What do right-wing gabbers Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh have in common with cacophonous passion-play reality shows like Jersey Shore?
The answer: combative TV talk show pioneer Morton Downey, Jr., the chain-smoking son of a famous early 20th century Irish tenor. For two years in the late 1980s, Downey soared to TV stardom and then crashed and burned — leaving an enduring template of guest-terrorizing and rhetorical bomb-throwing behind him. His show, its era, and Downey's tragic personal history are captured in the documentary Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie.
Co-directed by onetime teen Downey fans Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, and Jeremy Newberger, the movie shows MTV co-founder Bob Pittmann explaining that in the late 1980s, he felt a less civil post-Watergate America was ready for an updated Joe Pyne show. (Pyne, famous for his phrase "go gargle with razor blades," was a popular confrontational 1960s talker.) Pittman held auditions for the host of his new syndicated show, and radio-talker Downey, whose attempts to duplicate his father's success as a singer had fizzled, easily won the role due to his mastery of theatrics, political polemics, stage presence, and charisma.
Downey had guests such as Rep. Ron Paul and Alan Dershowitz, but his most (in)famous segment featured civil rights activist Roy Innes knocking down a heavyset Rev. Al Sharpton at a 1988 taping at the Apollo Theater. Downey later milked the fight for all it was worth and reveled in his many Star-Wars-bar-scene-like guests. Downey was all about grabbing market share by getting controversial guests and ginning up drama. He would literally get in a guest's face and blow smoke at them, yell "Zip it!" or have security throw guests off the show. Downey's cheering, hooting, mostly young studio audience became known as "The Beast" and was likened to a lynch mob or the Roman Coliseum.
It ended poorly for Downey. He started losing advertisers and had trouble booking guests. So he bruised and marked up his face, claiming he had been attacked by Nazi skinheads. His story didn't hold up. It was a PR disaster, and the show that debuted in 1987 was canceled in 1989. By 1996 he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and became an anti-smoking activist. The film shows an almost skeletal Downey repentant over influencing others to smoke and about know he wouldn't see his daughter grow up. Downey died in 2001.
What was Downey's main impact? His show, brimming with raw emotion and rudeness, put the nail in the coffin of touchy-feely daytime talkers such as Sally Jesse Raphael and Phil Donahue, and paved the way for Geraldo and Jerry Springer. His most notable radio parallel is the conservative talker Michael Savage. Downey's trademark phrase was calling someone a "pabulum puking pinko," while Savage rants about "red diaper doper babies."
Salon's Andrew O'Hehir notes that Downey "built his success on a combination of rhetorical propaganda, name-calling, and meme repetition" that is not limited by ideology and now is part of the formula used by others on various communications platforms:
If troglodytes like Beck and Hannity are the obvious heirs to Downey's approach — minus the half-naked strippers getting dry-humped on the air, who moved on to Howard Stern — liberal-facing hosts like [the Rev. Al] Sharpton and Martin Bashir provide a kinder, gentler version of the same tactics. Watching Évocateur, I couldn't help thinking that Downey had discovered the defining idea of the Internet long before it existed: It isn't enough that most people, most of the time, want to be congratulated for the opinions they already hold. That's obvious. They also want to hear those who hold other opinions mocked and humiliated, as often and as loudly as possible. [Salon]
That's why people flocked to Downey's talk show road shows. I saw one in San Diego in 1988, complete with a liberal stooge on the panel and a hooting local version of "The Beast." Downey had discovered the formula for getting attention and attracting huge audiences which later hosts would refine as they raised (or lowered) the bar on outrageousness and rudeness. But Downey also lowered the bar on the way people communicated: It became cool to make politics highly personal.
Another question dangled in the film becomes, "Did the guy who wanted to befriend Ted Kennedy and who can be seen in photos of Kennedy staff meetings really believe the conservatism he was promoting or was it a just schtick for ratings?"
I'd like to know the answer to that question for Downey descendants today, too.