even the entertaining kind of wretched and sleazy. And then the movie goes too far: it tries to justify itself. A man interrupts a Jerry taping to complain that the participants are all terrible people, and that Jerry is terrible for putting them on TV -- valid complaints, certainly, though it's impolite to disrupt the show to express them. Jerry responds with this impassioned speech (which you can watch here):

"Let me tell you something. The rich and the famous, they go on television every single day. They reveal the most intimate, lurid details of their private lives. They tell us who they sleep with, what kind of drugs they're on, and you know what? We can't get enough of it! We just love that stuff! Now these people come on. They're not rich, they're not powerful, they're not famous, they're talking about the exact same issues. They don't speak the King's English, they don't belong to your fine, fancy neighborhoods and country clubs. But you know what? They hurt just as much. And what are they now, suddenly the scum of the earth because they don't have all your money an all your power and all your elitism? How dare they go on television! Well, I got a program note for you, buddy. This is a slice of American life. And if you don't like it, bite something else!"

In other words, Jerry -- and by extension the real Jerry Springer -- exploits these dummies for profit, then asserts that he's doing a noble thing by giving them a voice. And if you think they're all rancid, fame-hungry, trailer-dwelling, squirrel-eating, gun-toting morons, you're just being an elitist who hates poor, uneducated people -- because clearly, when you gaze with disgust upon a panel of mouth-breathers talking about how this stripper gave birth to a transvestite's baby on a pile of dirty heroin needles at Klan rally, it's their poverty and ungrammatical speech patterns that offend you. You LOVE it when wealthy, educated people talk about having bisexual threesomes with their cousins in alleys behind abortion clinics!

It's impossible to know whether the real Jerry Springer believes that line of B.S., but the movie Jerry definitely does. Here's a film that has just spent 85 interminable minutes trying to make us laugh at what depraved idiots these hapless fools are, and now it has the gall to insist that we respect them? Sorry, Ringmaster! No sale! Get back to me when Angel and Connie have a reality show on The History Channel (Trailer Skanks). That's when they'll earn my respect.