March 23, 1998 12:00 PM

>Jerry Springer


HE HAS SPOOFED HIMSELF ON MAD TV, MIGHT PLAY HIMself in a feature film, counts Madonna, Cher and Roseanne among his celebrity viewers, recently topped Oprah Winfrey in the Nielsens and has sold a half-million copies of Too Hot for TV!, a lurid video of outtakes from hair-pulling, chair-swinging fights between his dysfunctional guests on the Jerry Springer Show. Still, no one is more amazed by his meteoric rise than Springer himself.

“I think about two or three months ago, I just looked at Richard [Dominick], my producer,” says Springer, 54, “and went, ‘Holy s—t, we’re now more than a television show. We’re the subject of someone’s cartoon or a reference in a political story in The Washington Post!’ ”

His critics, however, aren’t impressed. Springer’s daily, one-hour syndicated slugfest, which debuted nationally in 1992, “debases all of us,” former NBC chairman Grant Tinker told industry colleagues in January. Springer, who was mayor of Cincinnati in the late ’70s, shrugs. “I was hired to be the ringmaster of a wild and crazy show,” he says. But there’s one taboo not even Springer will touch. “Would I be a guest on my own show? Never,” he says, laughing. “First, I’m a chicken. Second, I wear rented suits. And third, I believe you have your own life and you leave it at home. But that’s just my opinion.” One which his rabid fans—and guests—evidently don’t share.

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