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This Week in MIT History

Editors note: The following is an excerpt from the original article published in 1989 [“MIT student hacks ‘Morton Downey Jr. Show’”, Feb. 21, 1989].

An MIT undergraduate apparently pulled off a nationwide hoax on the syndicated Morton Downey Jr. television show. Christopher F. Coon ’90 said he masqueraded as a representative of a controversial group which protects relationships, including sexual ones, between men and boys.

Coon appeared on the program claiming to be a member of the North American Man-Boy Love Association. The show featured Coon (who was referred to only by his first name) along with clinical psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers.

Coon defended NAMBLA, which he later called “the worst organization around,” during the hour-long show, facing an often hostile audience, some of whom threatened him with bodily harm.

Coon, who has acted in several Dramashop performances and on MIT student cable television, came up with the idea to appear on a “trash TV” talk show after he heard about a couple who faked their way onto the Oprah Winfrey show.

The stunt was intended to attack “the show, the host, and the format,” Coon said in an interview with The Tech. He called the show “obnoxious and disgusting.”

In order to exploit the “trash TV” format and to challenge his acting abilities, Coon wanted to go on a talk show as a member of the most outlandish organization he could find. After discarding Satan-worshipping groups as “too common,” Coon decided to investigate groups which supported child molesting.

“Freak coincidence” sets up hack

In early November, while attending a student cable television conference at Brown University, Coon, in what he called a “freak coincidence,” met a producer of the Morton Downey Jr. show. Coon decided to test the strength of his prank, and mentioned to the producer that he was affiliated with NAMBLA. After a short conversation, the producer encouraged Coon to appear on the show.

A little later in November, Coon called up the Downey show and confirmed that he would like to go on the show as a member of NAMBLA. Coon was told by a producer to send in NAMBLA’s literature, and the show would consider him.To obtain the necessary pamphlets and magazines, Coon said he wrote to NAMBLA for information and even went to the home of a NAMBLA member in Queens, NY, to pick up one of NAMBLA’s monthly magazines (which Downey tore up on the show). In early December, Coon sent all of his collected information to the show.

Downey’s producer contacted Coon in early January to say that the show had received his literature and was interested in having Coon go on the air.

On February 3, Downey’s staff called Coon and invited him on the show. Coon agreed to appear. As compensation, the show sent Coon a round-trip airplane ticket and drove him from the airport to the studio in a limousine.

According to Coon, he arrived at the New Jersey studio at around 5 pm on February 7. Upon arrival at the studio, one of Downey’s staff placed Coon alone in a room to wait until the taping time of 7 pm. Though Coon requested to mingle with the other guests on the show, he was kept by himself in the room until showtime, and was visited twice by a producer. The first time, the producer briefed Coon on his arguments and on the show’s format. The second time, the producer gave Coon the show’s consent forms to sign.

“Using a pseudonym,” Coon signed the Downey show’s consent forms which stated that he was telling the truth about his identity and organization, Coon said. Coon did use his real first name on the program, however.

When Coon went on the show he said he felt like he was playing a character. “I was not nervous, but was worried that I would not be able to control my laughter.”

Coon, who despises what NAMBLA stands for, felt that the experience was “tremendously funny and ironic” though the questions “caught [him] off-guard, a bit.”

He had expect downey to ask him more generalized questions about NAMBLA and its beliefs--not such personal questions about his experiences and beliefs.

Ends up defending NAMBLA

Under Downey’s personal line of questioning, Coon -- who had originally hoped to be as outrageous as possible on the show -- toned down his performance. He said that he was worried about the long-term implication of the consent form and in the short-term “a group of policemen arresting [him] right after the show for [his] purported child-molesting activities.”

Coon said that the experience was “the greatest feeling of power, just like playing a character.” The insults from the audience or Downey didn’t “affect me because I was a character,” he said.

The strangest thing about the entire experience was that “I defended [NAMBLA] better than I intended.”