Getting students to embrace structure in games and formats is an ongoing challenge in my workshops. Whether they’re high school or college age students, once I mention rules, they automatically assume it’s going to be hard, and try to barter with me in order to make the format or game easier.
A few years ago, I hit upon a solution by just mentioning the name of a popular TV tabloid show, students with no previous improv experience, already familiar with the program’s structure, would gladly work within it. I came upon this when I was sorting through scene suggestions with one of my high school groups, and when Monica, a student in the class, suggested “The Jerry Springer Show,” the class erupted with approval, because it was something they knew they could all participate in.
Initially, I was opposed to doing a Jerry Springer format because my classes are about people respecting each other, which is something the show does not embrace. But, after striking out with alternative suggestions, I decided to let the class have their way.
Energized, Monica leapt up and took charge. She immediately cast herself as Springer, and then led the group in a discussion about the nature of the topic, and who was going to play the guests. “Cheating Husbands” was unanimously accepted as the topic. Once that was settled, everything else quickly fell into place.
Hands were raised all over the room as students volunteered to be guests and security guards for the show. Monica cast Kristel, a notoriously shy student to play the betrayed wife. Jackeline and Beatrice were cast as the “home wrecker” and husband, respectively. Jonesha and Amanda were the security guards. The remainder of the class became the audience, who on the show are rambunctious, vocal, and frequently chant “Jer-ry!, Jer-ry!, Jer-ry!” when things become volatile on the program.
On the blackboard, I had the class list the beats of the Jerry Springer Show. We came up with seven specific ones; (1) Jerry enters, shaking hands with audience as they chant his name. (2) Jerry welcomes viewers, introduces topic, and then interviews wife. (3) Jerry brings on home wrecker, who is confronted by wife. Security personnel intervene when fight breaks out. (4) Jerry interviews home wrecker. (5) Jerry brings on husband for questioning. Another fight almost breaks out. (6) Question and answer period, where audience members ask questions. (7) Program ends with Jerry’s “final thoughts.”
Because of the nature of the show, I came up with two rules; no chair throwing, unless it’s an imaginary chair, and no fistfights, unless they’re done in slow motion. The Jerry Springer character can be interpreted as a leadership role, and Monica kept everything on track with controlling the action and hitting the beats of the show. Within the course of ten minutes, I experienced an abbreviated version of the Jerry Springer Show, filled with energy, enthusiasm, humor and vibrant characters. It was a wonderful group experience. What stood out, was how loud and physically volatile shy Kristel became when the home wrecker came on stage. After class I learned that Kristel had recently caught her boyfriend cheating on her.
The second time I tried the Springer format was with a different group of high school students. Ernesto, the student who played Springer, was not as strong as Monica, and focused more on himself rather than propelling the show forward. With side-coaching, I was able to get Ernesto through the show, with directions such as “bring on the next guest,” and “ask more questions.” Estaffany, who played one of the guests, wanted to curse nonstop, so I had to side-coach her as well to tone it down a bit, as she tried to reason with me that “It’ll be bleeped on TV!” As a compromise, she agreed to curse in gibberish. While the format didn’t come off as smoothly as the first time, it was still a successful experience for the class, because everyone got to participate, and they did so within a structure that had specific beats to adhere to.
After numerous versions of Springer with my classes, it became clear the thrill for the students was in doing a parody of the show, rather than a realistic rendition. They recognized the program for what it was, a trashy TV tabloid show that exploited vulnerable people and dysfunctional families. Occasionally, I would participate as a guest or audience member asking questions. Sometimes I would play an exaggerated version of myself, as perceived by the students, which thrilled them no end. Most of my students watched Springer regularly with their families, and I was surprised to learn that it often led to a discussion of provocative and confrontational topics after viewing an episode.
So for me, I gained additional insight on the recreational and social aspects of my students with their families. For my students, it would appear that the Jerry Springer Show has value in teaching structure, leadership, group creativity, bonding with their families and encouraging discussion of controversial topics. Who would have thought that a tabloid show would have such merit?
Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher. He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at email@example.com. Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa. He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development.