As I grow older, I appreciate villainy more and more. I appreciate it not only because superheroes bore me (Superman=Jesus), but because doing good is its own reward. The motivation for doing bad things is fundamentally more interesting.

In our daily lives, the worst villains aren’t the Joker or the Green Goblin, but the people we know. Like gender, race, and other social constructs, morality can also be performative. Seeing it done in real time can be harrowing. Recently, I was part of the audience of two live tapings of the Jerry Springer show. Two seniors, in a move so stupidly yet brilliantly obvious, called up the show to ask about tickets. The show arranged for a coach bus to drive a group of willing Amherst students to the show.

The Stamford Media Center is an unremarkable building in downtown Stamford, Connecticut that houses the Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, and Steve Wilkos shows. Upon arrival, a production assistant (PA) meets and leads participants through a security checkpoint complete with an armed police officer and body scanner. Participants present their IDs and sign a waiver. One may be inclined to lie about their sobriety on said waiver. PAs then gather audience members by the gift shop and lead them into the studio wherein they are grouped and seated by some balance of gender and attire. The PAs move chairs around while a producer outlines the show and gives basic instructions about the responsibilities of the audience. There are two shows a day each with three to four “stories.”

The concept of the show  isn’t very novel. Like fiction, the show consists mostly of people in conflict . And some of its themes are culturally anachronistic––it leans heavily on shaming. Where Springer lives is in its execution, and the show does some pretty smart things.

Key to Springer’s ingenuity is its exposition:  it begins with a story told from a single perspective. A guest walks out from backstage to sit in a single chair in the middle of the stage. Jerry is out in the audience  reading a two-phrase teaser from a teleprompter. Something along the lines of: “So-and-so found a big surprise when she got home from work the other night. But she’s going to have the last laugh.” Jerry exchanges pleasantries and asks the first guest  why they have come on the show. Usually the guest will cop to infidelity, dishonesty or some combination of the two. They will also reveal that the person this has affected is in the dark and they intend to reveal their misdeeds to them on the show. Jerry then will ask for a brief summary of the story, interrupting to ask basic questions like “How long have you been in a relationship?”, “How did you meet?”, etc. This is important because it develops the guests into characters. We know they will fight and argue and yell and cry but we need to care why, even if only superficially. This is also why Jerry keeps the questions simple and to the point . He also repeats what the guests say , never straying from their own words. There are no accusations or implications (yet). Just context.

The second smart thing the show does is place a producer, standing just off-camera, to face the audience and cue reactions from them. There are four key audible reactions: applause, booing, cooing, and  intrigue. The  producer mouths “ooh” at the end of Jerry’s introduction, signaling the audience to do the same. Other reactions are allowed , but they must be timed with  the cues and will therefore almost always be drowned out by the sound of everyone else. Though the cued reactions are intended for those watching at home,  they also prime those  experiencing the show  live. For the audience, it’s another cheap way to build investment in the story; for the guests, it heightens the performance. If private grievances are going to be aired out in public, its principals have to commit. Or else we can’t trust them.

When Jerry brings out the second guest, the show takes the form of  what is essentially a two-act play. The security standing off stage will do one of two things: bring out a second chair or remove the chair the initial guest is sitting in. If the former happens, Jerry begins his cross-examination routine all over again with the second guest. Because we have a second perspective on a previous event, we have even more context. Sometimes it is the second guest who has something to admit, but more often than not, the climax will come from a third or fourth guest. When security takes the chair away  and the first guest is left  standing, it is in anticipation and encouragement of direct confrontation. If Jerry is on stage after the introduction, he moves to the side or gets off and into the aisle quickly. The wronged party then rushes out and immediately begins inquiring about  the first guest. They  have been watching the proceedings backstage and are angry. So angry, in fact, that they disclose information  about the first guest that was either conveniently left out or that the audience simply  does not know. Jerry will make snide remarks and stale jokes here and there but will mostly just let the drama unfold.

At this point, the cues come hard and fast but even canned emotion is hard to feign because of the sheer spectacle taking place. Any sympathy you had for the first guest has evaporated or may have shifted to someone else. Or maybe you think everyone is trash and want to watch them burn their relationships to the ground. Once all the tension is wrung out of the situation, or time runs out and commercials need airing, Jerry asks for resolution; will they take the person back, will they stay or go, and so on. If the guests defy our expectations, he plays devil’s advocate but will mostly just let it lay. The Jerry Springer show is entering its 25th season on the air.

I did wince once during the proceedings, in which a young woman’s fiancé confessed to having  a threesome with two of his friends because it was on his bucket list. The young woman asked why he thought it appropriate to tell her on national television. She was the only one of twenty or so guests that questioned the suitability of the setting during the show. The fiancé  said he did it because he loved her. And he said it so casually, that it seemed as if choosing  to come on the show not only made sense to him but was perhaps obvious. The show and that moment in particular expose how empty good and bad can be as designations. We have a great capacity for incredible decency, but also for unspeakable cruelty. And with just enough layers of fictionality about the lives of others, we can be entertained by it too.