TRASH TALK: THE UNBELIEVABLY FASCINATING CHARACTER OF MORTON DOWNEY JR.

PUMP UP THE COLUMN EXPLORES THE MANY INTERPRETATIONS OF PUNK AESTHETIC USED IN CINEMA

In my first “Pump Up The Column” piece I mentioned that the definition of punk varies. If you ask some maybe less culturally enlightened people to define what punk is, they might say it’s putting pins in your jean jacket and getting a mohawk. Others look at that costume and compare it to slowly dying in a cubicle. Similar to a suit in a corporate environment, a spiked mohawk can be a Hail Mary attempt to be accepted by a group you’re hoping to be included in, aka the complete opposite of punk.

Like anything, though, there are variations on what’s considered punk. If you google the word and strive to find a summary, some of the descriptions you’ll see in the first definition are “fast,” “loud,” and “aggressive.” It’s a great way to sum up a certain formula of punk; some of the earliest essential punk bands specialized in being faster, louder, and more aggressive than mainstream rock– and anything else played on the radio. If you’re spiking the crowd’s adrenaline in a way they never experienced previously, they’re less likely to notice that you’re out of tune and only know three chords.

In this piece I’ll be discussing a documentary all about a character that explored the absolute limits of fast, loud and aggressive: Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie.

For those who have never heard the name, Morton Downey Jr. is what you get when you combine Peter Finch’s mental breakdown in Network with cocaine and a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag. As giant Marlboro clouds flowed from his mouth past his white-capped teeth, Morton directed his atomic hatred at whomever was foolish enough to be a guest on his show with a differing opinion. For a short period of time, it was a very successful gimmick. Morton quickly went from radio personality to local TV personality in the New York/New Jersey area to nationwide phenomenon as he became the foremost pioneer of the tawdry syndicated television talk show circuit.

While being influenced by “America’s First Shock Jock,” Joe Pyne, The Morton Downey Jr. Show is the prequel to what we now consider trash TV. Two years after Morton’s show was canceled, The Jerry Springer Show began its massive twenty-eight season, 4,969 episode run. From hot-headed guests to audience members screaming at the freakshow-like attractions, The Jerry Springer Show took the Downey show’s template and ran with it to rarely duplicated success. And while The Jerry Springer Show survived long after the 1990s, it was undeniably definitive of that decade’s pop culture. If you weren’t there, the ratings from loyal viewers (who happened to also claim to despise it) is comparable to Keeping Up With The Kardashians. 

(Before we end the Jerry Springer talk, I do want to point out how many exploitation-hungry pre-teens back in that day had their first jerk-off sessions to the likes of topless, pixelated trailer park lesbians throwing punches at each other with Steve Wilkos in the middle. Sometimes we take Pornhub for granted.)

To say the least, Morton’s political perspective was a little bit before its time. In the age before the Far Left began telling you ’80s sex comedies aren’t woke enough because the guys never got consent for their panty raids, the Religious Right oppressively controlled the perspective of pop culture morality. While identifying as a conservative, Morton Downey Jr. would be at best a guilty pleasure for most Reagan voters. Mirroring the path Ronald and Nancy walked, the majority of ’80s conservatives appeared as prudish Christian suburbanites who wouldn’t be caught dead watching a show not only featuring strippers as guests, but also where the host says, “I’m about to show you how to knock the living shit out of a broad” before striking one of the women with pelvic thrusts and shouting “sit down, you fat bitch!”

So even though they voted the same, Morton wasn’t appealing to these people. Besides viewers looking for a good fight, his “character” was aimed towards a fed-up working class demographic who never got their opinions past a nodding bartender trying to hide a series of eye rolls. Before Morton, the closest thing to seeing this type of radical, misguided rage on-screen was probably Peter Boyle in Joe.

At the time of this documentary’s completion, the comparison made is with Glenn Beck. If you don’t remember him, he did a lot of hysterical shrieking in front of a chalkboard on Fox News. You could say he was like that substitute teacher your class made run out of the room in tears and had to write an apology letter to the next day.

In the time since, conservative pundit Tomi Lahren has channeled Morton Downey Jr.’s rage unlike anybody else. She’s a new and improved model. The average opinions of your middle-aged conservative are coming from a hot blonde who could’ve easily won Miss Third Reich 1942.  Even in a country where a youthful image is everything, it’s a combination nobody expected.

(FYI, Tomi Lahren doesn’t do it for me. Even when she’s passionately screaming, there’s a cold, blank look in her eyes similar to Michael Myers. I imagine she ends every night looking up the Facebook pages of the popular girls in her high school, sees they’re selling green tea body wraps to get by, and says while drinking whatever it is Gene Simmons uses to spit fireballs, “I’ve won, and yet feel so empty.” No thanks.)

Of course, there’s the obvious comparison to Donald Trump. I try to stray from the “this predicted Trump” narrative because God knows it’s spoiled great things like A Face In The Crowd. Give it a rest people, move on to another Elia Kazan film. I’ll patiently listen to your “Baby Doll predicted Roy Moore and Jeffery Epstein” take if you leave A Face In The Crowd alone.

But it’d be crazy not to mention Trump since he’s all over this documentary three years before his presidential run. Morton was once a resident of Trump Tower, and the two were acquaintances. Plainly, Trump was a fan. Riding the coattails of Bob Barker, Trump regularly appeared on The Morton Downey Jr. Show, saying “be sure to grab that pussy and get it spayed or neutered” at the end of each show. I’m kidding there, but yes, back in the yuppie ’80s having a rich celebrity such as Donald Trump appear on your TV show or movie for any reason was surefire Exploitation TV 101. And fittingly, audiences drank it up.

It was a few years ago when I came across Evocateur, my introduction to Morton Downey Jr. Netflix featured the film back when they offered great things, before they fully invested in bland programming. I don’t know exactly what it was that got me to watch it, but after putting it on, I was in complete awe of Morton Downey Jr. I was fully taken in by the animated fury of this man I had never heard about. Previously, the closest I had come to encountering him was seeing Predator 2 over a decade ago.

Morton Downey Jr. is unlike any other character. He’s somewhat politically charged, and yet the scope of his entertainment value excels far past politics to a point that’s made me obsessed. As someone who watched Scarface one too many times at an impressionable age, I crave heightened excess. Maybe that’s what attracts me to the legend of Morton Downey Jr.; his style is similar to one of the all-time great evocative comedians, Sam Kinison. Both men had the loudest on-stage personas and knew how to use them to great effect.

Another fascinating side of this character’s legacy is how Morton Downey Jr. represents what the highs and lows used to be of receiving your fifteen minutes of fame. Now with social media, you’re always in the public eye of thousands of people, regardless if they’re admirers or detractors. People you haven’t thought of in fifteen years still have a devoted legion regularly liking their photos and opinions– even people who never played a character in the Star Trek universe.

Prior to social media, you could be the most recognizable face one day and washed up the very next. I’ll never forget someone telling me about seeing Quiet Riot in the ’90s in a town of just 20,000 people. Back in 1983, Quiet Riot was as big as a band could get. Their album Metal Health hit #1 on the U.S. Billboard 200, and they were credited as the first metal band to reach such an achievement. You’d think that achievement would be enough to keep them going forever, but it wasn’t. Cut to the ’90s, and they had a show that drew approximately four people. According to my source, Quiet Riot walked out, Kevin Dubrow muttered a couple of expletives, and they left without playing a single Slade cover.

Similar to that example, Morton Downey Jr. went from being a local celeb in the New York/New Jersey area to being broadcast nationwide, then having his show canceled in less than two years. Even while finding ways to stay relevant like verbally sparring with Rowdy Roddy Piper at WrestleMania, starring in a great episode of Tales from the Crypt, and faking a skinhead beating, Morton would disappear from the public eye until he was diagnosed with lung cancer in the late ’90s and started preaching about the danger of cigarettes, the defining prop of his character. It’s the ultimate “rapid fire burns out quick” tale.

There are multiple things to point to when summarizing why Morton’s reign was short-lived. Similar to some punk groups, Morton Downey Jr. only knew how to operate at his most unhinged. Eventually that heightened flavor goes from being fresh to exhausting. At first the anger’s thrilling, then you feel that smog of hatred entering your pores and you want out before you’re the one working yourself to a heart attack faster than Martin Sheen on the set of Apocalypse Now.

Morton Downey Jr.’s inability to tell the difference between reality and his character didn’t help. Along with becoming a ranting asshole off-set, there’s a moment in this documentary the producers share where Morton convinced a woman to quit her job because he said he’d make her a producer. Her first day there, he asked her to hold his penis at the urinal, which sent her running out of the building in tears. That’s a perfectly chilling example of the character possessing the puppeteer.

This entire piece I’ve referred to Morton Downey Jr. as a “character,” and if you watch this documentary, you’ll hear an origin story as fascinating as his on-screen persona. To quickly sum it up without spoiling every detail, his father was an iconic liberal-voting singer who knew the Kennedys. Morton resented his father, and the answer to getting his revenge was trying to become a bigger celebrity than his dad. After multiple failed attempts (which include a book of poetry oddly enough titled “Quiet Thoughts” Make The Loudest Noise), he found his gimmick when he became the angry Republican voicing his thoughts loudly enough to be heard over Shelley Winters.

After hearing his origin story, it’s obvious why this is the gimmick that worked. Whether or not he believed the trash he talked, the anger that fueled the character was authentic. Like some men, he had unresolved issues with his father, and you imagine every time he was spewing fury at “pablum puking liberals,” he pictured his father standing in front of him. This may not be a case of sympathy for the self-imposed misguided, but it is a call to understand what’s going on internally when personas like Morton’s are created. And even more so, the internal goings-on of those who blindly flock to his fandom without necessarily understanding the layered nature of the satire he’s presenting. It’s always weird and complicated when someone’s anger brings them notoriety, and you have to remember that TV doesn’t just heighten reality, sometimes it puts it through the wringer.

But you also have to understand this is entertainment, and entertainment isn’t always pretty. Nor can we expect it to be. Evocateur showcases all the things that made Morton Downey Jr. an intriguing character. The clips make your pulse race in both agony and ecstasy as you’re exposed to what made him a nationwide star. Along with the unfiltered intensity, Evocateur feels more punk than your typical documentary. Out of all the things to pull from an ’80s time capsule, this one invests high quality into Morton Downey Jr., and while most documentaries would quickly assure you they find this angry conservative naughty, Evocateur gathers fans who sat in the show’s audience along with names like writer/comedian Chris Elliott to gleefully reminisce about their fandom for Morton. Because of moments like producers recalling crazed fans doing lines of coke in the parking lot and famed womens’ rights attorney Gloria Allred talking about her sexual chemistry with Morton, Evocateur mirrors the addicting rush that resulted in Morton Downey Jr.’s brief success.

The effect Morton Downey Jr. has is baffling. Even when you find politics draining and a dull thing to devote your entire personality to, you gleefully take in this red-faced maniac. If you’ve seen Josh Peck roasting everybody around him in Mean Creek or Clark Griswold’s Christmas bonus meltdown in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, perhaps you’ll understand the morbid delight in seeing someone snapping to a point that even Gene Kelly and Jerry Mouse couldn’t calm them down with a rendition of “The Worry Song.”

After watching Evocateur, hopefully you’ll at least see what makes Morton Downey Jr. a captivating presence regardless of any political leanings. The journey is intense and energizing. By the end you feel like you did some activity that’ll leave you bedridden tomorrow. I’ve never been more thankful at how a documentary sums up a man’s wild existence and helps ensure his antics won’t be forgotten.