Downey—the vitriolic talk show host who briefly had one of the most controversial programs in the country—was taping a show in December 1987 when Andy Humm of the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights challenged the conservative host on his contrarian viewpoint. Humm cursed; Downey struck. Security escorted Humm from the studio.
Not long after, the rest of the studio audience followed. Someone had phoned in a bomb threat. Humm would later describe the entire experience as “a hate rally.”
Decades before political pundits used YouTube and Twitter to volley insults back and forth, Downey used his syndicated program The Morton Downey Jr. Show to kick up a storm over hot-button issues like civil rights, abortion, and capital punishment. Unlike Jerry Springer, who often acted more as a referee, Downey was a combatant, shouting invective from a plume of omnipresent cigarette smoke. It was part pro wrestling, part car crash, and part circus.
If an animal lover was on, Downey would strut out in a fur coat; if someone expressed anti-American sentiment, he’d drape himself in an American flag. Physical assaults were not uncommon. So many expletives flew that the heavily-bleeped shows sounded like a smoke alarm. But Downey would eventually take it a step too far.
Zip It, Fathead
Downey’s onscreen persona didn’t quite square with his upbringing. Born December 9, 1932 as Sean Morton Downey Jr., Downey’s father was an Irish tenor; his mother Barbara was an actress and singer. Their success facilitated a bountiful upbringing for Downey: The family once lived near the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, where the families befriended one another.
After attending New York University, Downey went into broadcasting, working as a disc jockey. He also aided in humanitarian efforts, working to relieve poor living conditions in Nigeria. Those efforts resulted in his being knighted by Pope Paul VI. None of it seemed to portend the incendiary device he would become.
In the 1980s, Downey returned to broadcasting, first for a series of local radio stations. It was here Downey first discovered—or revealed—his intolerance for opposing views. In 1983, he allegedly tried to punch abortion rights advocate Bill Baird while live on air. More jobs and more firings followed.
“I know I have a spark that sometimes ignites my brain before the fuse of my tongue has had the opportunity to go out,” he once said. “But that happens to me in regular life, too.”
In 1987, Downey began working for WWOR television based in Secaucus, New Jersey. To Bob Pittman, a co-creator of MTV and founder of production company Quantum Media, Downey appeared to be a fit for his idea of a fiery talk format reminiscent of Joe Pyne, an angry host who hosted a show in the 1960s. Downey would assume the role of a firebrand who verbally harassed guests over topics that were sure to divide both his studio audience and television viewers; the first episode examined the moral fabric of porn stars.
For Downey, antagonizing guests was strategic. In making them lose their tempers, he said, he could get “the real story … I know they’ll say things just like I will, that they don’t mean to say.”
After a legend onscreen advised “parental discretion,” Downey would come into the studio from backstage like a prizefighter emerging from the lockers, with a cameraman filming his entrance. The audience, primed for Downey’s specific brand of confrontation, would begin to holler. Some would challenge guests from a pulpit erected between the bleachers. If a topic could divide them, Downey would cover it. Atheism; slasher movies; gun control; child beauty pageants. A metal detector was set up at the entrance to the studio, to ensure that anyone who became too inflamed didn’t take their anger too far.
“The audience is a lot like that at a hockey game,” Brian Bedol, the executive producer of the show, told The New York Times in 1987. “Half come for the issues, and half come for the fights. It’s about passion and human emotion on TV.”
By May 1988, Downey’s “passion” had aroused enough interest to earn a national syndication deal in what was a then-unusual offer: Stations could take on the show for a 15-week trial period, with no further commitment if they found it too controversial. That led to even more attention given to his brand of shock television and whether it reflected an increasing aggression brewing in society.
“One of the traditions I would locate Downey in is the new rashness, the new wildness in public life,” Todd Gitlin, a professor of sociology and director of the mass communications program at the University of California at Berkeley, told the Times. “It’s the decline of civic spirit we’re talking about. The institutions that people trusted to carry out conflict in a mannerly way are no longer doing their job. So it’s time to go to the schoolyard and get out the switchblades.”
Downey eventually took his switchblade act out on tour, crossing the country with his live shows. In Miami, fans were devout, screaming “Mort!” and whipping themselves into a frenzy before Downey led them in a kind of prayer: “OK, everybody, because the pablum-puking liberal press is going to try and make us all out to be a bunch of foaming-at-the-mouth hatemongers, let's show ’em, let’s everybody grab hands, that’s right, now raise ’em over your heads and OK everybody let’s sing together, let’s sing ‘God Bless America.’”
A series of events led to Downey’s rapid exit from cultural relevance. First, he devoted several shows to the case of Tawana Brawley, a Black teenager who alleged she had been assaulted by six white men. The story was later deemed false by a grand jury, which impacted Downey’s already-shaky credibility.
The second incident was Downey himself claiming to have been assaulted by white supremacists in an airport bathroom. The attackers, Downey said, sat on him and cut off some of his hair before using a pen to draw a hate symbol on his forehead. Suspicion that Downey fabricated the story for publicity arose when it was pointed out the swastika drawn on his face was backwards; airport officials had no knowledge of the incident and denied it ever took place.
After affiliates fretted over his combustible persona, Downey and producers tried to tone down his act. “What they’re doing is civilizing me,” he said. “They’re taking away my raw meat. If you’ve watched the show in the last three months, you know that my language is completely controlled now.”
It was of little use. Amid declining ratings and dwindling advertiser support, The Morton Downey Jr. Show was canceled in July 1989.
Despite several attempts at a comeback, Downey’s time had passed. He died in 2001 at age 67 after battling lung cancer, a consequence of his ceaseless smoking habit both on and off-air.
Today, some point to Downey as the precursor to the high-volume performative pundits of social media and cable television. Whether he believed wholeheartedly in his persona or whether he merely pandered has never been fully resolved. “What you see,” Downey once said, likely through a cloud of cigarette smoke, “is what you get.”