Downey: Soft underbelly

Mar 19, 2001  •  Post A Comment

One difference between Morton Downey Jr.’s era and the present is that in his time, his was just about the only lowbrow, mob-baiting, cheesy-sleazy talk show on the air, and now we have several, though admittedly the population has declined somewhat in recent years.
Obviously the goons who once chanted “Mort! Mort! Mort!” in his studio audience are essentially the same goons chanting “Jair-ee, Jair-ee” in the studio audience at “The Jerry Springer Show.”
And yet I think some kind, fond words should be said on the passing of Morton Downey Jr., who died last week, many years after his proverbial 15 minutes of fame had ticked to a close. In its day, the borderline barbaric “Morton Downey Jr.” show was a virtually inescapable sensation; I even have a Morton Downey Jr. board game tucked away somewhere in my office. Everybody watched, and self-righteous spokespersons took turns deploring it. Mort had a mad, wild ride and he was able to look at it from an almost objective perspective-and laugh.
Of course, when Norman Mailer threatened to clobber Gore Vidal on “The Dick Cavett Show,” the alleged intelligentsia considered it a literary event, just too, too witty; when contestants came to blows on “Downey,” it was frowned upon as cheap sensationalism. The distinction escapes me.
Full of surprises
When Downey ruled the airwaves, Neanderthal behavior was a novelty on TV, not a genre. Now you can’t turn on the set without coming across “professional” wrestlers spewing threats, wearing outfits that would be considered too kinky for an S&M bar, and conking each other over the head with tables and chairs. This is in addition to all those bickering couples airing dirty laundry in public for Sally Jessy Raphael and her ilk. We have actually regressed since Downey’s day. If he were still on the air, he’d just be part of a crowd, not the singular item he was then.
On his own show, he bellowed and roared at those who appeared to disagree with him, but off-camera, he took a certain delight in all the condemnations and, especially, the lampoons. When I interviewed Downey at the height of his fame and power in 1988, Chris Elliott was appearing regularly on “Late Night With David Letterman” doing a Downey impression that not only ridiculed his behavior but also his facial blemishes. Downey’s face, at the time, had several conspicuous warts on it. Elliott appeared in makeup that made the warts almost as big as golf balls. One night on “Letterman,” he peeled them off and threw them to the crowd.
“I was going to get these damn moles cut off this summer,” Downey told me. “Now I can’t do it! I can’t do it! He’s made it part of my persona.” Eventually, Downey did seek out sandblasters who removed most of the bumps. Our interview, as it happens, was a calm and enjoyable conversation in a suite at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel in New York that ended with Mort giving me an unexpected smooch on the cheek, his version of a seal of approval. He was, for all his trademark catchphrases and ritualistic on-air behavior, full of surprises.
Downey may have seemed a satanic figure to his many enemies, but in fact he was hardly the first demagogic talk-show rabble-rouser ever to gambol across the TV screen.
Many years earlier, the snarling and one-legged Joe Pyne filled an hour of television each night with essentially the same shtick, bashing liberals and espousing far-right political notions. It’s worth noting that there’s never been a left-wing version of this TV perennial. Liberal talk-show hosts have been few and are rarely rowdy.
Phil Donahue talked loudly and strutted around his studio (and occasionally devoted a sweeps-month show to male strippers who bumped and ground for his mostly female studio audiences), but he never stooped to the kinds of tricks that Pyne and Downey and pathetic West Coast kook Wally George (who had a brief nationally syndicated fling) made part of their repertoires.
Freak show
If you go all the way back to radio, you’ll find demagogues who actually spouted racist and anti-Semitic propaganda and got away with it regularly. Downey always came down hard on racism and was, as the saying goes, an equal-opportunity offender.
I also liked Downey because snobs looked down on him. Incidentally, while he may not give it a prominent place in his list of credits, Downey was syndicated in those days by a company whose chief was none other than Mister Media, Bob Pittman. Unlike Downey, Pittman stuck around and remains an influential figure in television to this day. And presumably for innumerable days to come.
Obviously some of us watched Downey’s show the way many people will have watched last weekend’s Kathie Lee Gifford TV movie, “Spinning Out of Control”: to laugh at it. His talk show may have been more of a freak show, with guests ranging from bewildered transsexuals to fat and pasty-faced KKK members, but it was at least an entertaining freak show. It was a reminder of what’s “out there” in America, on the fringes, although if we looked at tapes of Downey’s shows today, they’d probably seem tame, and the freaks rather bland and ordinary.
For Downey, his talk show’s relatively brief reign was his only real taste of success in life. By the time it got on the air, he had tried and failed at many occupations. He suffered from the Famous Father Syndrome; his dad had been popular, even beloved, Irish singer Morton Downey, and that was a huge burden for Mort to bear.
Mad prophet
Years ago, I worked on a sad little weekly paper in Washington called the D.C. Examiner and there met Damon Runyon Jr., who in retrospect reminds me a lot of Downey. Except poor Damon never had his moment in the sun, never emerged from the long, punishing shadow. He died after jumping off Washington’s P Street Bridge. Downey died of lung cancer, another victim of the giant conglomerates who own the cigarette companies.
Downey had known oblivion for years, so returning to it was perhaps not so painful as we would assume. He tried a comeback now and then, but nobody was buying. The public taste had moved on to other forms of video sadism, a genre that never really goes away and is represented now to some degree by the CBS “Survivor” shows. A promo for one week’s edition of “Survivor II” promised viewers they would see one of the contestants horribly injured, and shots of a crocodile edited into the promo made it look as though the contestant in question would be the victim of a croc chomping.
But no, it turned out that the victim was that poor chap who fell face-first into a burning campfire. The actual burning wasn’t shown, but the hideous wounds were. America must be entertained, whatever it takes. CBS stoops to conquer, perhaps our stoopedest network.
From this perspective, and put in context, Morton Downey Jr. hardly seems the ogre many considered him at the time. What I liked about his show was the way he reminded me of Paddy Chayefsky’s immortal Howard Beale, the “mad prophet of the airwaves” in the unforgettable-and indeed prophetic-movie “Network.” Downey got angry, mad, furious-as furious as, say, I got the other night when a computer at American Express erroneously told a restaurant that I had a bum credit card. When I called to complain, I
was kept waiting for 10 minutes of recorded music, ads for the company that was abusing me, and entreaties to visit its Web site. Yeah, I’d like to visit its Web site-with an ax or an Uzi.
If Downey were on the air today, I think he would do what more of us should be doing: raging against the vicious various tyrannies of the computer age, against the giant corporations that treat us like scum, against the big-business interests that just this week bought themselves a bankruptcy bill from a corrupt Congress and will use it to make consumers suffer further. It’s obvious, isn’t it, that anything big business wants it will, at least for the next two years, be sure to get. Like Chayefsky’s Beale, Morton Downey Jr. “articulated the popular rage,” but rage isn’t considered very chic anymore, and standing up to the establishment now requires more en
ergy than ever. More than most of us can muster.
Mort’s heart was with the little guy, it really was, because he knew what it was like to be kicked around and abused and ignored. Well, we don’t have Morton Downey Jr. to kick around anymore. Goodbye, Mort. Some of us will actually miss you.