Conservatives that remember the Reagan years probably also remember an in-your-face talk show host named Morton Downey, Jr. His show started as a local program on WWOR in Seacaucus, NJ, and moved on to syndication, introducing a much larger audience to his outrageous on-screen behavior. Personally, the show was fodder for conversation in the classroom, much to the chagrin of our generally liberal teachers.
While Mort complaining about “pablum-puking liberals” was a totally new concept for media in the late 1980’s, the format of his show in general was not. It was based on a 1960’s production – “The Joe Pyne Show” – albeit far more daring, and far less civil. Today, conservatives have the opportunity to either reminisce about those good old days, or introduce the next generation to the man that arguably blazed the trail for Andrew Breitbart, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh. “Évocateur” is a documentary about the man, the myth, and the legends that drove him to be the over-the-top talk show host he became.
Directors Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, and Jeremy Newberger offer viewers that knew Mort the closure – and behind-the-scenes explanations – they didn’t get after the abrupt end of the show in 1989. Bob Pittman – current CEO of Clear Channel, and the man behind both MTV and “The Morton Downey, Jr. Show” – gave the directors the opportunity to finally place Mort’s motivations in context, including the ugly down spiral that lead to the end of the show. I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeremy Newberger, and our conversation covered the majority of the show, and our personal impressions about it, since we both were avid viewers when it aired.
When the show was on the air, the vast majority of the young viewers had no idea who Mort’s father was, or that the show was undoubtedly his attempt to outdo his father’s fame. Morton Downey, Sr. was a great Irish tenor – and a man who kept his son from the child’s mother – an act that some contended lead to her death from alcoholism. The Downey family had deep roots in the Democratic Party, thanks to their neighbors, the Kennedys. Morton Downey, Sr. was friends with Joseph Kennedy. After failing to eclipse his father in the music industry, it’s not surprising Mort turned to a generally conservative political world view in his talk show.
That may be only reason why conservatives may never totally adopt Mort as an icon, because the fact that his politics leaned right had little to do with his actual beliefs, apparently. According to Mort’s friend, Lloyd Schoonmaker, Mort latched onto whatever political beliefs served him at the moment, at least back when he was still trying to make it in the world of music. Given his shifts on issues during the show itself, that probably remained the case. While that may be difficult for conservatives today to deal with, that isn’t necessarily a new concept – Andrew Breitbart himself shifted in his political beliefs to the right. One thing that is certain is that “The Morton Downey, Jr. Show” is an excellent example of how to mix entertainment and politics, albeit outrageous entertainment on the level of Howard Stern.
“Évocateur” should be considered “required viewing” for not only conservatives that remember Morton Downey, Jr., but also the next generation. The man who introduced the world to the likes of Gloria Allred and the Reverend Al Sharpton is definitely worth understanding. While he was on the air nationally for just over a year, and half of that time was essentially relegated to bizarre guests – episodes that probably served as inspiration for hosts like Jerry Springer – Mort still left an indelible mark on the entertainment industry, and on the political landscape in America.