Somewhere along the way in this highly entertaining documentary one of the many interviewees asks: “Is this a passing fancy or are we looking at the front of the wave?” Where does the contemporary talk radio and cable TV talking head trend of mixing rudeness and rightwing politics come from? What is the broadcast origin point of this vogue of coarseness combined with conservatism, exemplified by know-nothing blowhards such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Insanity Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, et al, ad nauseam, who know so little, but have so much to say (loudly)?
Although this doc doesn’t dwell on the matter, Évocateur implies that the radio/TV tendency of conservative crudeness really got off the ground with Morton Downey Jr. Known as the “Father of Trash Television” (hey, there’s an epitaph to take with you to the hereafter!), Morton’s meteoric rise — and fall — took place in the late 1980s, as his talk show took Reagan/Bush’s America by storm. Morton’s belligerence and boorish behavior, along with his brand of pseudo-populist politics on behalf of the forgotten common man, was the flip side of Reagan’s beguiling persona, which masked mass murder in Central America. While William F. Buckley presented an erudite face for reactionary politics (he was really just an idiot savant, the right’s “Rain Man”), Morton’s moronic ravings was really a far more honest mode of expressing the right-wing lunacy masquerading as the free market or imperial foreign policy, which started running amok in the 1980s.
In addition to being lots of fun, this documentary about the big mouth that roared is very informative. For instance, I learned that rather than being “a man of the people,” this poseur was the son of a singing and movie star, and that in his tender youth Morty (known as “Sean” at the time) hobnobbed with the Kennedys. Morton also launched the political star of Al Sharpton, who was then an overweight activist defending the likes of Tawana Brawley (who was either a rape victim or a first rate hoaxster and huckster). Morton personified that special anger of Catholic men, whose natural sexuality is thwarted and displaced by a repressive church (see O’Reilly, Hannity, et al).
The abusive treatment of guests by this uncouth host and impolite studio audience as seen in copious clips of The Morton Downey Jr. Show prefigures Jerry Springer’s trailer trash television. The Ironbound Films doc also features a first rate “cast” of interview subjects, such as Gloria Allred (whose career as what some see as the “ambulance-chaser-in-chief” was likewise kickstarted by Morton when he shone the media spotlight on her), Pat Buchanan, Chris Elliott, Red Beret vigilante-type Curtis Sliwa, Sally Jesse Raphael, Alan Dershowitz and Bill Boggs, whom I fondly remember from New York midday television and discovered, much to my surprise, had executive produced Morton’s mayhem on the boob tube.
Évocateur, The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, is produced and directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel Miller and Jeremy Newberger, who were East Coast teenage fans of this rather unpresentable presenter. Needless to say, the hard drinking, chain smoking, womanizing Morton did not end well. His star shone only briefly, if brightly, in the media firmament.But if you want to learn where the number one skill for talk show hosts such as Chris Matthews — the art of rudely cutting your guests off in mid sentence, so the host can pontificate and blather on and on — is derived from, see the quite enjoyable Évocateur. It may give you the same “chill up the leg” that Obama gave Matthews, MSNBC’s centrist ranter-in-chief.
Évocateur is a must see for students of modern media — and where it all went terribly, terribly wrong.
Film historian and critic Ed Rampell was named after legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow.
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