Even if you put it in the context of the 1990s, when tabloid television and “trash TV” were all the rage, it’s still kind of hard to believe that talk show host Jerry Springer wound up with his own movie. Ringmaster, also the name of his memoir, published in conjunction with this film, is basically an episode of The Jerry Springer Show with more exposition to its characters and backstories given to their personal lives as well as their backstage antics before the taping of the show.
As vapid as this film can be, as mind-numbingly stereotypical as it is, and as ridiculously ribald as it becomes in less than ninety minutes, there is indeed commentary about reality television, family relationships, and the alleged exploitation of poor and working class families for the enjoyment of the masses. It’s commentary that you may have a difficult time finding, or completely ignore in the face of the profanity, the screaming, and the scandalous events of the film, but just know that it is there, and while Ringmaster never effectively made me laugh out loud, I can’t write it off as easily as my colleagues did simply as “a waste of celluloid.”
The film is actually structured as a triptych with the constant being Jerry Farrelly (Jerry Springer playing more-or-less himself), Television’s most controversial talk show host, and his producers as they fight off certain legal battles and engage in a great deal of public dissent when it comes to Farrelly’s TV show. Farrelly hosts Jerry, a program where regular people go on television to reveal their most embarrassing and humiliating confessions or escapades, largely sexual, that will certainly tear their family, friendships, or relationship apart.
We follow two families that see opportunity in their misfortune when they realize their checkered family drama could land them an appearance on Jerry, as well as free airfare and lodging to Los Angeles. The first family is a trailer park clan in which Angel (Jaime Pressly) is sleeping with her mother Connie’s (Molly Hagan) second husband Rusty (Michael Dudikoff). Connie works at a snack-shop, while Angel works at a hotel and is known for her many “services” of the male customers, while Rusty sits on the couch all day, unemployed, without a care, watching greyhound racing. To get back at her ungrateful daughter, Connie winds up having sex with Angel’s boyfriend, and before-long, the two ladies see this as an opportunity to let their story be heard on Jerry. The subject of their episode? “You Did WHAT With Your Stepdaddy?”
The other guest is Demond (Michael Jai White), who is cheating on his girlfriend Starletta (Wendy Raquel Robinson) with both Vonda (Tangie Ambrose) and Leshawnette (Nicki Micheaux). In addition, once arriving on set and meeting Angel, another opportunity to shred the concepts of monogamy and loyalty is realized. The subject of Demond and his girlfriends’ episode is “My Traitor Girlfriends.”
Ringmaster is just as untameable and silly as an episode of The Jerry Springer Show, and your feelings towards it will depend on how you respond to the idea of a feature-length film more-or-less assuming the characteristics and building off of your average, midday episode of the program. Even with all the dramatic nonsense occurring on-screen, writer Jon Bernstein still manages to craft some sort of concept and significance to the idea of this film. Throughout the film, I found myself reflecting on the idea that people who go on such programs as The Jerry Springer Show would want to reveal such personal and often unsavory details about themselves, but the fact that I, myself would want to watch a movie crafted on those very sensibilities.
It’s the same thing with shows like Maury, Divorce Court, Judge Judy, and other shows lurking on the midday lineup of basic cable that have common people going on TV to air their dirty laundry before the world. We can write the shows off as sick, twisted, and utterly deplorable nonsense, but the fact that we know the shows is a testament to our curiosity. I remember being in middle school, and every half-day, I’d rush home to watch Springer or Maury on Television. I even knew not to watch the mid-commercial previews, for they’d spoil the guests’ reactions or the results of the paternity test.
My point is that Ringmaster, be it through its depictions or Springer’s passionate monologue at the end of the film stating the poor deserve the right to be exploited just as much as the rich do, finds a way to expose our love for trash TV in the strangest way. Through further developing the individuals we commonly see on an episode of The Jerry Springer Show, Springer himself essentially playing himself yet subtly lampooning and not taking himself too seriously, and evoking some of the wacky sentiments typical for this kind of television, Ringmaster winds up being a bit more endearing than one would guess. It’s one of the strangest examples of brand-recognition, self-parody, meta-humor, and commercial byproduct that I’ve ever seen but maybe that adds to its twisted charm as a film.
Starring: Jerry Springer, Jaime Pressly, Molly Hagan, Michael Dudikoff, Michael Jai White, Wendy Raquel Robinson, Tangie Ambrose, and Nicki Micheaux. Directed by: Neil Abramson.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!