Why do people watch those abusive talk shows, anyway? For relief, partly.
Relief from the sleekly dehumanized feel of TV production today. Relief from years of plastic programs, where absolutely nothing escapes the micro-managed control of producers.
After years of this, many viewers long for the chemistry of actual human interchange. On radio, they get it in the form of ``insult'' call-in shows - where the host sometimes screams epithets at phoners.
On TV, they rarely got it at all - once the live medium yielded to tape some years ago. Productions became homogenized and almost totally free of the real world's unpredictability.
That helps explain Jack Paar's popularity. A raconteur of the old school, he was suave and highly skilled during his long tenure as Johnny Carson's predecessor on the ``Tonight'' show. But Paar could also explode or cry on camera. William F. Buckley Jr. once scornfully wrote of Paar's penchant for ``weeping'' in public.
But it's what made Paar a hit. His emotional antics reminded viewers this was a real person they were watching. On one or two highly publicized occasions, Paar actually walked off the set, leaving his apparently flabbergasted sidekick, Hugh Downs, to cope.
In their extreme way, talk shows like Morton Downey Jr.'s tend to satisfy the same viewer craving. They validate - however grossly - the emotional component missing from the cool cross talk of most TV discussions. Viewers say they like to watch people who represent not only their social and political views, but also their feelings. They want guests and audience to yell - just the way they would in the same situation.
The danger, of course, is that people will act the same way in real life. ``That's my fear ... with the Morton Downey show,'' says Prof. Ren'ee Hobbs of Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. ``That kind of show may suggest implicitly that that form of interaction is appropriate.''
How to stop real-life imitation? The solution may call for something as radical as turning off the set and - with decency and kindness - speaking to each other again.