I had the pleasure of seeing a documentary on loudmouth talk show host Morton Downey Jr. the other day, called Evocateur, and I couldn’t help but think back to the days he ruled television’s airwaves.
He had a meteoric rise and fall, all within a two-year span. The right-wing talk show featured an in-your-face, put-down-shouting host who smoked during the show and seemingly breathed fire. He snarled, he raged, he flared. He was a loose cannon, starting verbal arguments that sometimes led to fights and in a few cases drew blood.
Though the vast majority of views slurred by the seemingly always pissed-off Downey were ones I would disagree with, there was something refreshing at the time to his confrontational style. He didn’t just discuss issues or even debate them. It was a one-sided editorial that was delivered to a feverish in-studio audience, filled with shouts, epitaphs, high-fives, and chaos. It was a soup filled with all of the ingredients for success at that time.
But the bully had demons that he just couldn’t escape. His father was one of the most famous singers of the 1930’s – he even made the cover of Time Magazine – and Jr. apparently tried his whole life to escape out of the stifling shadow of his dad. It drove him to extremism.
His dad was close friends with the liberal Kennedys and it was not clear how Jr. became informed of the extreme conservative principles he espoused on his show, but one assumes it was just an act that allowed him to shine a spotlight on himself. His on-camera antics included going face-to-face with his guests, literally within a cigarette’s length of them. He’d approach each show as if a lynching were taking place. Somehow, his rebirth and resurrection came at the expense of his intimidated, silenced, and unnerved guests.
Jr. took a show that originally aired on WWOR-TV channel 9 in the NYC-metro area and got it syndicated nationally in less than a year. But by the fall of 1989, it all came crumbling down like the Berlin Wall.
He made up a story about being attacked in an airport by neo-Nazi skinheads. Once his lie was exposed, his show went away.
But it leaves a lasting impression on the media landscape 25 years later. He showed that formats can change and that new styles, even if debasing, could rise to popularity. Part of his legacy, unfortunately, is that he left us with shows like The Jerry Springer Show.
America finds confrontation therapeutic. We want someone to yell for us, to scream and go nuts. We want a fight – without repercussions. We want theater. Look at all of the fake reality shows on TV. We like drama and tension on the screen.
There actually is a shortage of TV talk shows compared to the era of Downey. And none of them light up the screen the way he did. We don’t necessarily need another inflammatory show like his, but we could use a few quality shows that explores issues and leads to new ideas and spurs action.
I once attended a taping of Downey’s show. I was at my first job as a senior publicist for a small book publisher who launched books with provocative titles like: “Who Killed RFK?” “Is Elvis Alive,” and “Hollywood’s Unsolved Mysteries.” I got a pair of tickets and took my friend, David.
We got to high-five Downey as he took to the stage with an entrance reserved normally for Rock stars. Having watched the show, I knew to expect the unexpected. That’s what people liked – that every show was sure to get viewers riled up. But like a bright star, he burned out. And yet, a distant glow remains, reminding us of the mighty mouth that once roared.
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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer, the nation’s largest book promoter. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2013
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