Used to be to get famous in the rightwing blowhard racket you had to have an act. Not today. Has anyone ever once thought, “Oh, I can’t wait to hear what Sean Hannity’s going to say next”? (Or “squeak next,” in Hannity’s case.)
Consider this scene from the funny, arresting new doc Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie. “There are almost no feminists who have ever burned a bra, so let me get that straight,” says a young Gloria Allred, her jet-black dome of hair suggestive not of an astronaut’s wife’s but of an astronaut’s helmet.
“There are almost no feminists who ever had anything that they needed to wear a bra for,” Morton Downey Jr., snaps back.
“Likewise on your jock strap,” says Allred.
The audience hoots. Downey turns to them and asks, “How does she know? She has a tape measure on her tongue?”
Downey’s briefly ubiquitous late ’80s shout-fest talk show was soundly denounced during its day for being all the things that it no doubt was: brutish, noisome, theatrical, and pandering. Downey himself, many suspected, was entirely full of shit as he presented himself as a working man’s truth-teller hollering about liberal pukes, lawless thugs, and Tawana Brawley—and opening his mouth so wide on so many magazine covers that by the time of his fall, not two years after his rise, all of America had intimate knowledge of his fillings.
The doc more or less confirms the full-of-shit hypothesis. Quite unlike the Secaucus, New Jersey, screamers who packed his WWOR studio, Downey was as much an everyman as the Kennedys he palled around with growing up. A frustrated crooner, a sensitive poet, a child of privilege, Downey was nevertheless always given to the legitimate impolite outburst: In hilarious home-movie footage that turns up in the doc, he always smiles at the chance to flip off his own family.
The story is a fascinating, hilarious one, well told. A couple years in radio taught Downey his racket: screaming that the U.S.A. is the strongest country the world has ever known, and that it’s also somehow being destroyed right this minute by everyone who isn’t exactly like the man screaming. Also key: Screaming that the media silences voices like the one screaming—even as that voice is making millions for media companies.
Rush Limbaugh was figuring this out at the same time. Limbaugh, of course, would never allow a Gloria Allred on the air. (He would just have called her names from his radio-hole.) But Downey’s shtick was antic confrontation, not mere talking points or political advocacy, and he was quick-witted enough to craft arguments and insults on the fly, some worth quoting years later, both for their outrageous bad-boyism but also for actually being funny, even in their puerile hostility.
At its best, The Morton Downey Jr. Show was a burlesque of the genre it helped midwife: Here’s the sexist asshole rightwing talker but mixed with Al Bundy, at the shoe store, facing off against women the writers dreamed up to annoy him. On one episode featured in the film, a wan vegan lists all the animal products she abstains from; watching Downey watch her, wolfishly, and hearing the audience’s anticipatory laughter is high cartoon comedy, something like when a hapless dowager tells the Three Stooges she’s hired as handymen to take care not to upset her priceless urn.
The doc makes some vague connections to today’s talk-radio culture, but it’s strongest as a character study and behind-the-scenes showbiz story. Show producers dish about the troubles of Downey-wrangling—he once asked a subordinate to hold his penis as he peed—and the troubles of booking serious guests as the show became more popular and ridiculous. On air, Downey started fights, threw guests out, and bellowed his mighty “shut up!”s. The generous sampling of clips in the film demonstrates that, for the guests, the heightened emotion was never just theater—there’s some fight-or-flight kicking in. At first the show gave early TV exposure to Allred, Pat Buchanan, and Al Sharpton, seen here calling an adversary “a punk faggot.” By the end, the producers were reduced to hauling in white supremacists and Jerry Springer-ready strippers. (The filmmakers toss in some anime segments, scenes of celebrities reading Downey’s ’60s poetry, and interviews with former fans.)
Downey, of course, crashed hard after claiming, fantastically, that some of those white supremacists assaulted him in an airport bathroom. As the directors make clear, he was already on the descent, from overexposure, from his drinking and carousing, from his audience-alienating desire still to be some kind of crooning folk singer. We see him butcher Merle Haggard’s “Are the Good Times Really Over?” on the goddamn Pat Sajak Show; we see him call an Inside Edition reporter a “cunt-lipped bastard.” Even if he had exercised control over himself, it’s hard to imagine Downey’s career would have survived into the age of Fox News: He bragged about his bad habits, never pretended he had religion, and once introduced his young girlfriend, Lauren, to a convention of fans by asking, “Wanna see what a 60-year-old guy is fucking these days?”
He stuck with Lauren, and she stuck with him. He eventually kicked the cigarettes that were his trademark, but he did so too late. Toward the end of his life he made a cause of it, railing against the smoking that killed him, with enough of the old theater. The film is like his life: scabrous, upsetting, kind of moving, funny as hell, alive with hints of how we’ve become what we are.