From 1987 to 1989 a strange television phenomenon occurred.
A loud, raucous talk show had appeared on the horizon and riveted viewers with its chain-smoking host overseeing loud debates involving hot political topics and sensitive issues. Surrounded by a raucous studio audience the chain-smoking, angry and roaring host would unleash insults and putdowns to anyone in his vicinity while blowing his cigarette smoke into their faces. Like a Roman gladiator, he would be cheered by the crowd.
Audience members, when not acting like a crazed lynch mob, would get to step up to a podium named ‘The Loudmouth’ and voice their thoughts about the topic of the night (usually it was more like they would help keep the intensity up by yelling their thoughts). Screaming, arguing and occasionally physical fighting would ensue. It was part talk show, part wrestling match.
The Morton Downey Jr. Show would enjoy a short-lived popularity that attracted viewers and controversy. Downey would become popular for his screaming and abrasive attitude in the midst of the chaos of this show.
With his trademark red socks and mouth-full of teeth clenching a cigarette, Downey was sought for interviews, appeared on magazine covers, was the hot button topic on news programs. He released an album where he sang, including the song ‘Zip It!’, a phrase he often used on his show. He even showed up on Saturday Night Live and Wrestlemania V.
‘Mort’ offered up a radical change from the more docile interview shows that had come before and the country enthusiastically responded. The Morton Downey Jr. Show even had its own board game!
It’s said it’s place in television history would be the forerunner to future tabloid talk shows like Jerry Springer and Geraldo, along with being the early signs of the reality TV craze that would follow only a few years later.
Alas all good things must come to an end and The Morton Downey Jr. Show disappeared as fast as it arrived. In part to a very strange publicity stunt by Mr. Downey and his massive ego. Downey became a strange footnote in the chapter of 1980s broadcasting in the history of television.
The Morton Downey Jr. Show has now become one of those shows that those who were around at the time remember vividly, but probably no one under the age of thirty ever heard of. Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie attempts to remind everyone of that ‘Mort hysteria’ that swept the country, recounting how it came to be and how it quickly fizzled out.
The film itself is a fairly straight-forward ‘talking head/clip’-type of documentary. Interviews with those who worked on the show, including producer Bill Boggs, the fans who were devoted followers of the Mort cult and other talk show hosts discuss its influence on them and on television. Along with Downey’s daughter, longtime friends and notable guests who appeared as his guests, like Gloria Allred and Allan Dershowitz, help paint a more clearer picture of who Morton Downey Jr. was.
Of course we get some interesting behind-the-scenes tales of how it came to be and the controversy and popularity that erupted from it. We revisit some of the “pablum puking” guests who were willing to venture out onto that stage and knew full well they would be drastically outnumbered by Mort and his followers.
I didn’t know much about Downey other than his stint with this show so learning about his upbringing was quite enlightening. Downey’s feeling of the shadow of his famous singer father hanging over him and wanting to try to eclipse his success was a major driving force in his life. He made his own attempts at a singing career, paled around with politicians, becoming a radio show host, until he found his calling by being center stage of a loud circus was all enlightening.
For me Downey was always just born out of this show. I had no idea where he came from or anything about his past. Simply learning about his family life and his early political leanings before becoming television’s Loudmouth was itself eye-opening.
Along with clips of the show and interviews, the doc uses trippy, abstract animation to help illustrate certain passages in the film – and it work’s very well. It’s effective in illustrating incidents, although at time sometimes becomes quite surreal looking. Which I guess compliments some of the bizarre turns that Downey’s life took.
It’s Mort’s show that is the main focus and well it should be. It was entertaining to see fans talk about their passion for this wacky show back when it was an obsession during their teen years. It seems everyone knew just what it was and no one claims it was ever sophisticated television.
How much of the show was an act and how much of it was genuine? There were always suspicions about how staged it was and if Downey purposely provoked to get reactions, whether he believed what he was saying or not. The show welcomed confrontations and wasn’t very interested in calm discussion. When Roy Innis knocked Al Sharpton to the floor in one infamous show, Downey was secretly ecstatic.
If there was ever any doubt Downey’s television persona was a put on, he helped prove it himself in his infamous ‘airport bathroom skinhead attack’.
Claiming he was attacked by four skinheads who cut his hair and drew swastikas on him proved to be a hoax and a desperate attempt to get press attention. The incident cemented the demise of his reign on the trash talk show heap. Downey was viewed more as a carnival barker than any kind of television broadcaster. The novelty of ‘Mort’ wore off and the show would be cancelled in 1989.
I have a personal connection to The Morton Downey Jr. Show. The show was filmed in Secaucus, NJ and was aired locally in the tri-state area before being syndicated nationally. So I knew of the show before the rest of America caught on. At the time I was fascinated by it and just enjoyed seeing people yell at each other. Hey, it was funny!
My friends and I ventured to one of his shows in an attempt to experience the mayhem firsthand. Our skinny, gawky selves had to lie about our ages to be allowed in, but we managed to get into one of the shows. We whooped and screamed for the next sixty minutes. We had no idea what we were screaming about, really had no ideas or opinions about the issues at hand, but we were having a blast chanting “Mort! Mort! Mort!”.
I remember between commercial breaks Mort chatting with people and looking in our direction asking us where we from. When we told him, he knew of our small little town, which we were really jazzed about. ‘Morton Downey Jr. knows the town we live in!”.
My two friends got up to the Loudmouth and got to yell their adolescent opinions. They had no idea what they were talking about, they just wanted to get on TV and scream. After our Mort adventure we wrote an article for the school paper to share with our classmates of that historic trip. We enjoyed the envy they had of us of being audience members of The Morton Downey Jr. show! This triumph didn’t help us score with any girls in school unfortunately.
For me personally I had fun revisiting Mort and learning more about him and the show than I had ever known before. After the show disappeared the only other time I recall seeing Mort was in small roles in Predator 2 and Revenge of the Nerds III: The Next Generation. When the news reported he got lung cancer, he made a quick turnaround becoming an anti-smoking advocate. Downey soon after died in 2001.
Sometimes I’ll think back at how Mort was such a quick passing television fad and how today everyone appears to have forgotten about him, despite how his show signaled what was to follow with Jerry Springer and hot button, argumentative talk shows that would grip viewers and hosts who would lead devoted followers. I bet if The Morton Downey Jr. Show was around today there would be a place somewhere it would find an audience again.
It’s an interesting exploration of how this cheap, little, controversial, loud talk show captured America’s attention for a time. It’s really quite a fascinating time capsule of a movie for me personally. Seeing clips of the show again, I was reminded just how bargain-basement that show was! Boy, WWOR in Secaucus had a pretty cheap looking studio! It was all unquestionably trashy, but it was unique entertainment for those two short years.
So if you decide to check out Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie and you see the outrageous clips of the old shows with a hollering, out of control audience and are left asking yourself – “What’s up with this audience he had? Where did they find these people? Who are these nuts?”. Well, for at least one show, yours truly was one of them.