I remember encountering The Morton Downey Jr. Show for the first time when I was finishing high school. The syndicated television program centered around an irate, chain-smoking host (Downey) in a cheap looking television studio screaming at his audience and guests, generally working himself into a frenzy of anger about whatever outrage or hypocrisy was the chosen topic of the day. Downey would stalk the stage, tapping his ashes into a large silver ashtray, occasionally blowing smoke into the face of one of his guests in order to rile them up. He’d accuse anyone who made the slightest progressive argument of being a “pablum puking liberal,” and would frequently interrupt others mid-sentence by shouting “ZIP IT!” into their faces from inches away. Often he’d urge his guests to fight with each other on stage, even goading them on several occasions to come to blows (such as one famous episode in 1988 at the Apollo Theater involving involving Al Sharpton and CORE National Chairman Roy Innis.)
Despite its low budget and poor production quality, the show made an impact in its brief cultural moment. Though Downey was occasionally caught off camera beating people up, using racial and sexist epithets, and getting into fights, he became a quite prominent media figure, eventually making guest appearances on Saturday Night Live, featuring in a few movies, and even recording a record of hokey songs inspired by his show. His influence was apparent in the other talk shows of the era, like Jerry Springer, Geraldo, and even Rikki Lake. For a moment there, he captured the zeitgeist.
But the aspect of the show that really made an impression on me was the audience. His die hard fans referred to themselves as “Loudmouths.” They loved everything about Downey’s act. They’d bring home-made signs to his shows urging Downey on, or signs intended to draw Downey’s ire onto them so he could deliver them a personal dressing-down. They’d wear shirts with Downey’s big mouth logo (see above), and they’d drive in from great distances to be in the audience. When Downey would go on a rant they’d stand up and cheer — almost like a professional wrestling match. The camera would pan the faces of the smiling and elated audience members, often young, white men, as Downey’s rants escalated and the veins popped out of his forehead. They knew it was all staged (they must have known) but they clearly loved it. In interviews, they’d explain that they loved “The Mouth” because “he’s not afraid to open his mouth… he’s not afraid of anybody.”
For some reason, Downey’s popularity profoundly disturbed me. I couldn’t take more than ten or fifteen minutes of the show before I was extremely disquieted. But I would flip over to it on occasion, because it fascinated and horrified me in equal measure. What did it say about human nature that this man had such an audience? What was it about his absurd ranting that commanded such attention? In my Senior Will (a tradition at my high school were we published a short will and testament leaving things to others in our final yearbook) I wished for myself in 30 years: “A cool wife, neat kids… a book in the works, and Morton Downey Jr. far, far away from positions of power.”
Well, that was when I was 18, and this year I turn 48. We’re right on the 30th anniversary. And I got everything but the last item.
Because of the controversial nature of the show, it was moved later and later in my region (North Texas), bracketed by disclaimers before and after the broadcast, and eventually it disappeared. Downey made a few other pitiful plays for attention (such as faking an assault from a white nationalist in an airport bathroom) to reclaim the nation’s attention, but it was too late. By late 1989 the show was cancelled, and Downey filed for bankruptcy a year later. I was optimistic, at the time, that his moment had passed.
A documentary about the show appeared a few years ago, called Evocateur, which processed Downey’s legacy. Most of the commentators focused on how Downey opened the door to reality TV, and changed the culture to be more open to provocative, angry television. In retrospect, it’s obvious that Downey opened a window — a window we’ve had a hard time closing. As Downey puts it in the documentary, in a prescient act of foreshadowing: “I never apologize for anything.” Others, since, have learned that tactic as well.
Downey had been an unrepentant smoker for most of his life, even publicizing his membership in the National Smokers Alliance. He said, “I had spawned a generation of kids to think it was cool to smoke a cigarette. Kids walked up to me until a matter of weeks ago, they’d have a cigarette in their hand and they’d say, ‘Hey, Mort,’ or, ‘Hey, Mouth, autograph my cigarette.’ And I’d do it.” But once he received a diagnosis of lung cancer, he became a staunch anti-smoking activist. He had one of his lungs removed in 1996, and he died of lung cancer and pneumonia in 2001.
Sometimes life gives you metaphors that are so on-the-nose that you couldn’t use them in a work of fiction because they’d be too obvious. Downey was an unrepentant smoker throughout his life, because it felt good. It felt like freedom, and sticking a thumb into the eye of the P.C. police who told him that smoking was bad for him. He even proudly signed the cigarettes of kids. Only later, when he realized the consequences of his smoking, did he change his tune – but by then it was too late. Perhaps in retrospect he felt the same way about his years stoking anger and hatred. It felt like freedom at the time, sticking a thumb into the eye of the P.C. mainstream — but once he realized the consequences, perhaps he wished he’d chosen a different path. By then, it was too late for him. But my hope is that it’s not too late for us.