Jerry Springer: The Opera is notorious in the UK. There were some complaints when it opened in the West End, but the main media coverage occured when it was broadcast by the BBC. Christian groups (‘Christian Voice’, mainly) complained in their thousands, some about the swearing, but most regarding the religious content. Ofcom subsequently rejected the ruling1. High street stores, including Sainsbury’s and Woolworths, bowed to pressure from Christian Voice and pulled the DVD from sale, drawing fire from Equity, amongst many others. A cancer charity refused to accept a £3,000 donation after Christian Voice contacted them. The subsequent UK tour was lobbied against and looked for a while like it would be cancelled, but was saved when regional theatres stepped in. The fuss was fascinating to me.
I always found the Jerry Springer show crass and unpleasant. I didn’t want to see people fighing, swearing and upsetting loved ones on television2. The idea of a musical based around it was entirely unappealing. But all of the protests intrigued me. Was this actually a show entirely based around bad language and exploitation, and designed just to annoy Christians? From the publicity it seemed like the show was intended to shock, and that was its sole hook. As I became more interested in religion and its effect upon the world, I took more notice of news articles relating to the play. I then discovered that Stewart Lee3, its writer and director, is a humanist. Humanism is all about treating people well, and it seemed unlikely that a humanist would write something just to offend Christians4. What was actually going on, here? When I discovered that this Saturday’s performance would be the last in Birmingham, I snapped up tickets.
Quick warning: my review contains extremely bad language.
[the show] is profane and extremely sacrilegious. It is blasphemous and it is wrong.
and claims that Jesus will return shortly. It also quotes Stewart Lee as saying:
“One would like to think that comedy could incite religious hatred. That would be great.”
the full quote is:
“One would like to think that comedy could incite religious hatred. That would be great. It’s the duty of comedians to attack religious belief because you test the elastic limit of a thing by probing it, and belief systems based on faith rather than facts need to be tested.”
which was part of a discussion into the government’s recent religious hatred bill. So not quite the same.
In a way this is irrelevant. This kind of nuttery isn’t really all that important – the majority of people, if not businesses, will I think recognise and ignore extreme Christian viewpoints, in the UK anyway. I wanted to know what it was they were complaining about.
Tamsin and I scanned over the leaflet as we entered the theatre. A girl next to us was terribly entertained by it, and I chatted to her briefly. She turned out to be just as atheist as I. We’d overheard one of the protesters saying that there was ‘a different leaflet for the end of the show’ and we wondered whether it would say ‘it’s too late for you – you’re going to hell.’
We took our seats, and I looked around at the audience as they slowly filtered in. Most were young, certainly under thirty. I didn’t see anybody I’d have put at over sixty. I eavesdropped on a few conversations, and found that most were like me – they didn’t really know what to expect from the show. Eventually the lights dimmed in the nearly-full theatre.
I’m going to give away the plot of the show, so stop reading if you want to avoid spoilers. You can skip straight to the spoiler-free conclusion if you want.
The first half of the performance is an episode of the Jerry Springer show, complete with adverts. The studio audience provide the chorus as the various guests appear, singing their secrets. The bad language is immediately apparent, with the ‘fuck’ duck broken within seconds. The guests include a man who reveals he has been cheating on his wife with another woman (“slut bitch”, chant the chorus as she enters), as well as a transsexual (“chick with a dick!”). There’s the customary fighting, broken up by the entertaining security guard5. Will his wife take him back? The next guests were a couple, and within moments the man reveals he wants to be a baby, whipping off his clothes to reveal a nappy. The husband’s secret nursemaid arrived, followed by songs about the satisfaction of pooping in your pants, much to the horror of the wife. The final guest was a woman with a secret desire to be a pole-dancer. Her husband did not approve, and nor did her mother. The husband declared he had no secrets, until Jerry showed footage from the “Jerry-cam”, during which the husband was seen at a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan6. The Ku Klux Klan then came on stage, began dancing in happiness at their ‘Jerry Springer moment’, lifting up their hems as they did so, while a cross burned in the background. Finally a gun was produced, a coloured guest attempted to shoot the Klan, but missed and hit Jerry7. The curtain fell on a confused Jerry – “why would anybody shoot me?”.
At this point I really didn’t know what to think. It oftens comes as a surprise to friends that I’m not a fan of crude humour for its own sake, and that I strongly dislike swearing in films when it’s extremely aggressive and ubiquitous. People find this strange because I often tell extremely crude jokes, and I’m happy to swear in conversation where I feel it’s appropriate. Here’s where my review will begin to get extremely subjective. The humour in the first half had been an odd mixture. Some of the lines were very clever, while others consisted of the word ‘fuck’ being repeated many times. The swearing was not aggressive – it’s hard to for the word ‘fuck’ to offend when it’s sung quite so happily, in my opinion – but was ubiquitous. The ‘pooping in the pants’ song was, believe it or not, nicely staged, but was nevertheless a song all about pooping. The problem I have is that I find this kind of humour extremely lazy if that’s all there is. If the joke is that somebody is singing about poo then it may be superficially amusing, but it’s neither clever nor difficult. Your average Tom Green film consists entirely of shock-as-comedy, and I don’t find them entertaining. It’s momentarily shocking, but I feel cheated if there’s no point nor meaning behind what’s happening. It’s just too easy. Was this play anything more than that? It was too early to tell.
Up to this point there had been nothing at all regarding religion, so clearly the second half would be somewhat different. I couldn’t make any kind of judgement, so didn’t. This was unlike the man next to us, who declared the whole play to be ‘overblown undergraduate humour’, and proceeded to criticise every review in the programme as nonsense. I think he’d made up his mind before he arrived, personally.
That the play would change substantially in the second act was hinted at by the occasional appearance of Springer’s Valkyrie. During the first half the action paused three times and a Valkyrie appeared, saying something along the lines of “this is unpleasant, why are you putting this on television, Jerry? What’s the point?” Jerry would then dismiss her from his mind. This showed that there was more going on than just a re-enactment of the show, and I was fascinated to see what would come next.
After the necessary tub of ice cream, the second act began. Jerry was in hell, surrounded by guests from his show who had been killed by their partners / committed suicide / other unpleasantries. Jerry, after a time, came to blame himself. Had he caused all this misery? Then, to a chorus I’ll come to later, the Devil appears. It becomes apparent that he is unhappy at his treatment from God. Jerry is asked to put on a show, in hell, in which God and the Devil air their grievances. This he does.
The first guest on this show is Jesus, played by the baby fetishist from the first act, but this time wearing a loin-cloth in place of the nappy. Jesus is a complete wet blanket, brings up his own crucifixion every other sentence, eventually launching into a soliliquy about how he loves humanity, and the beauty of the world, and everyone should love him. The chorus then sing the “Jesus is gay” song, after which Jesus declares himself to be indeed “a little bit gay.” Then come Adam and Eve – the pole dancing couple from before. Adam hates Eve for talking him into eating the apple, Eve suggests he ‘talk to the ass’. The next guest is Jesus’ mother – the virgin Mary. She enters to a chorus of “raped by an angel, raped by God”, and proceeds to lambast Jesus for swanning off on his own and never looking after her. Finally, on comes God – all gold chains and swagger. God complains bitterly about how his life isn’t easy – all these people making the wrong choices and blaming him. God and the Devil argue, with the devil wanting an apology and God ignoring him.
Eventually, they turn to Jerry. He must sort out this problem. Jerry complains that he has no cue-cards, how is he to know what to do? This isn’t good enough – he is strapped into a harness and lifted into the air. Below him open up the fires of hell. If he does not resolve the situation he will be sent Down. He makes some attempts, including reciting part of the US constitution, but is deemed to have failed. Just before oblivion, however, he comes up with a solution to which all parties agree. He then asks to remain in hell, because ‘he’s not confused here’, but is sent back to Earth.
So. The second half placed the first very much into perspective as part of a larger whole. The setup was required for the real story to be told in the second half, and I’ll come to what I think it means shortly.
The language continued in a similar vein to the first half. The Devil entered to, and here’s a word I’ve never written in public before, “what a cunt, what a cunt, what a cunting cunting cunt”. There were audible gasps and ‘oh my gods’ at this. Ordinarily, I despise that word. It’s demeaning to women and is the height of crudity. I don’t think I’ve ever used it in a joke, as it feels almost violent. However, this was the Devil – the epitome of evil and horror. There is no other word in the English language that can express this and produce an equivalent emotional reaction, and I felt that it was actually a justifiable use in this context. I think it unreasonable to object to the point of censorship over the use of a word anyway8, but I think those who complain are somewhat missing the point.
There was certainly much that could cause offence to the religious. Jesus, Adam, Eve, Mary and God were all portrayed as completely screwed up (or tragically human, depending on your perspective) a far cry from the gospel versions. Is it offensive to religious people? It’s hard for me to say. I do not revere anybody completely and wholly, so it’s difficult to put myself into the shoes of those who may be offended. However, whether the portrayals cause offence isn’t really important, in my view the real issue is whether it’s simply rude. Let’s say that a play cast Darwin, Bertrand Russell and modern scientists as stupid bumbling fools. This would likely irritate me in a similar way that religious people may be irritated9. However, it’s possible that there’d be something I was missing – I’d have to look at the justification. If it turned out that the writers were simply trying to offend, then that’s rude, pointless and doesn’t help anybody. However, if it’s part of a larger whole designed to make a point, then it’s reasonable. And that’s what I think is happening – the point of the play makes this kind of portayal a necessity.
For me, and I’ll qualify this later, Jerry Springer: The Opera is an endorsement of humanism, with a fairly heavy sideswipe attack on religion and the culture which pervades it. Jerry’s final solution was to say that the religious differences were not reconcilable, and that the best we can do is to treat each other decently. It’s incredibly ironic that Christian Voice etc. have spent so much time and effort campaigning against the representations of their prophets, while ignoring the underlying humanist philosophy espoused by the play – if there’s anything they should be attacking, it’s the overall message that there are no answers from God (nor Jerry, who ‘doesn’t do reconciliations’) in the real world. ‘Treat others as you would be treated’ is the Golden Rule of humanism, and the play is entirely about reaching that conclusion. Jerry wants to stay in the religious fantasy-land because he’s not confused and everything is black and white, but has no choice but to go back to reality.
Jerry is a modern God in that people want him to solve their problems. They go to him in the hope that appearing on his show will make everything better for them – they’ll have their ‘Jerry Springer moment’ and be famous and happy. But Jerry cannot do that. He only ‘holds a mirror to society’, as one character puts it. He can only ever be passive. And God is portayed in exactly the same way. He complains that everybody makes the wrong choices, then blames him. Both God and Jerry are impotent – humanity can only save itself.
Jerry suspects that he himself caused much of the misery, while another character says that the problems would happen were he there or not. This is never resolved in the play, and I see it as representing the issue of whether religion is an excuse for, or causes, harm10.
This is my interpretation. It’s obviously entirely subjective and, as ever, there’s the possibility that I’m reading more into it because of my humanist principles. I do tend to see religious metaphors in many places – I seem to remember extolling the virtues of Miracle on 34th Street (the original) as an allegorical film, and it’s entirely possible I’m wrong about that – and I’d be intrigued to read alternative viewpoints.
When we left the theatre the protesters were indeed handing out a different leaflet, containing this astonishing first paragraph:
Past generations seem to have had a problem discussing such things as sex. Now the great taboo subject is God. Political correctness, as the dominant ideology of our times, is pushing Christianity to the margins of public life.
How you can have the nerve to say this while protesting against a play’s very existence because of its ‘blasphemy’ is beyond me. The leaflet goes on to explain that there can be no morality without God, a position which I find completely indefensible. While reading this leaflet we spotted the guy in the photograph. Braving the cold Birmingham night, he stood alone amongst the religious protesters and handed out leaflets promoting freedom of speech. We thought he was doing a truly excellent thing, and told him so.
In conclusion, I enjoyed the play very much. It used Jerry Springer as a clever allegory, and wasn’t really about the tv show at all. I found the language and extreme scenes entirely reasonable because they were within a context that made sense. Plus, swearing in song is quite funny 🙂 I often come away from theatres disappointed, but I found this a thought-provoking, clever piece of drama that’s been completely misrepresented by the media coverage. If you get the chance, I’d say it’s well worth the ticket price.
- I take issue with some of their defence – “Ofcom did not believe that the characters represented were, in the context of this piece, conveyed as faithful or accurate representations of religious figures, but were characterisations of the show’s participants” seems like a cop-out to me, but the freedom of speech issue was well-put [↩]
- there was a West Wing moment where a bed-bound President Bartlet saw the show, commenting ‘do these people vote?’ [↩]
- of the comedy duo Lee and Herring, incidentally [↩]
- arguably naive, I admit [↩]
- who had stood arms folded in front of the audience as we entered the theatre, watching out for trouble – a nice touch [↩]
- including an extremely funny moment when the head of the meeting produced a whiteboard containing a picture of a Klan member, and an arrow pointing towards him simply saying ‘hat’. This was followed by a Klan member attempting to drink beer through his hood. [↩]
- ok, not quite how it happened, but the details aren’t important [↩]
- the fact that there are words considered shocking to society is interesting in itself, imho, but that’s another post [↩]
- setting aside issues of reality for the moment [↩]
- I think you know which camp I’m in on this 🙂 [↩]