If you’re much under the age of 35 you probably have no cultural memory of Morton Downey Jr. whatsoever, but he (and Joe Pyne, an earlier, slightly less-obnoxious pioneer of in-your-face television) is the very direct progenitor of the confrontational style of Fox News and reichwing talk radio we have today. The Morton Downey, Jr. Show was where the talkshow format merged with professional wrestling (and all that implies). After his example, the dam was burst forever on politeness and niceties in televised discourse. “Mort” was Network‘s Howard Beale come to life as a snarling, chain-smoking firebrand.
When The Morton Downey, Jr. Show first started airing in the New York metro area in 1987 on WWOR, the “super station” operating out of (not so) beautiful Secaucus, NJ, I was briefly into it, simply because I had never seen anything like it, or the shouting, spitting-mad, red-faced, veins-bulging lunatic who hosted it, not to mention his mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging Neanderthal audience! Oy vey.
Initially, at least, it was riveting, trainwreck TV, but I soon went from watching it most nights (if I was home, which was admittedly rare in those days) to only watching it when someone really kooky, like Lyndon LaRouche, say, was going to be on it. Eventually The Morton Downey, Jr. Show seemed like it was all Tawana Brawley, Curtis Sliwa, low rent porn girls and too-samey high-volume, spittle-flecked tirades against “pablum puking liberals.” All the time. After a while you kinda “got” it and the novelty wore off.
Ace Frehley, Joey Ramone and the Cycle Sluts from Hell join Mort on the set.
For a brief moment he was everywhere (The Today Show, playing himself in movies and on TV, People magazine, even scaling that true pinnacle of pop culture success: being parodied on SNL) but Downey’s star—and the ratings of his syndicated talkshow—crashed and burned pretty fast. I think the rest of America got sick of him as quickly as we New Yorkers did. All told his rise and fall took under two years. In 1990 Morton Downey Jr. filed for bankruptcy.
I didn’t really know that much about his life, but I found the new documentary about the angry father of trash TV, Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger to be absolutely engrossing. It’s a well-made, well-researched film that tries to figure out what made a freak of nature like this tick. There is no simple answer, as the film demonstrates.
Although he portrayed himself as the straight-talking spokesman for the proletariat, Downey was born into a wealthy show business family (his father was a very famous singer in the 30s and 40s, his aunt was famed Hollywood actress Joanne Bennett) who lived right next door to the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts (Downey Sr. was on the dais at JFK’s inauguration).
No, Morton Downey Jr. was no “Lonesome” Larry Rhodes, but he harbored a burning desire to become more famous than the domineering father he hated (“Daddy issues” evidentally loomed large in his life). He spent most of his career casting around for his niche, at first as a singer and songwriter (Dean Martin is seen praising a young Downey’s talents in a vintage clip) and then as a radio jock. Eventually he would be talent spotted by former MTV exec Bob Pittman, who wanted to do a “new” Joe Pyne type program.
His act was a shtick to a large extent, but Downey was also more or less true to his own (sometimes shifting) beliefs. Still his producers could feed him lines in pre-production meetings that he would parrot verbatim. Above all he was a showman, and would often tell a guest he’d just insulted, spat upon and kicked off his show that they’d done a great job!
Mort’s talent for getting noticed deserted him about 18 months into his brief moment of fame and he was soon resorting to attention grabbing stunts like cutting his own hair and drawing a (backwards) swastika on his face in an airport bathroom, claiming that some skinheads roughed him up. That Downey was able to pass a polygraph test about the made-up incident and his far-out claims shows his capacity for self-deception.
Évocateur does a fine job getting near the bottom of what was obviously a bottomless pit of psychological misery (segments where Downey’s poetry is read aloud provide unexpected revelations of his self-loathing). If you remember the Loudmouth, or even if you don’t, without him there would be no Glenn Beck, no Molotov Mitchell, no Dana Loesch… it’s Mort’s prescient angry DNA that still informs rightwing media today and his influence seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future. With appearances by Beck, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Sally Jesse Raphael, Chris Elliott, Gloria Allred, Alan Dershowitz and Pat Buchanan. Downey’s friend and frequent sparring partner Al Sharpton appears in clips from the show, but he didn’t participate in the doc for reasons that will be quite obvious once you’ve seen it.
Downey was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1996 and had one of his lungs removed (but, true to form, not before he appeared on Larry King Live the very night before his surgery!). He died in in 2001.
Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie