Take the most insane parts of trashy talk shows, add a large helping of conservatism and couple it with a chain-smoking loudmouth host and an audience that was just as obnoxious as him, and you have The Morton Downey Jr. Show, a syndicated Talk Show that aired from 1987 to 1989 and was hailed as the progenitor of "trash television".
The show was hosted by Morton Downey Jr., an acerbic, chain-smoking commentator who previously worked in the radio field. Downey was approached by a New Jersey television station, WWOR-TV, in October 1987 to create his own local program. What followed was a nightly talk show where Downey would interview known pundits, politicians and plenty of wacky guests while being openly hostile to them.
Many episodes would culminate in Downey and his guests getting into shouting matches or screaming at each other face-to-face, and in some rare situations, tensions escalated to outright violence. In addition, the audience members (frequently referred to as "The Beast") were just as antagonistic as Morton himself, and would get up to rail at guests for their inadequacies and faulty arguments.
Many celebrity guests appeared on the show, including the Reverend Al Sharpton, Lloyd Kaufman, Ace Frehley, Congressman Ron Paul and many others, and the show tackled controversial subjects like abortion, HIV, race relations and the death penalty.
However, as the show entered its second season (having begun national syndication via MCA/Universal, which owned WWOR at the time), the quality of the guests waned and ratings faltered, leading it to be canceled in June 1989. Its impact on the genre influenced later "trash talk shows" like Jerry Springer, and it even inspired a character in the form of Morton Koopa Jr. in the Super Mario Bros. video game series.
A documentary detailing the popularity of the show and the impact it had on Downey's life, Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, was released in July 2013.
The show provides examples of the following tropes:
- Absolute Cleavage: The "Strippers for God" episode, where two strippers show up with incredibly low-cut dresses.
- Animated Credits Opening: The opening sequence features an animated Downey amid things like dancing girls, apple pies, flags and more.
- Argument of Contradictions: Many guest discussions ended with Downey up in the guest's face, either telling them to shut up while they tried to state one point repeatedly, or both of them yelling obscenities at each other.
- Berserk Button: It happened with most of the show's more controversial guests, but the Lloyd Kaufman (Troma) episode deserves special mention - he blows his lid at both Kaufman and another Troma executive, has security roughly drag Kaufman out, then goes up to the control room and rails at the production crew for approving the segment, all while the cameras are still rolling.
- Break Them by Talking: Downey was a frequent user of this method, via his blistering speeches that were designed to humiliate guests, frequently those who engaged in "un-American values" and deviant behavior.
- Averted when Phil Donahue appeared as the episode's guest. The show proceeded more like a regular talk show, especially Donahue's. Downey said during the closing monologue that he couldn't use this method on someone who had paved the way for shows like his.
- Catchphrase: Downey would frequently tell guests any of the following lines if they spoke out of turn or kept arguing after he told them to stop:
- "Zip it!"
- "You pablum puking liberal!"
- Content Warnings: During its second and final season.The opinions expressed in this program are solely those of the participants, and are not necessarily those of the station. This program deals with controversial topics discussed in a sometimes high-charged atmosphere. It may not be suitable for all family members. Viewer discretion is advised.
- Double Standard: Downey railed at female guests who engaged in pornography and constant sexual relations, but he later became a womanizer himself who ditched his wife for a parade of younger women.
- Everybody Smokes: Downey constantly smoked on-camera, and many of his guests were invited to do the same. Several episodes even focused on smokers' rights.
- Friendly Enemy: Downey and Al Sharpton. Despite referring to Sharpton as a "stooge" on more than one occasion, Downey invited the Reverend onto his show multiple times, and even introduced him in the controversial Tawana Brawley episode by noting that he had a conundrum, in that the man he was arguing against was also a long-time friend.
- Guilty Pleasure: Between Downey ridiculing and insulting his guests, audience members having arguments with said guests, fights breaking out and all manner of general insanity, it makes for eminently watchable trash television.
- Implausible Deniability: Happened to Downey himself, via an infamous incident/publicity stunt where he claimed he was attacked by a group of Neo-Nazis in an airport bathroom, who proceeded to draw a swastika on his face and attempted to shave his head. Despite the fact that corroborating witnesses and security footage discounted his story, Downey kept to his original assertion, which backfired and caused ratings to slip even further.
- Ms. Fanservice: The "Strippers for God". In a rarely-seen clip, the two strippers perform an impromptu show for the audience, complete with Downey taking off one girl's brassiere and the other pushing her breasts into another guest's face.
- Once per Episode:
- Downey walks out with the producers (while discussing something) from the backstage entrance, then gives high-fives to the men and kisses all of the females in the front row.
- Downey tells a persistent commentator (or the audience) to "zip it".
- A monologue where Downey gives his final thoughts on the night's subject matter.
- Reality Show Genre Blindness: Played straight and averted. Some of the celebrity guests who appeared on the show had no idea how bad Downey's behavior towards them would be, and would yell back at him, unaware that their actions were being broadcast to millions of households. Later on, most guests wised up to this fact and refused to appear, forcing the show to focus on oddball guests who deliberately played up their idiosyncracies for the cameras.
- Slut-Shaming: Any adult actress or promiscuous woman who appeared on the show was subject to a rant from Downey about how her actions were wrong in the eyes of God.
- Smoking Is Cool: One of Downey's signature mannerisms was to pull out a cigarette at the beginning of each show, tap out the ashes in a large metallic dish, and later blow smoke into the faces of his guests as a way to shut them up. He would defend smoking all the time. Later inverted when Downey (who developed lung cancer) became an anti-smoking advocate who lamented what he had done with cigarettes on the show.
- Talk Show with Fists: Several episodes devolved into fights, including the Tawana Brawley episode (when Roy Ennis bullrushed Al Sharpton and knocked him down).
- Unbuilt Trope: For the whole Reality Show genre. The show seems like a Genre Deconstruction with all the worst excesses of later shows like Jerry Springer and Maury, but it was produced four years before Springer and did many of the things the later shows did. An audience cheering for the host (Morty! Morty! Morty!), fights breaking out during live episodes, ridiculous guests only brought on to mock and cajole and much more were all done first on Downey's show.
- The Unfair Sex: Averted. Guests who had a porn star past were subject to plenty of ridicule from the audience and Morton himself.
- Unstoppable Rage: The show in a nut shell.
- Very Special Episode: Many of the episodes focused on hot button issues. One episode (as chronicled by The AV Club) even focused on the subject of kayfabe in Professional Wrestling, at a time when it was held to the highest commitment by the various companies and wrestlers.