This week, Magnolia Pictures will release Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, a stunning new documentary about the eponymous TV talk show host, who died in 2001 after a sensational and meteoric career that changed television. Joe Conason, editor-in-chief of The National Memo, was a regular guest on the show and wrote the following piece of advice to prospective guests on dealing with the extremely aggressive and politically hostile Downey, published in the May 3, 1988 Village Voice and reprinted here with permission.
People who watch the Morton Downey Jr. Show warned me. They thought I was mad to go on as a guest, since I’m just the kind of pablum-puking pinko Mort likes to stomp. Now, I’ve done a few talk shows, and nobody warns you about Eyewitness News Conference, except to say that on Sunday morning there may be no viewers. Therefore I found the prospect of video doom scary, but exciting. “It’s only a TV show,” I kept muttering in my mind. And besides, it was too late to back out.
After the segment (“Ollie North: Hero or Criminal?”) aired a few weeks ago, I was pleased to hear the same experts who had assumed my destruction tell me that, far from being ruined, I’d done rather well. And a week later I was invited back for a debate about the Reagan years. After the second taping, Mort exclaimed to me and Jefferson Morley, the other liberal guest, “You buried us!” – meaning himself and two Washington conservatives. Even if this was Mort’s typical hyperbole, I still liked it. So at the risk of displaying hubris, and to even up the odds for any future guests, I’ll try to explain how I survived.
First a few words to those who ask, with a snobbish smirk, why I would condescend to go on the Downey program at all (for which, incidentally, guests are not paid). Such a question assumes that the show is utterly disreputable, and perhaps it is, but unlike the more high-minded TV gabfests, millions watch it; the questioner’s underlying error is to equate the studio audience, about whom the less said the better, with the viewers. And this reflects an audacious fraud perpetrated by Mort himself, namely that the American people are represented in his studio. You need only listen to the audience participants for a few moments to realize that this could not possibly be true. To assume this would be to abandon hope altogether. The point, if you’re willing to face the howling mob, is that at least you’re not preaching to the converted.
Now, you’ve watched the Morton Downey Jr. Show, or you probably wouldn’t be reading this. Maybe you’ve even fantasized about what you would say to Mort if you had the chance. What I found is that if, as the intended liberal victim, you’re willing to put up a fight, the right-wing guests turn out to be flabby-minded, overconfident, and shocked to meet an adversary who throws the first rhetorical punch. Remember, you can be a progressive and not be a wimp.
Before you try to get booked on the show, however, allow me to state humbly that my own putative success there depended upon a strange sort of luck. The mercurial Mort simply didn’t dislike me as much as I expected he would. Nor did I find him as charmless as he seems to be on TV. I won’t say that Mort Downey is actually a good-humored man who can take it as well as dish it out, because he made me promise not to.
But, for your purposes, his off-camera personality doesn’t matter, and anyway, he probably wouldn’t like you. The Mort who matters is the Mort in front of the camera, and he is a classic villain: coarse, bullying, reactionary, demagogic, vicious, bigoted, and sometimes cruel. He’s quick and smart, too, but that doesn’t keep him from tossing out bogus facts, or hiding behind the flag when he’s losing the argument. And he loves to launch an irrelevant attack and then cut to a commercial before you can answer.
Unfair? It’s all part of the Morton Downey Jr. Game. Here’s how to play:
1. Ask who the other guests are, and then do a little research on your ideological opponents. Everyone is vulnerable, and if they aren’t, their organizations, or maybe their relatives, are; bring documentation if available. A nasty, accurate attack will win the crowd’s respect and throw your opponents off balance. Chances are they won’t have anything on you.
2. If you notice your hands trembling an hour before the taping, try a shot of vodka. Nobody can smell it on your breath, and you can always sober up with coffee while you wait to go on. The worst feeling, preshow, is to stand outside the studio and listen to the producers whipping up the audience, Nuremberg-style. Early Christians may have known a similar nausea as they waited to enter the Colosseum, except that the Christians had faith.
3. A few axioms are the same as for all television, like wear a blue shirt, don’t fidget, keep your voice in a low register, don’t squeak, and don’t wave your arms. On the Downey show, however, other behavioral norms are reversed. Always interrupt, because if you don’t you’re a wimpy loser. So: Let your adversary begin to speak, wait five seconds, and butt in with a scornful blast. Start with a simple “WRONG” or “NO,” and follow up with the facts. But if he or she interrupts you, tell him or her to shut up
4. Don’t hesitate to raise your voice. Keep talking until the camera turns to you, unless Mort barks “Zip it!” At that point, it’s wise to follow his advice.
5. Be rude to the host, but be a good sport about it. After all, he could tell you to zip it. Treat him like an obnoxious, slightly ignorant cousin at a family dinner. Remember to call him “Mort,” as in “Don’t try to change the subject, Mort!” Be ready when he gets in your face and starts yelling, his big choppers only inches from your nose. Don’t look at his teeth. Stare him in the eye, and talk back loudly.
6. Look for opportunities to divide Mort and the studio audience from his conservative guests. These are intellectual-midget wrestlers who arrive expecting to win a fixed fight; they are not only unappealing nerds, but deserve to be picked on. This is a convenient coincidence. Mock them, and the shrieks of audience laughter will curdle their blood.
7. There is a populist tinge to Downey’s iconoclasm, so don’t hesitate to scourge the rich and the powerful. Be patriotic, as in “These big corporations are taking American jobs to Korea!” Blame it on your opponents, especially if they have nothing to do with it.
8. Turn Mort’s right-wing rhetoric around and point it at him. “Law and order,” for example, is a flexible theme in the corrupt age of Reagan; conservatives are only for tough enforcement until it’s time to snap the cuffs on North, Secord, Poindexter, and possibly Meese, etcetera. Use this. Announce with confidence that Reaganism, like its figurehead, is entering senility.
9. Mort may reply by calling you a “pablum-puking, chickenshit, slimeball bastard.” If he does, smile, which you should do a lot throughout the show. Stay cool. Mort isn’t really mad at you. He’s not even insane at you.
10. If you begin to feel humiliated despite these tips, silently repeat after me: “It’s only a TV show.”
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures