It is the epoch of incredulity.
Whether it’s Glenn Beck stretching the boundaries of reason to brand President Obama “a racist” or Rush Limbaugh’s “slut-gate” imbroglio, some conservative-talk pundits have devolved into far-right caricatures obsessed with headline-grabbing one-upmanship. And their millions of acolytes—including, apparently, certain Supreme Court justices—eat it up.
But before all this, there was Morton Downey Jr.
From 1987 to 1989, he hosted The Morton Downey Jr. Show. Produced at the Channel 9 studios in Secaucus, N.J., the program featured its Gordon Gekko-styled ringmaster spitting conservative venom at his guests over hot-button issues such as the death penalty and abortion, while a live studio audience of right-wingers, nicknamed “The Beast,” cheered him on. The show became a national sensation, with Downey front and center as the swaggering mouthpiece for working-class outrage. His meteoric rise and fall is captured in Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, a documentary that made its premiere at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.
Directed by the filmmaking trio of Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, and Jeremy Newberger, all childhood fans of The Morton Downey Jr. Show, the film opens with a scene from Glenn Beck’s "Restoring Honor" rally in Washington, D.C., providing a direct parallel between Beck and Downey, the pioneer of “trash TV.”
“The difference between him and the current spate of conservative pundits today is he wasn’t a pussy. He’d get in your face,” Newberger told The Daily Beast. “Today’s Downey reduxes are very protected by the machinery of the Fox News network, and you can barely get someone with a different opinion on the show who’s not completely controlled by the host.”
Downey grew up in the shadow of his father, the Irish tenor Morton Downey, and vowed to eclipse his fame one day. He was an aspiring singer and poet, and, since the Downeys were close friends of the Kennedys’, a liberal. After the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, a young Downey even composed a collection of poetry, Quiet Thoughts Make the Loudest Noise. But Downey wasn’t blessed with the voice or the looks to make it as a singer, and soon he embraced an abrasive right-wing populist persona.
Fired in 1987 from a local Sacramento radio affiliate for using a racial slur—and replaced by Rush Limbaugh, no less—at the age of 55, Downey became the host of The Morton Downey Jr. Show. What began as a local program on the New York-New Jersey TV station WWOR-TV rose to become a nationally syndicated television sensation in early 1988. The show would feature Downey strutting about onstage, puffing away on a cigarette, shouting obscenities at his guests, lobbing his catchphrases, “Zip it!” and “Pabulum-puking liberal!” It was a direct assault on the talk shows of the day—Phil Donahue, etc.—that traded on false politeness.
“He was a completely different person off-camera, a gentleman,” a former pal, the talk-show host Sally Jessy Raphael, told The Daily Beast. “It’s political theater. Joe Pyne was the first, and Mort saw Pyne do that act and emulated it. You look for a gimmick, and when you go far afield of your own self, like he did, then it’s an act and you’re the actor. The Rush Limbaughs of the world do that.”
One of the most fascinating things about Évocateur is the parallels between The Morton Downey Jr. Show and the present. The filmmakers combed through more than 400 hours of footage, unearthing clips of Downey screaming, “I puke on you!” in the face of then-Libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul and, in one of the show’s most famous moments, instigating a shoving match between regular guest Al Sharpton and CORE National Chairman Roy Innis at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
“Luckily, nobody got hurt at the Apollo,” recalled Downey’s former bodyguard, Dave Giegold. “I grabbed Mort by the belt and told him, ‘Get backstage before they kill you!’ The audience was getting really riled up.”
Another regular guest on the show was the now-ubiquitous defense attorney Gloria Allred, who would argue with the chauvinistic host about feminism. Just last week, Allred made front-page headlines trading barbs with Donald Trump, also a friend of Downey’s, mirroring her rapport with the talk-show host.
The film even features an interview with Herman Cain, then just a conservative talk- radio host, explaining how to manipulate conservative audiences by applying the correct amount of anger and hostility in your act.
“What was most interesting to us about Herman Cain was how much he shared in common with Downey: the rise and fall, the womanizing, the catchphrases, the populism,” said codirector Miller. “The new Downey isn’t just on Fox News, he’s actually running for office!”
A large portion of the documentary is dedicated to The Morton Downey Jr. Show’s exploitation of the Tawana Brawley case. In 1987, the black teenager claimed a trio of white men raped her and scrawled racial slurs on her naked torso. When Sharpton took over publicity of the case, it sparked a public outrage—not dissimilar to the recent uproar surrounding Trayvon Martin. Brawley’s case, however, turned out to be a hoax.
The Morton Downey Jr. Show soon became too divisive for its own good. As with Beck and Limbaugh, hordes of advertisers began pulling out over its edgy format and occasional lowbrow content. (In one infamous episode, Downey gyrated at a stripper repeatedly with his pelvis.) Ratings began to decline, and off-camera, the host began to assume his public persona. He’d host lavish dinner parties at Elaine’s, bed younger women, and was the target of repeated sexual harassment allegations. In one scene in the film, an ex-producer recalls Downey asking a prostitute who had appeared as a guest on the show to hold his penis while he urinated.
The last nail in the coffin came in April 1989, when, in an act of desperation, Downey claimed he was attacked by a trio of skinheads who attempted to shave his head and scrawled swastikas on his clothes in black magic marker in a restroom at San Francisco International Airport. The incident, which bore many similarities to the John McCain supporter Ashley Todd’s carved “B” hoax, turned out to be fabricated. According to close friend Lloyd Schoonmaker, Downey purchased the scissors and magic marker and orchestrated the stunt himself. His TV show was canceled three months later.
Downey would attempt several comebacks, but to no avail. He died in March 2001 from lung cancer.
“In our culture, we always had one guy who’s off-the-wall conservative, like Mort,” TV host and Downey pal Richard Bey told The Daily Beast. “Back then, people didn’t take them seriously—they were P.T. Barnums of conservatism. But now you have a whole party that is of that ilk. People take our modern versions of this political commentary—Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh—seriously, and even worse, politicians take them seriously.”