Nashville Scene – March 8-14, 2001
By Adam Ross
From the moment Nashvillian David Martin arrived at NBC studios in Chicago for his appearance on The Jerry Springer Show, things grew curiouser and curiouser. Never mind that in the hallway of his hotel the day before, David had seen a woman walking topless with male twins. She had nothing but a towel wrapped around her waist, “and she’d been augmented,” David recalls. This threesome, as it turned out, was to appear on the same show as David. Their segment was about twins who’ve been having sexual intercourse with the same woman — unbeknownst to her.
David, his sister Kelly, and his sister’s boyfriend Brandon were slated to appear on a Springer episode entitled “Angry Lovers Attack!” Brandon planned to reveal to Kelly, his girlfriend of the past year, that one night when he’d slept over at David and Kelly’s house, he’d been seduced by David. The two men had been having a torrid affair for the past six months. Brandon felt compelled both to confess his “wrongdoings” to Kelly and to “out” himself on national TV. But that wasn’t the strange part.
No, what was truly curious was the fact that Toby Oshemura, the show’s producer, insisted that David and Brandon kiss at least three times during the segment. He was positively adamant about it. “You’re not getting a plane ticket home if you don’t kiss!” David recalls Oshemura saying. According to David, Oshemura also wanted Brandon to be “butch in the beginning and then get gayer as the show went along.”
Things got more bizarre by the minute. First, the makeup artist at the studio was a drag queen. Then, while the members of the trio waited in different green rooms before the taping — David alone in one, poor unsuspecting Kelly with Brandon in the other — an intern appeared with an attorney and a video camera and read a release form to all three guests. David had to swear on video that everything he said on the air would be true and accurate. Then the intern read aloud a list of “surprises” that might occur during taping. “One was: Another guest may appear on the show that has a crush on you,” David recalls. “Or your boyfriend is a hermaphrodite,” Kelly remembers.
If the guests had any problems with these surprises, the intern told them, they had to speak up now. If they didn’t agree to the terms on the release form, they could be sued for the price of producing the show. David considered it all carefully. Back in Nashville, he worked as a legal assistant at the law offices of Bart Durham; he was no idiot when it came to the law.
David, Brandon, and Kelly were ushered into the studio separately. “If the audience is louder than you,” David recalls Oshemura telling him right before he went onstage, “you’ve lost!” David wasn’t worried about being loud. Plus, Kelly could be a real bitch when she got mad, and boy oh boy, when Brandon told her what he and David had been doing together, she was going to be pissed.
All three were scanned with a metal detector before going onstage. David figured it was a cautionary measure that grew out of the Jenny Jones incident in which a male guest had revealed that he had a crush on another male guest, and was subsequently murdered by the man in an embarrassed rage. The producers couldn’t be too careful, he guessed. Who knew what kind of psychos appeared on these shows?
Brandon was first onstage. Kelly, meanwhile, was kept in a soundproof area.
“Our guests today are preparing for battle,” Springer said as the show began. “They are preparing to break the bad news to their lovers. And our first guest,” the host explained, introducing Brandon, “says he’s someone who’s found love on both sides of the field. Tell us what happened, Jon?”
“Well, Jerry,” Brandon said. “I’m dumping her. I’ve been cheating on her with someone else…”
Aw, the audience said.
“…and Jerry, it’s her brother!”
Boooooooooo! the audience said.
“Does she have any idea you’re bisexual?”
“She has no idea whatsoever,” Brandon said.
Jerry shook his head side to side, a life buoy of sanity in a sea of the insane.
“Did you know her brother first?” Springer asked.
“No,” Brandon said. “I went and stayed at her house one night, and her mother wouldn’t let us stay in the same room — so I stayed with her brother.”
The audience’s reaction to this tidbit was part catcall, part appreciative applause for a guy’s nice-work-when-he-could-get-it. Springer seemed only mildly shocked.
“Well,” he said, “let’s bring Kelly onstage.”
When Kelly came on, Brandon kissed and hugged her, then guided her to her chair. There was a ripple of noise through the audience–laughs and whistles and more applause–a collective expectation of a stupendous dis. Kelly, meanwhile, had a look of love in her eyes. She thought Brandon was going to propose to her on national TV.
“So,” Springer said to her, “you’ve been together a year, Jon tells us.”
“That’s right, Jerry,” Kelly said.
“And how’s the relationship?”
“It’s good. I care about him a lot.”
“Your family like him?”
“Yeah, my mom really likes him.”
“Jon,” Springer said, “what would you like to tell this nice lady?”
“Well, Kelly,” Brandon said, “I know we have a great relationship and all — but I’m here to dump you. For the past six months, I’ve been cheating on you.”
“And it’s with your brother!”
Kelly jumped out of her chair and tried to bitch-slap Brandon, but a bouncer got to her first.
“My own flesh!”
“It’s who I am!” Brandon said, index fingers pointed toward his chest. “It’s who I am!” The bouncers put the pair back in their chairs. On screen it flashed: JON/CHEATING ON GIRLFRIEND WITH HER BROTHER.
Springer invited David onstage. The doughboy-gayboy-homewrecker sight of him was met with near hysteria. If the audience had vegetables, they’d have tossed them at him. David screamed back at the crowd, returning some of his own head-wagging abuse. Kelly immediately dove on her brother. She got to him before Brandon could stop her, the bouncers could restrain her, or David could do anything to defend himself. She knocked him clean offstage, gave him a right, then a left, and knocked off his microphone. The whole sequence was cut from the aired segment. “That was the best part,” Kelly recalls.
The bouncers finally got everyone seated again, with Brandon sitting in the middle.
“So I take it you like men,” Springer said to David.
“I am G-A-Y, gay,” David replied. On screen it flashed: RICK & JON/SECRET LOVERS; JON IS DATING RICK’S SISTER. “She’s got great taste in men, and I know firsthand!” David pulled Brandon’s chair up next to his and took his hand. “Today, baby, he’s going home with me!”
Boooo! the audience said. David turned around, stuck his butt out, and grabbed his shanks: “It’s all good! It’s all that! I know it!”
“We’ll be back after these messages,” Springer said.
Later, David, Brandon, and Kelly sat quietly in the limousine on their way to the airport. Nobody spoke. They were all emotionally spent. David sat next to Brandon. Kelly sat alone by the window. David opened the gift bag he’d been given by the producers. Inside was a Slammin’ Jerry doll that said “Jerry phrases” when you bopped it on the ground. There was also a check. It was for a few hundred dollars. David asked Brandon and Kelly how much they’d received; all three checks were cut for the same amount.
David was so pissed off about this he stewed all the way to the airport.
Why was David so angry? Well, for one thing, David expected a finder’s fee — some kind of additional compensation for all the legwork he’d done for Toby Oshemura. The producer had the plot line — a prefabricated, outrageous story about a gay guy who steals his sister’s boyfriend — but he didn’t have “guests.” Oshemura had the form, that is to say, but lacked the content. It was David who’d gone to the trouble of recruiting Brandon and Kelly to be on the show with him after Oshemura came a-callin’. The only thing that was true on the Springer segment in which David, Brandon, and Kelly appeared was that David and Kelly were brother and sister and that David and Brandon were gay. But of course, you already knew that a good portion of The Jerry Springer Show was fake, right?
Or maybe you weren’t so savvy. Maybe you thought that what you were watching were the exhibitionistic exaggerations of trailer-trash, the sick sexual escapades of society’s nether-whatnot. (Not that you were watching intentionally — you were probably home sick or up late, and “nothing else was on.”) You couldn’t believe what you were seeing, but you were convinced nonetheless.
David’s grandmother bought his episode hook, line, and sinker. “She called my dad right after she saw it and said to him, “Oh my Lord, did you know what David did to Kelly?’ ”
Which brings us back to the fundamental question that the Springer viewer always asks himself: Where do they get these people?
Two months before David’s appearance, Debbie Combs, a wrestler with the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), had called David to ask him if he wanted to be on The Jerry Springer Show. On weekends, David had a side gig as an openly gay professional wrestler, a heel character who went by the name of The Flamboyant Faron Foxx. He was part of a tag team called Sweet ‘N’ Sassy. “I’m Sassy,” David says. “Luscious Quentin Charisma, my partner, is Sweet.” They wrestled at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds in Nashville and throughout the Southeast. “I’ve been wrestling since I was 15,” David says. “But I didn’t come out of the closet until ’97.”
Initially he had some concerns about portraying an openly gay wrestler. He didn’t want to offend the gay community, so he made sure that Foxx was both “a queen and vicious. He’s butch and fey — a double-edged sword, so to speak.” Any dilemmas David had about playing such a character have been quashed by Foxx’s ignominious popularity. “The louder they yell ‘faggot,’ ” David says, “the better I’m doing my job. They pay their $7 to yell at me, and I get to prevent one woman from being abused domestically.”
Combs, meanwhile, worked a side gig for the Springer show to help the producers recruit “guests.” Primarily, she used pro wrestlers from the NWA circuit because they were good at improvising, though she didn’t limit herself to wrestlers alone. Recently, her 70-year-old mother had been on an episode about grandmas who sleep with young hunks. She got an all-expenses-paid trip to Chicago as well as some walking-around money out of the deal. She had a blast.
“So when she asked me,” David recalls, “I said sure. Any way that I could make a buck. And maybe I’d get some exposure.”
Initially, David recalls, Combs told him the producers wanted to do a show about a man who marries another man on the air in wedding dress and all. But the idea was dropped. About a month later, Oshemura called him at his home close to midnight on a Sunday. “He was a freaking madman,” David says. “He wanted me to play this story out: You’re dating this girl, and this guy steals you from her.”
Oshemura offered to pay all expenses, then told him he needed David to find the other participants, and that they had to be in Chicago by Tuesday morning. David spent the next couple hours calling friends all over Nashville. He had terrible problems finding someone to play an openly gay character on national television, but finally managed to convince his gay friend Brandon, who had misgivings at first. “I’ve always seen these talk shows as exploiting the gay lifestyle,” Brandon says. “But then I called a friend who’s in the movie and theater industry who said it would probably be a lot of fun. Plus when I was 8 years old, I was an extra on Roots, The Gift. I have it on tape and I still get a thrill seeing myself on TV.”
After Brandon agreed, David asked his sister Kelly to participate; it was a no-brainer. “She took some acting classes in high school,” David says. That Tuesday morning at 4 a.m., a limo picked them up — compliments of the Springer show — and took them to the airport, where they departed for Chicago.
The hotel where they were put up was crawling with wrestlers from all over the Southeast, all of whom were to appear on Springer. It was here that David saw Strawberry Fields, the augmented female wrestler from North Carolina, walking half-naked down the hall with the Batten Twins, a well-known pair also on the NWA circuit. Later that night, Oshemura called David, Kelly, and Brandon into the studios to talk about the story line.
Oshemura’s office, David recalls, was full of pro wrestling posters. “He was cool,” Brandon says. “I loved him. Rather than saying, “This is what happened’ in our story line, he let us come up with the details.” All four changed the story around so that it was David who stole Brandon from Kelly.
“’When you three go out there,’ ” David recalls Oshemura telling them, “’I want you to be loud. If Kelly’s louder than you, you’ve lost. And Kelly, I want you to be the Southern mistress in distress. And I want you to hit these points in the story: David and Brandon have to kiss three times. If you want a plane ticket home, you better smooch! David, I want you to be a big ol’ flamer.’ ”
During the meeting, Oshemura also stressed above and beyond everything that the moment they set foot in NBC studios the next day, they had to be completely in character, leaving their real identities outside the studio. David and Brandon were both given fake names for the segment: Brandon became Jon, and David became Rick.
“After that,” Brandon says, “the only coaching we received was right before we went onstage. Oshemura came up to each of us in the green room individually and basically went over the rules: Don’t throw chairs. Don’t say ‘shit,’ ‘fuck,’ or ‘cunt.’ Don’t stay in your seats for more then 30 seconds at a time. He told us not to worry about going at it. He said Steve [the bouncer] and the others will pull you away.
Given the circumstances, David didn’t take anything they were being told too seriously. “I looked at the intern and attorney videotaping my release statement as being part of the show,” he says. “I thought it was all part of the act.” After all, what was the point of videotaping a release statement about the events of the show being true and accurate if the producers themselves had supplied the story line? Was it a scare tactic to ensure that no one gave away the obvious fact that Springer guests were a bit too dysfunctional and lurid? The whole thing was like a pro wrestling match, with this odd dimension of suspended disbelief.
A month after the appearance, a reporter from the Globe called David at his office and interviewed him. Sources had told the reporter that the Springer show used pro wrestlers to pretend to be pimps, gays, and love cheats. David corroborated everything. “Springer Show Scandal Exposed,” the headline read. He never heard from the show’s producers, but that wasn’t surprising: Nobody believes anything that’s written in the Globe.
Ironically, one of the people quoted in the Globe article was Nashville-based wrestler/announcer Gary Douglas. When the Scene learned that Douglas himself was appearing in an upcoming Springer segment this month (in which he apparently declares his love to another man), he was suddenly less forthcoming. Was his show a fabrication too?
“Are you paying money for this interview?” Douglas asked. When told no, he said, “As far as a regular interview at this time, I’m going to wait till the show airs to see what happens.” He wouldn’t comment further.
Of course, Springer himself knows all this stuff is fake, right? “It’s hard to say,” Brandon says. “Oshemura kept telling us that he himself was the only person who knew we were pretending to be real characters, and that part of our job was to sell the story to Jerry.”
Toby Oshemura is still a producer at Springer. (David’s segment on “Angry Lovers Attack!” aired in November 1999 and has rerun numerous times since.) When asked whether wrestlers are playing guests on the show, or whether Springer himself knew this to be the case, Oshemura told the Scene, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He referred all questions to the show’s head of PR, Linda Chaffron. “I haven’t reviewed that particular episode,” she said at first. A week later, she said, “As of right now, I have no comment on that show.”
But if certain segments of the show are so obviously phony, and if the evidence is so overwhelming — WWF world champion The Iron Sheik appeared on an episode, to name but one semi-notorious “guest” — why do the producers refuse to comment?
Bill Behrens, vice president of the NWA, thinks it’s pretty simple: “I think Springer has a firm grasp on the fact that he’s a ringmaster at a sideshow. As for his producers, well, it behooves them not to comment on it. If the producers came out and said, “Yes, it’s fake,’ well, essentially they’re screwing their gimmick.”
Springer might rely on a gimmick, Behrens says, but comparisons between the show and pro wrestling aren’t as apt as we’d like to believe. “Pro wrestling creates a good guy and a bad guy, and gets the crowd to cheer if he wins or boo if he loses. Pro wrestling tells a story. Springer, on the other hand, satisfies an audience’s need for outrage, but it’s a controlled outrage. It’s confrontation with no risk — clowns, that is to say, as opposed to trapeze artists. Because if all these people were real and if their stories were real stories, then the show would be scary and depressing. In my opinion, what Springer does is more like tabloid journalism — it’s entertaining, but not compelling.”
Long before the mega-hit Survivor and its subsequent spin-offs, Jerry Springer was one of the first people in television to realize that there was money in muck. He was onto the fact that people at their most grotesque and dysfunctional (or banal or hypersexual) fascinate and comfort the viewing class. We live in an age when our own prurience craves caught-you-red-handed scandal, from the pedestrian to the presidential; rather than aspire upward, we take comfort in the perverted, punch-throwing masses below because they confirm our own social standing. The fact that Springer’s hybridized version of “reality” TV has lasted so long only proves that the hunger of the viewing class to see bad things happen to other people is stronger than ever.
David’s brief stint on television has helped the career of The Flamboyant Faron Foxx. Whenever he’s on the ticket, the draw is huge. Even though the Springer episode aired for the first time more than a year ago, when Foxx gets into the ring on Saturday nights at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, the audience chants, “Jerry Springer! Jerry Springer!”
Kelly, meanwhile, had a great time on the show. “You know that song that goes: ‘I’m gonna take you on Jerry Springer and beat your ass legally’? Well, I got to do all that, and I thought it was fun. Plus I’ve never been on a plane before. And I got to go to Chicago. I’ve never been up north, except for Kentucky.”
But David doesn’t make a big deal about being on the show. He works for Durham’s office during the day, goes to school at night, and wrestles professionally on the weekends. He hopes to become a lawyer someday. Currently, he’s acting as the communications director for the political campaign of Carlton Cornett, the first openly gay candidate to run for Congress in Tennessee. David is too levelheaded to be caught up in his own fame.
“It was just another booking — but with less bumps,” David says. “Another day, another dollar.”