Before there was Bill O’Reilly.
Before there was Jerry Springer.
Before there was Rush Limbaugh
There was Morton Downey Jr.
THE MORTON DOWNEY JR SHOW aired, beginning in 1987, from Superstation WOR 9 in Secaucus New Jersey. It was a nightly round table talk show, where Mort would have on different guests, from politicians to wrestlers, and argue with them.
This wasn’t a typical talk show. It was more of a yell show. Mort would yell at his guests, and if he was lucky, they would yell back.
The audience would step up to a “loudmouth” podium to ask questions as well. They would often join in as well. They would cheer him on. Instead of the “Jerry, Jerry!” you get today it was “Mort! Mort! Mort!”
It was the end of the Reagan era, so Mort was always screaming about “pablum pukers” (aka liberals) or telling people he didn’t agree with to “zip it”.
One of the most famous moments in the show was when Roy Innis got into a confrontation with Al Sharpton.
I have to admit, every time I see Sharpton today, twenty years later, I still remember this.
The show grew to be very popular. It began to be syndicated by various stations and become a nationwide phenomenon. Chris Elliot even played Mort as a recurring skit on LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN.
Mort even toured the country with the show like a rock star. I saw him once when he came to town. They had huge speakers blaring while he yelled at people who were supporting Michael Dukakis.
Politically, I’ve changed quite a bit since the 1980’s. But back then, I have to admit, I watched the show just about every night. I watched from the first WOR episode. I even had a Morton Downey Jr. Show T-shirt and the soundtrack tape.
Of course all good things had to come to an end.
In 1989, as people were tuning away from the show (I had stopped watching), Mort claimed to have been attacked in an airport bathroom. His head was shaved and a swastika was drawn on his face. Police didn’t quite believe the story, and it turned out they had a reason. Mort had faked the whole thing for attention.
And that was the end of the show.
He attempted a comeback on radio and various TV shows. They never took. He would later go on LARRY KING and admit that the show was all an act. Politically, he wasn’t as right wing as he claimed to be (he grew up next to the Kennedys in Hyannis after all).
In 1996, the longtime smoker (who smoked on his show) had a lung removed. In 2001, he died.
A case could be made that THE MORTON DOWNEY SHOW was one of the worst shows ever to air on television. Especially for what it represented, by lowering the standards for political debate and made a mockery of it all. It inspired imitators who are still going strong today.
But I can’t get away from the fact that I DID watch it. I was part of the problem. There was something about him that made you want to keep watching. Even if he only had a brief time to influence viewers.