You had to love the irony when Morton Downey Jr.--the Sultan of Sensationalism--got angry Saturday at panelist Karen Larson for being too . . . sensationalistic .
Appearing at Anaheim's Celebrity Theatre, Downey was leading a discussion ostensibly devoted to the death penalty and date rape, featuring three panelists: KFI talk-show host Tom Leykis, liberal lawyer Hilton Stein and Larson (possibly her real name), who was introduced as a former Playboy bunny (hard to believe, but so was the entire evening). She immediately established her credentials by simulating a sexual act with her microphone.
Toward the end of this 90-minute exchange of enlightened and enlightening ideas, Larson revealed that "I work as a nude dancer, a naked dancer. And I enjoy it. And my customers . . . pay $7.50 to see me dance."
Mort being Mort, he took up a collection and reached into his own pocket; and the crowd being the crowd, guys ran to the edge of the stage waving dollar bills while others threw coins.
Mort stuffed a wad of bills down her blouse, but darned if she didn't leave her clothes on, anyway.
And, boy, did that make Mort mad. "You got your seven and a half bucks!" he barked indignantly. "You were full of (baloney)!"
Then he really let her have it, placing himself at the head of the pack for this year's Pot Calling The Kettle Black Award: "You were trying to be sensational. Sensationalism is what you're selling. You're not selling anything else but sensationalism."
Of course, expecting Downey to promote rational, sophisticated thought--much less provide it--is like expecting Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini to form a Salman Rushdie Fan Club.
Anyone who has caught his late-night squawk show knows that Downey is way to the right of Attila the Hun. They know that the core of his studio (and perhaps TV) audience consists of young white men whose thinking and behavior is frighteningly primitive. They know that individuals who appear on the program espousing liberal views are dismissed as "Pabulum Pukers." They know that Downey is a three-dimensional cartoon who chain-smokes, frequently high-fives his mindless minions, shouts a lot, especially at dissenters (notice that his logo is a huge, open mouth)--and will do anything to make his show sensational.
Indeed, because Downey is pretty knowledgeable about selling sensationalism, it's odd that he apparently does not recognize that sensationalism can have a very short shelf life. When his show went into national syndication, the Mouth That Roars earned more than respectable ratings--thanks to the same kind of morbid curiosity that draws people to carnival freak shows or prompts them to take a long look at auto accidents.
But you can only stare so long at Ape Boy or the Bearded Lady--much less some bloody victim of a car wreck--which may explain Downey's declining national ratings and KABC-TV's decision to drop his show locally. (He intimated Saturday that KCOP, Channel 13, would pick up the program.) And limited attention span may also help explain why the Celebrity was, at most, one-third full.
Moreover, the 90 minutes might have seemed a bit slight for those who paid the $26.50 top ticket price--unless, perhaps, you were one of those allowed to get into the act from the two microphones positioned in the audience (known as "loudmouths" in the peculiarly appropriate Downey lexicon).
For others of us, though, the evening was insufferably long and difficult, a distressing, depressing descent into a strange sect that glorifies sweeping statements and fuzzy logic, where people thought that publishing post-execution pictures of Ted Bundy was a smart idea, where arguments are strewn with enough red herrings to sink a fishing boat.
The audience, atmosphere and on-stage spectacle most closely resembled what you find at professional wrestling matches, but at least the people who follow professional wrestling realize it's supposed to be a hoax.