BOOTLEG FILES 488: “The Morton Downey Jr. Show” (1987-88 TV talk show).
LAST SEEN: Several episodes can be found on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No perceived commercial value to this old show.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Efforts are being made to make some of the episodes available.
In case you ever wondered who is responsible for the decline and fall of American intellectualism, I would blame a chain-smoking ex-radio DJ named Morton Downey Jr. On October 19. 1987, “The Morton Downey Jr. Show” made its TV debut, and the pursuit of cerebral discussion (not to mention the celebration of good manners) has never been the same.
Prior to the launch of this program, TV talk shows were mostly benign affairs. Yes, there were programs that focused on titillating subject matter, and sometimes audience participation would get a bit heated. But “The Morton Downey Jr. Show” broke new ground for its sheer anger and crassness – yelling, screaming, bleeped cursing, condescending commentary from the host and a sense of constant fury permeated each episode. Not surprisingly, the show burned out very quickly – it only ran two seasons – but its impact continues to register across the American media.
Morton Downey Jr. was an unlikely candidate for being at the center of this cultural phenomenon. His father was a popular Irish tenor who enjoyed a highly successful entertainment career. The younger Downey had difficulty finding his niche – he tried his hand at songwriting, singing and working as a radio announcer, but fame and fortune eluded him. When the shock jock movement began to take root in American radio during the early 1980s, Downey ratcheted up his edginess while he was the on-air talent at KFBK in Sacramento. However, unlike other shock jocks, Downey lacked a sense of humor and irony – and his abrasiveness became so overwhelming that the station fired him in 1984 and brought in a then-unknown named Rush Limbaugh as a replacement.
In 1987, Downey somehow received the opportunity to host his own TV show. Granted, it was not on a national network, but on WWOR-TV, based out of Secaucus, N.J., and serving the greater New York City metropolitan market; it also had superstation status, but at the time it was barely making any national impact.
For the fall of 1987, WWOR-TV opted to remove its long-running “Million Dollar Movie” program of old flicks from the weekday prime time slot in favor of original programming. To his credit, Downey certainly provided the station with something original. Unlike other talk show hosts, Downey was mostly hostile to both his guests and to audience members that disagreed with his alleged right-wing politics. Left-wing dissenters were dismissed as “pablum puking liberals” and those who tried to get a rebuttal in were told by Downey to “zip it.” Downey flaunted his chain-smoking habit by using a large silver bowl as an ashtray and blowing smoke in the faces of those who disagreed with him.
The focus of the program was mostly of a socio-political nature, but after a while most of the episodes seemed to blur into one large freak show. The guests were mostly fringe people with an axe to grind on issues relating to race, gender, national politics and morality, and it seemed that they were recruited to espouse their beliefs with as much stridency as humanly possible. Audience members, who were nicknamed “Loudmouths” by the host, were invited to offer their own opinions – and they responded with crude putdowns and name-calling. In comparison, the various smackdowns being offered by Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation seemed like a genteel afternoon tea.
At first, “The Morton Downey Jr. Show” caught viewers off-guard. Critics were aghast at the anger and rudeness on display – the Washington Post called Downey a “maniac” – but audiences were initially entertained by the sheer weirdness of the endeavor. Downey became an instant celebrity in the New York media market, and WWOR-TV’s status as a superstation helped to bring him other markets across the country. Downey quickly cashed in on this via guest appearances in movies and TV shows, and he even recorded a music album.
In the fall of 1988, “The Morton Downey Jr. Show” was syndicated to independent stations across the United States. But, to use a tired meteorological cliché, lightning did not strike twice. The sense of novelty that fueled the series in its first season evaporated by the second season, and the show seemed like a tiresome rehash of too-familiar putdowns and screaming. Even worse, the program had problems attracting major advertisers – no corporate brand wanted to be associated with this lunacy. Even WWOR-TV recognized Downey was bombing, and it switched him from his 9:00 p.m. prime time perch to the 11:30 p.m. slot, where he was in direct competition with “The Tonight Show” and “Nightline.” Downey’s ratings slid further, and the station put him on at 12:30 a.m. before cancelling the program in July 1989.
As quickly as he became a star, Downey became a has-been. He filed for bankruptcy in 1990 and various attempts at a comeback on TV and radio failed. His chain-smoking resulted in lung cancer, requiring the removal of one of his lungs in 1996. He died in 2001.
Today, “The Morton Downey Jr. Show” is primarily recalled for two astonishing moments. One involved a heated debate at New York’s Apollo Theatre between rival civil rights agitators Roy Innis and Rev. Al Sharpton. Both men were seated, but Innis got up to make an angry point. When Sharpton rose from his seat, the agitated Innis pushed him back into the chair, which caused the obese Sharpton to topple backwards and roll across the stage. The moment created pandemonium at the theatre (the taping was halted for 25 minutes) and the sight of Sharpton tumbling like a cartoon character made national news.
A less showy but more poignant moment came when Downey introduced his gay brother Tony on the program. Downey noted that Tony was HIV-positive, and he expressed his support and love for his brother. This was highly unusual because Downey seemed to encourage a surplus of homophobic commentary on his programs (even Sharpton used the word “faggot” on the air to describe a detractor) and sympathetic discussions of HIV and AIDS was uncommon in that era.
Some of the program’s episodes can be found on YouTube, and a few surprises abound: a 1988 debate between Ron Paul (then the Libertarian Party candidate for president) and Lyndon LaRouche is available, as well as a weird sequence where Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman is openly berated by Downey for making crummy films. There is also an uncommonly sedate episode where a highly respectful Downey interviews Rev. Jerry Falwell via satellite. But for the most part, these clips are either too shrill to be funny or too dull to explore at greater length.
Downey’s family owns the rights to his program, and they are offering fans the opportunity to purchase DVDs of specific episodes. However, no plans have been announced to re-release the full two seasons on commercial DVD or Blu-ray. A documentary on Downey was released in 2012 and it offered a sampling of the show’s louder and stranger moments.
If Downey had a serious problem, it was his inability to maintain his composure. Trash talk television became firmly entrenched in his show’s aftermath, but the stars of this genre were shrewd enough to maintain some degree of likability in the midst of their carefully orchestrated chaos. This could explain why folks like Jerry Springer or Bill O’Reilly or anyone you love to hate enjoyed long careers and large fan bases despite the often emetic nature of their programming. Downey, in contrast, was too obnoxious to encourage a continued following, and he foolishly allowed his audience to become so wild that the program quickly became a puerile bore. Downey was certainly in the right place at the right time, but ultimately he was the wrong man for the job.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!
Posted on July 12, 2013 in Bootleg Files, Features by Phil Hall
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- THE BOOTLEG FILES: THE JOE FRANKLIN SHOW
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