Long before the rise of trash TV, reality television, Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, Fox News, and MSNBC, there was The Morton Downey, Jr. Show. Airing at the end of the 1980s, The Morton Downey, Jr. Show featured its host railing against liberals, vegetarians, communists, feminists, libertarians, animal rights activists, teenagers, and pot smokers. Though the show only lasted for two seasons and ended after a bizarre incident in which Downey faked being the victim of a hate crime, The Morton Downey, Jr. served as a forerunner to the rise of our current toxic political culture.
At least, that is the claim made by Evocateur, a documentary about both the show and the controversial showman who hosted it. Since I was too young to watch the show when it originally aired, it was interesting, for me, to watch the many clips that were featured in this documentary. Downey would chain-smoke and shout, while kicking people off his stage. At one point, Downey literally wrapped himself in an American flag and ordered a guest to kiss his ass. On another show, Downey provoked then-Libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul into shouting at him to shut up. One of the high points of the documentary comes when guest Roy Innis loses his temper and sends Al Shaprton falling to the floor. The audience would into it, chanting “Mort! Mort! Mort!” in the same way that the audience of The Jerry Spring Show chant “Jerry!” whenever a fight breaks out or a guest takes a spin on a the stripper pole. As way of comparison, a clip of Phil Donahue respectfully interviewing a professional foot model (and promising to let his audience know if maybe they could become a foot model too) is used to illustrate just how different The Morton Downey, Jr. Show was from everything else on the air at the time. It is a stretch to try to connect (as this film attempts to do) The Morton Downey, Jr. Show to the rise of the Tea Party but it is true that both Donald Trump and Morton Downey, Jr. borrowed a page from the same populist playbook.
Through home video footage and candid interviews, the documentary attempts to show how Morton Downey, Jr. went from being the son of a famous Irish crooner and a friend of Ted Kennedy’s to being the forerunner of trash tv. There is a lot of speculation about what motivated Downey, some parts of which are more credible than others. A lot of attention is given to Downey’s relationship with his father and his early attempts to have a musical career of his own. As a singer, Mort was always overshadowed but, as a political provocateur and, later, as an anti-smoking activist, Mort was able to establish an identity of his own. Along with archival footage and talking head clips, Evocateur uses animation to tell a good deal of the story. It’s distracting but that currently seems to be the trendy thing to do when it comes to documentaries.
Despite its flaws, Evocateur is an interesting profile of a man whose influence is still being felt even if he has largely been forgotten.