Morton Downey, Jr.: The man who set the stage for Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity

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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.

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