This Death Slot will be a little different than the others. This time lets look at a TV show that was so influential that it burned out very quickly and yet most people reading this will not remember at all.
Morton Downey Jr. is a name that gets bandied about now and then when people want to locate out a low point for television, when they need something (someone) to single out as the reason television rots the brain and corrupts the soul. This is not an untrue equivocation but it is also one marred by decades of hindsight and moral superiority.
Morton Downey Jr. (the man) was a singer in the 1950’s with hits such as “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and he was following in the footsteps of his father (Morton Downey).
By the mid 1980’s Downey had moved from singing and being a virulent anti-abortion activist into the world of television and this is where his star would rise and flame out just as fast.
Beginning on WWOR in New Jersey The Morton Downey Jr. Show made waves immediately. Soon the show would be syndicated nationwide (usually after midnight). This was a whole new kind of television. Years before Jerry Springer would bring the mainstream the concept of “Trash Television” Mort pioneered the ideal. The Morton Downey Jr. Show was like nothing that had ever been on TV before. It was loud, crass, boisterous, angry, irreverent, mean and the only other word that fits… trashy. Mort’s fans would have it no other way.
The Morton Downey Jr. Show was not a great show in the traditional sense… it was really about a self proclaimed loudmouth right wing kook who espoused very radical views in a way that was not only entertaining but borderline visceral. This may seem tame today but in 1988 this was not only new… it was alluring. Nothing like this had happened before.
Mort would have a few guests from the opposite end of an argument on his very 80’s stage which he would berate and blow smoke in the faces of (he smoked on the show constantly). There were podiums set up facing the stage (the Loudmouths) which in the studio audience could come up to and yell at the guests. Sometimes Morton would openly threaten guests or even people not on the show (he would speak into the camera to senators and whatnot). Violence was a regular occurrence on the The Morton Downey Jr. Show. Al Sharpton was famously punched out by Roy Innis on Mort’s show.
Television was never the same after The Morton Downey Jr. Show. Tony Timpone from Fangoria, Jay Jay French from Twisted Sister, heavy metal maven The Great Kat, Lloyd Kaufman from Troma and many other famous persons would appear on The Morton Downey Jr. stage and make fools of themselves (this was the format).
The Morton Downey Jr. Show was not just a simple minded circus though. Downey might have been quite right wing in his persona but he also fought against sexism (kind of), hated racists, bolstered free speech and even fought for gay rights (while also being arrested on assault charges for attacking a gay guest on a never aired episode). Mort was kind of all over the place. One episode would be about hookers who are also alien abductees and then an episode on the homeless problem in New York. Attempting to start a campaign to have child molesters hung by their testicles one night and then his famous week of shows in Harlem where he showcased racial issues and problems of racism with the NYPD. His favorite phrases were “Zip It” and “Pablum Puking Liberal”. The The Morton Downey Jr. Show was also a hot button in the (then) expanding Tawana Brawley debacle that was gripping the nation. The Morton Downey Jr. Show could not be ignored.
Morton would go on to appear on many other talk shows, news shows, Wrestlemania V and make appearances in scripted television and movies all in a short few months. He quickly became a face you saw on TV constantly and just as quickly he (and his show) became the thing that every other show parodied. This was a real shift in television, more or less out nowhere The Morton Downey Jr. Show was all anyone was talking and then… Bam! It was over.
What happened? Why have so many people only heard about this series in hushed whispers and places such as this?
As I stated earlier while Morton Downey Jr. would be catapulted into the mainstream it was not a fire that burned very long. There are reasons for that.
The Morton Downey Jr. Show was always about as over the top and staged as you could get and with demands to be bigger and bigger every other week things spiraled out of control.
Guests started leaking stories that the show was staged, confrontations were engineered by the staff and then it all came to a head in April of 1989. Downey claimed he was attacked by neo-nazi’s at San Francisco International Airport who shaved his head and spray-painted a swastika on his face. Why neo-nazi’s though when Morton was a far right spokesman? Well shortly before this incident Geraldo Rivera got into a fight with neo-nazi’s on his show and they famously broke his nose so it seems neo-nazi’s were a fast and easy villain. This “attack” made national news until police started to poke holes in the story. No one (including the security at San Francisco International Airport) could find evidence of the neo-nazi’s and it was strange that the swastika on his face was backwards… almost like he painted it himself in a mirror. After this revelation Morton was the walking dead. His fanbase abandoned him, his staff quit and he was very quickly dropped from his syndication deal in most markets.
Morton’s career never recovered. He would appear in low budget movies such as Revenge Of The Nerds III and Body Chemistry II: The Voice of a Stranger but he was on the way down. He would have few high points from this era of his career though such as his Tales From The Crypt episode “Television Terror” where he more or less played himself but in the end that is one of the most legitimately scary episodes of the entire series. He also would (again mostly playing himself) appear in Predator 2.
A new show was attempted simply titled Downey which did not last long. Soon he was stuck hosting Munsters episodes on UHF TV. In the end though Morton would kind of repent and cast aside his old ways. Always with a cigarette in his mouth once he was diagnosed with lung cancer he became a staunch and hard anti-smoking advocate until his death.
With all of that said the question I pose to you the readers is… why did The Morton Downey Jr. Show fade into obscurity so hard when it was trailblazer for trash television? Without The Morton Downey Jr. Show television would be profoundly different.
There is a great documentary on Morton and the show titled Évocateur and full disclosure I played a part behind the scenes just to get that out there.