Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
“The Romans lulled their people to sleep with hedonistic diversions, such as orgies, circuses, and the sight of bloody gladiators killing each other in the arena. Are we doing the same? We come home from work too exhausted to do anything but lie on the sofa. We turn on the television and what do we see? Orgies, circuses, and bloody gladiators killing each other. We are lulled to sleep just as Roman society was. As a result, our so-called leaders do as they please, just as the Roman dictators did.” —Morton Downey Jr., Mort! Mort! Mort!: No Place To Hide
It didn’t take long for the shouting to start—but then, it hardly ever did on The Morton Downey Jr. Show. In 1989, Downey’s producers invited several pro wrestlers to answer the criticisms of Jim Wilson, a former NFL lineman and NWA wrestler, who’d made a name for himself in the ’80s by appearing on newsmagazines, blowing the lid off of the shadier side of the wrestling business. In the ’80s, the wrestling community was still fiercely committed to the principle of “kayfabe”—never breaking character when the cameras are rolling—so naturally, Downey’s guests hooted and hollered, and threw water at Wilson, threatening to kick his ass if he kept spreading his “lies” and “sour grapes.” And Downey didn’t try to constrain them, either. Instead, he played the part of instigator, trying to goad Wilson into agreeing to wrestle his angriest critic: David “Dr. D” Schultz, who’d become famous himself a couple of years earlier for slapping 20/20’s John Stossel on-camera. Wilson, meanwhile, just took the abuse, having been in this world long enough to know that if he calmly made his points during the few seconds he got to talk, then maybe someone on the other side of the camera would listen. He certainly wasn’t going to sway anybody in the studio, which was packed with wrestlers, wrestling fans, and Downey fans, all more than eager to work themselves up into a lather over nothing, if that’s what they were called on to do.
This was The Morton Downey Jr. Show, and this was the shtick.
From his time as a top-rated syndicated talk-show host at the end of the ’80s through his death in 2001, Downey spun so many stories about his life to reporters that it’s hard to pin down which were true and which were just exaggerations for effect. In the January 18, 1988 issue of New York magazine, reporter David Blum fact-checked some of Downey’s claims, and was able to unpack some of who Downey had and hadn’t been before he stepped in front of the camera. For example, Downey may have been involved in the music business as a young man, but there’s no record that he worked for Dick Clark Productions in the ’50s, or that he had anything to do with writing or recording The Surfaris’ hit “Wipe Out,” as he often said. He may have been a co-owner of a New Orleans American Basketball Association franchise in the late ’60s, but his name didn’t appear in any of the team’s official press material, so far as Blum could find. Downey was definitely active in the Democratic Party before the abortion issue drove him to the right in the ’70s, though Blum couldn’t find any hard evidence that Downey was any kind of player in the Civil Rights movement (something else he used to mention both on- and off-camera, to shore up his moral standing). Blum did confirm, though, that Downey told the truth about spending two months in prison for writing bad checks.
Other facts about Downey: His father was an Irish tenor, so well-known in his day that he appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1931. (In his best-selling 1988 book Mort! Mort! Mort!: No Place To Hide, Downey says that his father was so jealous of his efforts to become a musician in the ’50s that he spread a rumor that the young singer named “Morton Downey” was an impostor.) Downey was a devout Roman Catholic, though not so devout that he didn’t get married four times. His younger brother Tony is gay, and was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1985; Downey brought Tony onto the show to tell the world how much he loved his brother, though he didn’t approve of his lifestyle. According to many people who knew Downey personally, he was a generous and fairly open-minded man, far removed from his public image as a loudmouthed, pot-stirring radio and TV host.
In Mort! Mort! Mort!, Downey cops to some of his faults, saying, “Am I fair? Probably not, which makes me as fair as anyone else. It is generally the liberal who angers me the most, probably because I am so tired of hearing him get far more than equal time on the media.” And Downey wasn’t alone. In the ’80s, after a decade-plus of left-wing dominance of TV and movies, a few creators and personalities emerged to court the parents and children of the Reagan revolution. On his shows, Downey spoke directly to those millions, railing against gays, unions, feminists, druggies, pornographers, and Jimmy Carter. Even in The Morton Downey Jr. Show episode about wrestling, Downey appears to be skeptical of what Jim Wilson has to say primarily because Wilson admits he has an ulterior motive: to unionize pro wrestlers.
It was necessary for Downey to have some slant toward Wilson, because The Morton Downey Jr. Show thrived on narrative. The show was intended as a corrective to Phil Donahue’s long-running daytime talker, on which the avowed liberal would take his microphone into the audience and get all touchy-feely about controversial topics. Downey let his audience have their say, too, but they had to approach (and live up to) a podium with Downey’s bigmouth logo displayed prominently, and they had to be willing to let Downey insult their appearance, and let him tell them to “zip it” when he’d heard enough.
Wilson showed up in The Morton Downey Jr. Show with a simple story to tell (later put on paper in his 2003 book Chokehold): He said that he started wrestling on the southeastern circuit during the NFL offseason in the ’70s, and had a chance to go national, but then a promoter made homosexual advances that Wilson refused, and he was effectively blacklisted. Wilson’s ultimate point is that in the ’70s and ’80s at least, wrestlers were entertainers in an under-examined branch of show business that was physically taxing and financially skewed to management, and that if wrestlers were organized, they’d have more job security, so that what happened to him wouldn’t happen to anyone else.
But Downey doesn’t appear to be all that sympathetic; he zeroes in instead on the more sensational aspects of Wilson’s story. Like, what’s up with this whole gay thing? No other former or current wrestlers had come forward to claim homosexual harassment, as far as Downey knew. Was Wilson lying about that? Or is he maybe gay himself, which would automatically make him less credible to Downey’s audience? (Schultz hammers away at this point himself, asking Wilson, “Did you kiss him? Did you hug his neck?”)
And what about the fakery that Wilson describes, with wrestlers concealing blades to cut themselves for the sake of the show, and deciding in advance who’d win or lose a match? Downey brings out wrestling legend Captain Lou Albano to dispute this, and while Albano cops to some “showmanship” in wrestling and “overmatching” so that the superior wrestler is sure to win, he ultimately stands by his assertion that these are superior athletes duking it out for real. Albano’s wife even comes out to say that during Lou’s wrestling days, he’d come home with actual broken bones, which means it couldn’t be fake, right?
But the episode really goes off the rails when Downey turns the camera on another former wrestler with an axe to grind: Claude “Thunderbolt” Patterson, who says he never got his due in the business because he’s black. The show quickly devolves into an incomprehensible mess of racially charged innuendo, and the kind of hard-to-follow “What about that one time that you did something bad?” accusations familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a domestic dispute on Cops. Downey clearly doesn’t know anything about any past incidents of Patterson being a haughty jerk or walking out on matches, but he’s inclined to believe the people who yell that Patterson got overpaid because of his race, and that Patterson bailed on wrestling because he couldn’t take it, and that only then did he cry “color.”
In fact, determining actual right and wrong doesn’t seem to be an essential component to Downey’s agenda in this episode. He does let an audience member grill Albano about why Vegas won’t allow betting on pro wrestling matches if they’re as legit as he says; and he lets Wilson read from an Associated Press story in which top promoter Vince McMahon is quoted as saying that if wrestling were real, the performers would be dying left and right. But Downey also questions whether he should believe what Wilson says just because it was in the papers; and Downey lets some other wrestlers yell at Wilson that he either made up that quote or that it should be discounted because it’s from the younger Vince McMahon, who at that time was much less respected than his father. And when it’s time for Downey to give his final word, he only offers a weak “gotta love ’em” to the wrestling community, praising them for their simple good-versus-evil stories, and saying that at least they’re not killing anybody—thus completely ignoring Wilson and Patterson’s warnings that in the real, not-just-for-show world, wrestling left even its top performers broken, penniless, and unprotected.
Was all this just kayfabe? That same year, Downey appeared on Wrestlemania V with Rowdy Roddy Piper, and blew smoke into Piper’s face, until Piper put out his cigarette with a fire extinguisher. So Downey clearly knew how to play a role for wrestling fans. That same Wrestlemania featured Donald Trump as a special guest, and Downey, like Trump, had a knack for controlling the meaning of any controversial issue by dividing the participants into “winners” and “losers,” and asking his audience which they’d rather be—while making it abundantly clear that “losers” would be belittled and then dismissed. That’s how, in this episode, Downey successfully coaxes Wilson and Patterson’s complaints about the inequity of the wrestling business into a narrative about two whiny nobodies looking for handouts—which is how some wrestling fans still regard Wilson, at least judging by the one-star Amazon reviews for Chokehold, in which Wilson is described as a “bitter failure.”
As for Downey’s book Mort! Mort! Mort! (written with William Hoffer), it’s an early example of the kind of knocked-out sociopolitical provocation that’s still popular in the publishing world. Downey boasts that he’s not some “pompous,” “unintelligible,” “pseudointellectual” conservative like William F. Buckley; he’s a from-the-hip, salt-of-the-earth, common-sense guy. So Mort! Mort! Mort! mixes a little bit of biography with bold, “You’re with me right?” pronouncements:
On homosexuality: “As far as I am concerned, hatred for sexual perversion is one of the noblest passions within the human breast. … How can you say you love someone and then commit an act of possible murder by screwing him or her in the ass?”
On pornography: “Do we have to show one human being entering another? Put that question up for a national referendum and see what Americans think. The answer will be a resounding No!”
On capital punishment: “I have friends on the police force in Cook County, Illinois, who tell me that during the 20-year period when the state had a death-penalty law, only two policemen were killed in Chicago. In the 20 years since the Supreme Court voided Illinois’ death penalty, 26 policemen have been murdered. Tell me, Mr. Pabulum-Puking Liberal, that the death penalty does not deter murder.”
Mort! Mort! Mort! is full of those kind of spurious anecdotes, offered as evidence to prove Downey’s points. One of the stories he tells to condemn unions involves a luxury car he once owned, which rattled because someone had welded “a tuna can with a bolt in it” inside the left rear passenger door. Downey explains, “Through the car’s serial number, Ford investigators traced the car back to the assembly line and identified the culprit, a disgruntled employee who resented anyone who could afford to buy a Lincoln.” Uh-huh.
Ultimately, Downey’s fact-fudging sensationalism would be his undoing. In April of 1989—the same month as Wrestlemania V—Downey claimed he’d been attacked by neo-Nazis in an airport bathroom, and that they’d painted a swastika on his face. The problem with Downey’s story? The swastika in question was backwards, almost as though it had been painted by someone looking in a bathroom mirror. That incident, combined with declining ratings and lost sponsors—and a few ugly lawsuits against Downey for verbally and physically abusing guests—signaled the beginning of the end for The Morton Downey Jr. Show, which signed off in September of 1989, a few months before Downey filed for bankruptcy. Downey would kick around radio and cable news for the rest of his life, sometimes playing to his aggressive image, and sometimes rebranding himself as a changed man.
Of course, some might argue that Downey never really left broadcasting; he just started going by new names. Jerry Springer. Rush Limbaugh. Glenn Beck. Each of these men—and others besides—took something from Downey. If nothing else, the people who’ve followed the loud, overbearingly populist, fact-shmact example of The Morton Downey Jr. Show learned how to sell their sport, whipping their audiences into a controlled frenzy with a certain degree of showmanship, and overmatching.
The shouting, though? That’s always been real.
Next time, on A Very Special Episode… The Middleman, “The Flying Fish Zombiefication”