ÉVOCATEUR: THE MORTON DOWNEY JR. MOVIE
(Dirs. Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, Jeremy Newberger, 2013)
“The Morton Downey Jr. Show was the fastest rise and fall in the history of television” claims Bill Boggs, a former Executive Producer of the infamous late ‘80s talk show, in this biodoc now out on DVD and a pretty pricey Blu ray edition. Boggs is right on the money – I was a teenager at the time of the show and everyone I knew watched it, then, extremely suddenly, didn't.
If you had cable, which was only a 100 channels or less back then, you couldn’t help but come across The Morton Downey Jr. Show when channel surfing. It was a breakout hit in syndication so it was on several times a day on different affiliates. I knew people who recorded it on VHS tapes – surely the source of a lot of YouTube clips (look up Downey Jr. Show clips on YouTube and you’ll get 10,000 results).
It was one of those outrageous ‘I can’t believe this is on television’ shows in which the host, a chain smoking conservative loud mouth, would yell, and blow smoke, right in the faces of guests he disagreed with, goaded on by audience that former New York Mayor Ed Koch once likened to “a lynch mob.” It was often hilarious, especially as the guests got weirder (or more staged), but I guess I stopped paying attention to it at the same time everybody else stopped paying attention, and then it was gone.
Kramer, Miller, and Newberger’s documentary takes us through Downey Jr.’s background as the son of a famous singer, who at first followed in his father’s footsteps (he had one top 100 hit as a crooner), but then, after a stint as campaign consultant to Robert Kennedy, fashioned a persona based in part on the confrontational style of ‘60s talk show host Joe Pyne. The film features fascinating footage of Pyne that strongly makes this case.
Downey Jr.’s show lasted less than 2 years. An incident in which he claimed he was attacked by a group of neo-Nazi skinheads in a men’s room at the San Francisco International Airport was meet with suspicion of a hoax, and it led to his program’s cancellation. The consensus was cemented that this guy’s whole deal had been just an act all along.
After some failed comebacks – a show on CNBC in 1990; a few talk radio gigs in the ‘90s – Downey Jr. died from lung cancer in 2001. His legacy lives on it the waves of reality shows, angry political pundits on cable news, and anybody who’s ever gotten a mike and yelled at somebody on camera. “We made Al Sharpton!” Former Downey Jr. Show segment producer Rebecca Johnson says proudly at one point.
ÉVOCATEUR tells Downey Jr’s story well, with many insightful funny interview subjects (Chris Elliot, who parodied Downey Jr. on Late Night With David Letterman is one to watch for), and well chosen clips, but I could’ve done with less of the darkly grotesque animation by Murray John and Stefan Nadelman that's supposed to be connective tissue to the archival footage and photos. It's mostly unnecessary, and too obviously there to fill in the gaps where visual sources were lacking.
Otherwise this is a ballsy breakdown of an in-your-face TV personality who talked so much trash in his time in the spotlight that it’s still cluttering up our airwaves. It just comes out of different mouths now like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, pretty much all of Fox News, etc.
The best Special Feature on this release is a compilation of highlights from The Morton Downey Jr. Show called “Memorable Moments.” In one clip, Downey Jr. asks Joey Ramone (lead singer of punk rock gods The Ramones, of course) “What is your decadent lifestyle?” Joey replies without a pause, “Coming on the Morton Downey Show.”
Other Special Features: Audio commentary with the film makers, “Behind the Animation with Murray John,” and a less than 2 minute featurette “An Evening with Mort's Guest Kellie Everts.”