By Sam Weller
JANUARY 12, 1998: It's Christmastime on the set of The Jerry Springer Show and a middle-aged woman is giving a knuckle sandwich to her daughter-in-law. The title of today's show -- "It's Me or Your Mother," has tempers flaring just seconds after the cameras start rolling. The audience, a wild throng of keg-fed frat boys and hair-sprayed sorority sisters, whoop it up with dog-pound hollers and chants of "Jer-ry...Jer-ry...Jer-ry!" As the two woman duke it out on-stage, Springer stands out in the crowd, microphone in hand, head slightly lowered in pity, and watches the confrontation with Oscar-worthy concern.
Enter Jerry's Kids.
Three hulking masses bound out of their front-row seats to quickly break up the melee. The mother-in-law whirls around, bug-eyed and fierce, fists still clenched, to glare up at the referees who interrupted the ass-whooping. What she sees is more Incredible Hulk than man -- Steve Wilkos, Springer's director of security. The guy's big, bad and bald. His head is shaved baby-bottom smooth, transforming him into a hellfire version of Mr. Clean. The mother-in-law politely takes her seat.
Unofficially dubbed "Jerry's Kids," Springer's five-man security force (the program's stage manager doubles as the sixth member of the team) see lots of action on the dysfunction junction known as "The Jerry Springer Show." At any given taping, the guys are on-stage scuffling with Ku Klux Klan members, breaking up combative pimps, or wedging between pushers, cross-dressers and women that secretly moonlight as prostitutes.
But is all the clawing, biting and bitching that goes on the real thing or just staged World Wrestling Federation style bravado? Prior to the "Me or your Mother" taping, the Springer audience is given applause instructions and then told with a wink-and-a-nudge where to find the emergency exits, "In case of a really bad fight." With just the mere mention of an on-stage altercation, the house erupts with cheers of elation.
Make no broken bones about it, people come to the Springer tapings hoping for a fight. They love the fighting so much, it seems, that the more fists fly, the higher the ratings soar. Recently, Springer outscored Oprah Winfrey in the numbers game. In the last week of November sweeps, Springer averaged a 6.4 national rating, edging out the mighty Oprah's 6.3, according to Nielsen Media Research. Figure that one out.
A few days after I attend the Springer taping, I'm standing in an uncomfortably crowded North Side tavern downing weiss beers with three of Jerry's Kids, along with the stage manager and the show's senior producer, a stunning beaut. It's after 2am and, in keeping with the security squad's Jerry Lewis pet name, I keep thinking that there may as well be a glowing tote board behind the bar racking up the number of pints I've consumed. Next to me, weighing in at 225 pounds and standing a menacing 6-foot-3-inches tall is Mr. Clean himself, Wilkos. On this night, the director of security, who doubles as Springer's personal security guard, is garbed all in black. Along with his Yul Brenner 'do, he has a pair of steely eyes that could slice a hole right through your innards.
As I listen to Wilkos speak above the horrendous din of a thumping Madonna song blasting out of the club's PA system, I thank my lucky stars that he likes me. Steve Wilkos is not the kinda dude you'd wanna piss off. A four-year veteran of the Springer show, he is also an active Chicago Police officer who patrols the Shakespeare (14th) district. He works the department's third shift, 4pm to midnight. Prior to that, the head honcho of Jerry's Kids was in the US Marines from 1982 to 1989. He is 110 percent bad-ass.
"I'll have eight years as a police officer in March," he says in a deep voice.
When asked how the two jobs compare, Wilkos is quick to assert his appreciation for his television gig.
"This is a great job," he says. "It's fun. Being a police officer is sometimes not so much fun. But workin' for the show and workin' for Jerry's great."
Wilkos is the only member of "Jerry's kids" in attendance for every taping. He's also the one who decides how many team members are needed for any given show. Some episodes, such as Nazi-fests or militia member coming-out parties, get all five guys; less potentially turbulent topics get only Wilkos, seated up front to give the guests the look of death. Usually, according to Wilkos, a look or just a few words settles down any obstreperous people onstage.
"Sometimes," offers Wilkos, "as a police officer, when we're arresting people, they're gonna fight back. Most of the guests on the Springer show are not gonna fight us."
You'd have to be completely off your rocker to fight back against Wilkos. But then again, aren't the guests on the Springer show a little screwed up, purging their inner-demons before a national audience that fluctuates between 5 and 10 million coach potatoes on any given day? Maybe, but Wilkos maintains that, unlike his work as a cop, his talk-show job is never threatening.
"On the show, we're there to restrain people. As a police officer, people don't wanna go to jail and they're gonna do just about anything they can to not go to jail. I've never had to use force on the show to get someone under control."
Wilkos does, however, have a short list of minor on-the-job injuries. Over the course of his four-year tenure on the set, he's been kicked, gouged, bruised and suffered a pulled groin muscle. While he won't specifically say how much Springer pays him for the risky business, he offers that he is "taken care of very well." At the end of our beer-fest, he'll drive off into the wintry night in a metallic gold Mercedes coupe.
Wilkos adamantly asserts that the fights on the Springer show are real. "I'll show you all the cuts, all the bruises, all the scars I've received on the show. None of it is faked."
I ask if there are any standout experiences he'd care to recall.
"When I first started workin' for Jerry, we were doin' a show about guys telling their girlfriends that they were having an affair and they'd bring their lover out and it would be another guy. There were so many fights that day that Jerry asked me to sit up on-stage. So people were watching the episode on television and they called my parents up and said 'Steve is on TV and he's gay!'"
Heartily chugging Lite Beers along with Wilkos is Springer's utility man Todd Schultz. Schultz is the show's stage manager, post-production supervisor and extra muscle. When all hell breaks loose, he hustles over from stage-right (where he stands and cues the audience to applaud) with his headphones still on to help settle things down. Weighing in at 245 pounds ("250 after a buffet") and standing 6'2'', Schultz started on the show just months after Wilkos as a production assistant. "I'm a Steve Wilkos wanna-be," he says with a laugh. He is the only member of Jerry's kids without police or military training.
"I'm just a big guy and I can get in the way," he says.
Schultz, 27 years old, is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin at Platteville with a degree in broadcasting. He shrugs off the group's nickname, "Jerry's Kids."
"We don't mind it. We're Jerry's Kids. It's a little corny but what are you going to do?"
He is also quick to support Wilkos' claim that none of the fights are staged. "It's totally not faked. I can show you clips from shows, especially the Klan shows, that are more serious, and it's right there. You're getting smacked in the head."
So what is it with all the fighting on the Springer show? Has our society just gone down the shitter as Jerry's ratings soar ever higher?
"It's almost like we're their pillow at home," Schultz says, "when you get frustrated and you start beating it up and taking your frustrations out on it."
As the techno beat keeps on thumping in the club, I throw the security guys a curve ball.
"Have you ever wanted to kick Jerry's ass?" I yell over the music.
They don't find my question funny. Wilkos darts me a needle-like glare. So I quickly ask Schultz to name his most bizarre Springer experience. "There are so many," he yells. A Kiss song is now blasting in the club and I'm feeling a lot more at home. The imposing Wilkos even breaks into a few bars of "Dr. Love."
"I've been scratched by transsexuals, punched by hookers," Schultz responds. "During one taping a stripper rode me. She was dancing and needed me as a prop. The Klan shows are always intense. And the transsexual shows are always funny because they're guys but you forget that until they start fighting."
When questioned about the value of the Springer show itself, Schultz is quick to defend his boss. "If you wanna watch 'The Jerry Springer Show' for any other reason than entertainment, don't. People watch our show for the conflict. That's what makes us successful. We're not trying to hide it."
Arriving a little later in the evening is another of Jerry's Kids, David Johnsen. Weighing in at 235 pounds and standing well over six feet tall, Johnsen is also a full-time Chicago Police officer who works the school patrol unit. He spends his days as a cop checking out high schools on the city's West Side. Another nice guy with a stoic liver, he's quick to offer one of his more memorable Springer experiences.
"I was on patrol and a gang-banger comes up to me at a street stop and says, 'Hey, that's too bad about you're brother.' I asked, 'What are you talking about?' and he said 'That girl did your brother wrong.' What he was talking about was a show when I was on-stage separating the combatants and he tuned in late and thought I was part of the family. I was like, 'No man, that's not my family.'"
The smallest Kid at 5'6", 180 pounds, Mike O'Conner is also the only one who is not a Chicago Police officer, but he's got a scrapper air. An old Marine buddy of Wilkos who served from '86 to '90, O'Conner works for a marketing company as well as moonlighting as an auxiliary Rosemont policeman."The weird stories I've experienced working on the show all kind of string together," O'Conner says. "One time, at the end of a taping, a guy had been dumped and we were concerned about him. They wanted me to go hang out with him at the hotel to make sure he was all right. The guy had his heart broken and so I took him out to a restaurant. Well, the guy that stole his girl ends up being in the same restaurant. I mean, what are the odds? So I get him the hell out of there and I end up taking him out all night 'cause I feel real bad for him. I shot a couple of games of pool with the guy. I bought him a couple of beers. It went beyond the normal security gig."
The next member of the team I catch up with after my evening of alcohol consumption is Dan Puhar, also a Chicago cop in the 14th district. The 6'2", 245-pound Puhar is another old friend of Wilkos' brought aboard the Springer show for a little moonlighting cash.
"One thing I learned on the show is that the worst thing you can do to a drag queen is rip off the wig in public," Puhar says. "That happened on the show once. Before we knew it, we had two drag queens -- and they were huge -- attacking each other. Each of them must have weighed over 325 pounds. One of the guys took his high heels off and was clubbing the other. It was crazy, just Steve and I trying to settle down two 325-pound men dressed in drag."
Over the years, Puhar has hurt his back, pulled a groin muscle, sprained a wrist and received countless cuts and bruises while working the show, further evidence that the fights are for real.
After Puhar reflects on strange Springer experiences, he switches gears to ponder his 11-year career as a member of the CPD. It becomes quickly apparent that while he takes his job on the Springer show with a grain of salt, he takes his gig as a cop very seriously.
"The press always covers the bad side of the police department. You know, policemen are investigated and believe it or not, they do get rid of the bad ones. And they're such a minuscule part of the department as a whole. But you don't hear the good stuff."
I ask Puhar about any strange occurrences while on duty. "Once, we recovered body parts out of the Humboldt Park lagoon. I'll never forget that. An arm and a leg, I believe. I've seen so much in 11 years, and you know, that kinda stuff affects us. Policemen have hearts."
And livers. All of the guys I spoke with (the only one unavailable for an interview was Jimmy Sherlock, also a Chicago cop) could really put 'em away. Looking back on my little field trip to the NBC Tower, I wonder how often Jerry's Kids are nursing heavyweight hangovers as guests shout back and forth. On the day I visit, they don't look any worse for the wear.
During the filming, Wilkos, Puhar and Sherlock get about as much air time as Jerry Springer. They are constantly bolting out of their fold-out, front-row seats, and bounding on stage to settle things down. Mostly, it appears, their job is to simply be intimidating, and they do a fine job of it. But, as I noticed, they also seem to be counseling guests as well. Imagine that, a little therapy session from Jerry Springer's body guards. Yikes.
"We just tell them to relax and tell their story," Wilkos explains. "If they keep getting up and fighting, their side of things won't get told."
Finally, I ask Wilkos if Jerry minds his Kids going out till dawn.
"Are you kidding? Most of the time, Jerry goes out with us!"
A word of advice, then, for Jerry Springer: Give your kids a curfew, please.
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