Jim Cramer didn't know what to do. His contract at CNBC was winding down and the hedge-fund manager turned talk-show host was flirting with...

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ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS, N.J. — Jim Cramer didn’t know what to do.

His contract at CNBC was winding down and the hedge-fund manager turned talk-show host was flirting with a return to Wall Street.

Who could blame him? Practically everyone he knew in the business was making gobs of money. Even Sandy Weill, the $29 million-a-year chairman of Citigroup, was itching to start a hedge fund and make some real money.

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But every day when Cramer showed up for work, this pushy producer named Susan Krakower would get in his face about the show she wanted to create — an over-the-top, MTV-style investment-advice romp called “Mad Money” in which Cramer could rant about the Roman Empire, throw chairs and dis Alan Greenspan.

Krakower was offering Cramer something all the money in the world can’t buy: She would make Jim Cramer a rock star.

This is a 50-year-old guy who is still bitter at the theater teacher who stuck him with all those bit parts in the annual musical at Springfield High School outside Philadelphia. Now he would get to play a television-show character named Jim Cramer, a screaming, money-obsessed guy who, when the camera goes on, talks about stocks the way Howard Stern talks about pornography.

“The reserved Jim Cramer you saw on ‘Kudlow & Cramer’ the past three years, that wasn’t me,” Cramer says calmly during a recent interview on the set of his show at CNBC’s Englewood Cliffs headquarters. “This show is me. This is what it was like at the hedge fund. The screaming, the yelling at the computer monitors as the ticker crawls on the screen. That’s me.”

Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. Does it matter?

Just seven months after the stint with economist Larry Kudlow ended, Cramer and Krakower have created a new format for TV business news by combining elements of a wonky stock show with Jerry Springer and sports talk radio. It has caught the attention of broadcast executives and a far-flung community of amateur investors who greet Cramer with a “Boo-yah, Jim!” when they call in and treat his advice as though it has come from the Temple Mount.

“He brings energy and excitement to investing by injecting the fast-money trader mentality into the buy-and-hold investor,” says Scott Rothbort, a professor at Seton Hall University’s Stillman School of Business.

“You have to filter out some of the histrionics, but if you listen carefully, his message is to do your homework.”

Cramer’s fans love him for taping a Post-it to his head when he picks a bad stock and for busting the wall of his set with a chair when he loses his temper. They don’t care whether it’s canned, which most of it is, right down to which buttons he will push to produce those blaring sound effects.

So far, it has worked better than anyone at CNBC could have hoped. “Mad Money,” which premiered March 14, has become one of the network’s most popular shows.

At 6 p.m. EDT, “Mad Money” attracts 181,000 viewers compared with 110,000 for the show that the network used to broadcast in that time slot, “Bullseye With Dylan Ratigan.” “Mad Money” is rebroadcast at 9 p.m. and midnight, which boosts its cumulative daily audience to about 340,000.

The ratings remain far below the show’s direct cable competitors, “Lou Dobbs Tonight” on CNN, which attracts about 1.6 million viewers, and “The Abrams Report” on MSNBC, which gets about 600,000 viewers. But in a business that is all about buzz, Cramer is becoming a larger part of popular culture. He popped up on a recent segment of Fox’s “Arrested Development,” and there are even T-shirts with Cramer’s face above his “Cramerica” slogan.

Cramer does not get out of bed screaming when he rises at 4 a.m. each weekday in Summit, N.J. And for an hour before bedtime each night, he reads something that has nothing to do with money and finance.

He is trim, thanks to the hour he spends in his basement gym each morning. Catch him in the early afternoon, before he loses his mind in front of the camera, and his tie is knotted tightly. His shirt is still neatly pressed.

He thinks hard before he answers questions. A sports nut with season tickets to the Eagles, his voice rises when the topic turns to any of his Philadelphia teams, but he isn’t any more animated than an extra-friendly neighbor. He drives his youngest daughter’s car pool to school in the morning in his Volkswagen Beetle. He spends weekends fishing at his country home in northwestern New Jersey, where he stocks the pond with striped bass he likes to braise with olive oil, wrap in foil and grill.

In short, Jim Cramer doesn’t seem mad at all. He’s downright normal. Until the camera is rolling.

What spills forth then is the product of hours of phone calls, e-mails and Internet trolling to find any tidbit of information about some Spanish mineral corporation or Chinese medical company.

“I follow about 1,000 stocks closely,” he says. “And there’s about another 500 or 1,000 I keep an eye on.”

It sounds impossible, of course. But then the “Mad Money” Lightning Round segment begins, and viewers blindly ask Cramer for advice on whatever random stock they choose. Always, he has an answer.

Cramer avoids conflicts of interest — like the pumping-and-dumping allegations from the 1990s that landed him in hot water with regulators and got him suspended from CNBC — by not directly owning individual corporate stocks or bonds. He placed all his securities in a charitable trust and donates the profits to charity. He does not trade any stock he mentions on the air for five days.

Still, some financial professionals warn that listening to Cramer’s stock tips is a bad way to build a portfolio.

“The best financial planning is much broader than what you see on television,” says Dan Moisand, a Florida-based financial planner and the incoming president of the Financial Planning Association, an industry trade group. “It’s very specific to each individual’s needs. The ability to watch television and improve personal financial standing is limited.”

Krakower insists “Mad Money” isn’t really a stock show.

She is a tough-talking veteran news producer who says “What do you got?” rather than “Hello” when she picks up the phone. If she’s interested, she tells the caller “Give it to me.” If she isn’t, the call ends quickly.

She isn’t impressed with Cramer’s degrees from Harvard and Harvard Law. Instead, she was drawn to him because he doesn’t get bogged down with yield rates.

“I hear poetry, I hear Andrew Marvell, I hear love stories when he speaks,” she says during an interview in her office while keeping one eye on a TV set above her desk.

Krakower says “Mad Money” is about taking the reins off Cramer, letting his oddball knowledge of history, sports, literature and politics mesh with his interpretation of the market. Mix that with hard music, flashing lights and flying furniture and, she figured, people would have to watch.

“When we were filming the pilot, I kept telling people: ‘Pump in the music. Dim the lights. Move the camera faster,’ ” she says. “I could see people flipping around the channels and when they got to this, I knew they would stop, because you see it and you have to have more.”

Just then the phone rings. “What do you got? … Give it to me.”