THERE is a method to - and a market for - Jim Cramer's madness.
Mr. Cramer, the fast-talking, stock-picking host and evangelist behind "Mad Money With Jim Cramer" on CNBC, wants to make you rich. And if he has to behead a toy bull or hurl an occasional chair across the set to get your attention, he considers it money well wasted.
"The entertainment aspect is really vital, because this stuff is dense and dry," said Mr. Cramer (or just Cramer to his frat-pack following) during an interview at his office at thestreet.com in Manhattan late last month. "I have to get people intrigued - be it sports or metaphor or literature - because we learned from the 90's that if they don't learn, they'll screw it up. Because it's much harder than the president thinks. The president thinks people can handle their own money. He's off the reservation, man. Come listen to my phone calls, listen to my radio show. People need help."
Enough people have bought into "Mad Money" to make it a winner, at least over Dylan Ratigan's "Bullseye," the show it replaced in the 6 p.m. slot last March. The show is taped weekdays at the CNBC studios here in Englewood Cliffs (Mr. Cramer lives in Summit) and broadcast three times a night at 6, 9 and midnight. "Mad Money" is averaging nearly 400,000 viewers, according to the Nielsen ratings, virtually double the number that watched its predecessor. While its ratings are not exactly Seinfeldian (or even Lou Dobbsian), "Mad Money" now represents a tent-pole show for CNBC to hang its prime-time programming on.
While the format rests largely on Mr. Cramer's soliloquies about the day's big business stories, "Mad Money's" mojo is best captured by its so-called lightning round, in which viewers call in with a stock symbol and a "Booyah!" (an incongruous, hip-hop-like greeting) and then can watch the host - with chest barreled, sleeves rolled and voice rising in a Philly-inflected frenzy - work himself into a defibrillatory lather analyzing it.
"Mad Money," though, is not stock-picking for dummies. Mr. Cramer, always keen to analogize and edify, recently name-dropped Shakespeare, Melville, Dante and Wee Willie Keeler on his audience before slamming a buzzer that unleashed a flurry of roaring electronic bulls or bears to indicate a buy or sell. Mr. Cramer is - by temperament and philosophy - bullish.
"The thing about Jim is, he's a provocateur," said Susan Krakower, the producer who had the idea for the show. "He's not just the smartest guy in the room. He's passionate, intense, provocative and monolithic. I got it all in one package."
Still, Jim Cramer will never have a show called "Everybody Loves Cramer." In his memoir, "Confessions of a Street Addict" (Simon & Schuster, 2002), he writes candidly, as James J. Cramer, about ignoring his family and making the stock market his mistress. At his hedge fund, Cramer Berkowitz, he was known to throw water bottles at staff members and stick Post-it notes on foreheads as the scarlet letters of their most expensive mistakes.
Even Ms. Krakower, seemingly his biggest champion, acknowledges the Mr. Hyde side of Mr. Cramer. "We're two very strong, passionate, complicated people," she said. "Sometimes, he wins. Sometimes, I win."
While Mr. Cramer, who is 50, is remorseful over some of his past behavior, he knows that he is not measured by his professional deeds. At the top of each show, he says: "Other people want to make friends. I want to make money."
But making money did not always come easy despite a pedigree that includes a bachelor's degree from Harvard, where Mr. Cramer, who grew up in Wyndmoor, Pa., was president of The Harvard Crimson. Upon graduation in 1977, he found work in Florida as a crime reporter at The Tallahassee Democrat, where he covered Ted Bundy's killing spree, which earned him a stint on the murder beat with The Herald Examiner in Los Angeles, where his life began to unspool in a film-noirish nightmare. First, his apartment was robbed, then it was robbed again, then again. With no money, possessions or benefits, he bought a gun and moved into his car.
The psychic hits kept coming when he was picked up (and later released) for armed robbery and then developed mononucleosis. He sought medical attention at a farmworkers' clinic, where he met a doctor who tried to coax him from the razor's edge. The doctor advised him to take a few weeks off, which, to Mr. Cramer, seemed to be a one-way ticket to the abyss.
"He said, 'You seem like an educated guy - you'll figure it out,' " Mr. Cramer recalled. "And I said: 'No, I'm totally educated. I just don't have any money.' And he said, 'Well, I didn't either. Why don't you try and make something of yourself?' And I said: 'I am trying to make something of myself. I'm a reporter.' And it was dawning on me that my parents were going to be right, and I would never have any money. And it just hurt. It hurt to be really poor."
He was thrown a life jacket in the form of a reporting job with good pay at American Lawyer magazine in New York, which led him to Harvard Law School and eventually a job as a trader at Goldman Sachs in 1984, where he was able to put his prodigious knowledge of the business section to work.
Mr. Cramer's nickel-and-dime days were behind him for good. After three years, he left Goldman - where his friend Jon Corzine was co-chairman - to start his hedge fund, which produced a 24 percent return annually over a 15-year period for its exceedingly wealthy principals. In 1999, he helped found thestreet.com, a Web site that focused on finance and made him the poster executive for everything right and then wrong with the technology boom (and bust).
Now, tens of millions of dollars later, he is the author of three books, including "Jim Cramer's Real Money: Sane Investing in an Insane World" (Simon & Schuster, $26), which was published last spring. He is a columnist for New York magazine, a contributor at thestreet.com, the host of a daily syndicated radio show and, of course, the ringmaster of "Mad Money." It has been a run-on career lived and conceived at warp speed.
Yet for all the spoils that Wall Street has provided - including an opulent home in Summit that he shares with his wife, Karen, and two daughters, Cece, 14, and Emma, 11 - Jim Cramer is still outspoken in his disdain for the interests of the rich and powerful. He says that the federal government "is all about trying to get the rich richer," the brokerage houses and mutual funds are compromised and Alan Greenspan, the outgoing chairman of the Fed, is asleep at the switch.
"All anyone wants to do is make the government small," he said. "I'm for big government. I want the rich people to help the poor people. The other day someone said, 'Jim, don't you want lower property taxes?' No, I want really good schools. I want services. I want things that the government can provide that we can't. I'm such a throwback, but I date all of my beliefs to the five months I lived in my car and saw what was out there."
One recent weekday afternoon, Jim Cramer paced the "Mad Money" set, giving advice to a caller about Accenture, an outsourcing and management consulting company. "Remember, we don't care where a stock's been, we only care where it's going," he said before releasing the bulls.
In 2000, after 15 years at the hedge fund, Mr. Cramer came home to Summit and finally got a good look at it in the light of day. He had seen his competitive fires burn a void into the fabric of his existence, and so he cashed out and left the keys of the kingdom to his partner, Jeff Berkowitz. He spent vacations with his family, wrote a book and became a man about town without regret.
Now, while he still rises in the middle of the night to begin his workday, Mr. Cramer is intent on being present and accounted for in the town where he acknowledges having a certain "mosquito celebritydom." He helps organize the Police Athletic League's annual golf tournament, drives in the middle school carpool and, in what sounds like a great sitcom premise, coaches his 11-year-old daughter's soccer team. He is aggressively approachable.
"I worked at Veterans Stadium for years as a vendor, and I'm one of those guys that likes people," he said, referring to the old Philadelphia sports stadium. "I don't mean that like a politician. I don't even know if they like people. People will call me and say, 'Hey, sport' or 'Hey, chief.' I'm a guy that responds to chief. I respond to Skip. 'Hey, sunshine.' I'm sunshine."
Steve Ford, a longtime friend and a neighbor, said: "He's just a very engaging, enthusiastic, energetic teddy bear. He rolls up his sleeves, gets down in the dirt, and the kids just love him."
The two men periodically meet at the Broadway Diner to talk shop, and Mr. Ford, who runs a financial services business, has been impressed by his friend's transition from a 24/7 madman to a more manageable 16/5 or so ratio. Mr. Ford has also noticed that Mr. Cramer, once so consumed by the pressurized cabin of his own career, is now often hamstrung by a generous inability to say no to anyone. "Yes, he's a changed man," Mr. Ford said.
What was once a single-minded focus on Wall Street has given way to the more subtle pleasures of Springfield and Summit Avenues.
"I love the town - I just love it," Mr. Cramer said. "When I was a hedge-fund manager, none of this meant anything to me. Summit was a place where I would go to sleep and go to work from. My main change in my life, post-hedge-fund, was to get involved with my kids, to know the school, to try to be a better dad, try to be a better husband, and until this show, I was succeeding perfectly."
Mr. Cramer called the final chapter of his memoir "Confessions of an Ex-Street Addict." It may have been the last chapter, but it is not the end of the story.
Jim Cramer is back, and he's as mad as ever.