March 24, 2017

Chuck Barris, R.I.P.

There was a time, back when I was in high school in The World’s Worst Town™, when the funniest program on television, without a doubt, was The Gong Show. When it had first started, I’d thought it the dumbest, most idiotic, insulting, and banal thing I’d ever seen.

But then, something happened. Perhaps it was the episode in which every contestant sang “Feelings,” or it could have been Gene, Gene, the Dancing Machine, or the Unknown Comic, or the time when Chuck Barris rode up into the rafters sitting on a crescent moon as if he were one of the starlets in a Ziegfield Follies show – followed a moment later by a mannequin, dressed as Barris, plummeting to the stage. Whatever it was* (and there were more moments like those), for that moment The Gong Show was a daily Theatre of the Absurd, something Ionesco would have been proud of, a skit comedy show cloaked in the guise of a game show. Of course, the moment didn’t last – they never do – and before long, my perception of the show returned to what it had been, and soon after that the show was cancelled. But that was my introduction to Chuck Barris.

*It sure wasn't the Popsicle Twins.

Only it really wasn't. It really came, though I didn’t know it then, years before, through his two hugely successful ABC game shows, The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game. The first one, I thought, was kind of stupid, with shaggy looking guys in full groovy mode, trying to act cool and impress some chick wearing too much makeup. It didn’t kill me to watch it, but it wasn’t nearly as funny as The Newlywed Game, which presented ordinary people, reasonably newly-married couples who were asked ridiculous questions (many of which involved the exotic, to a nine-year-old, phrase “Making Whoopie”) in an effort to find out how well they knew each other. It didn’t move the Dumb Meter far off the bottom either, but there was something very funny about it anyway, watching the wife giving her mate The Look after he’d missed an unbelievably obvious answer, costing them a new refrigerator. (If the lost prize was a new car, she might even hit him over the head with the card on which her answer had been written.) The look of stunned confusion that would occasionally pass across the face of host Bob Eubanks was frequently the best part of the show.

Anyway, that – along with a few other failed efforts – was the primary legacy of Chuck Barris, and it would have been easy to forget all about him except for that bit about being a paid assassin for the CIA.

It came in his memoir Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, when Barris made the claim that all this work as a creator and host of game shows was simply meant to provide cover for his movements around Europe, offing various enemies of the United States. Whenever he’d accompany a Dating Game couple who’d won a trip – say, to beautiful Helsinki, Finland – it was, Barris said, because he had to carry out a hit there, and acting as a representative of ABC gave him a perfect reason for being there.

It was an audacious claim, absolutely preposterous. How could anyone possibly expect people to believe such a ridiculous story? Why would the CIA trust such sensitive work to a man with a drug and alcohol problem, not to mention suspect mental stability? The whole idea was laughable – so laughable, in fact, that after awhile it made you start to wonder. All the objections that made the story so ridiculous could also be seen as making perfect sense. After all, who would be less likely to be suspected of being an international hitman than Chuck Barris? No one would ever believe it – which, one might suppose, would be precisely what the CIA was looking for. The fact that the Agency denied any claim to having had Barris on the payroll just gave his story more plausibility; would they admit it even if it were true? The thought of Barris as a hired gun for the spooks would explain a lot about him, wouldn’t it? George Clooney made a movie out of the book, a very funny movie with a very good cast, that chose to take Barris at his word when he insisted that he was, indeed, a very dangerous man.

Despite the absurdity of the whole thing, Barris continued to cling to the story, never cracking a smile, never hinting that it might not be true. It was either the most prolonged con one could imagine – and Barris was, in a very real sense, a con man, considering his ability to convince networks to go for his outrageous ideas* - or he was simply nuts. Unless, of course, he was telling the truth.

*In an entertaining interview with Larry King, Barris once said, matter-of-factly, that the obvious next step for one of his shows to take was one in which the losers were summarily killed at the end of the show. I think he was kidding.

I don’t know that Chuck Barris ever allowed that façade to crack, to suggest that the story about working for the CIA was just that, an extended joke. If he did, I never heard it. There was a part of me, the common sense side, that wanted to dismiss it out of hand – but there was also that little voice in my head that kept saying Why not? Why couldn’t it be true? In truth I wanted to believe him, wanted to believe that the whole crazy story was true, because there was something about it that just seemed right. I suppose it’s the same instinct that causes us to believe that the underdog can win the championship, that the winning lottery ticket is just around the corner, that there really is a Santa Claus. And you know what? Sometimes, that instinct is right. Whatever the reasons, it made me feel good to believe his story, and it made me like Barris in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible back in those Gong Show days. And if it wasn’t true, if the whole thing was a big joke, then remember the word I used to describe it – absurd – and remember that it wouldn’t have been the first time Barris had used absurdity to his advantage.

It’s tempting to think that Barris’ death on Tuesday at age 87 is just another one of his ruses, meant to protect him while he goes into deep cover on another mission for the CIA. What and where that mission is, and who his target is, is anyone’s guess. But if that thought crossed your mind, even for just a second, then somewhere, I’m sure, Chuck Barris is smiling.


  1. We did get The Gong Show in Australia but I don't remember really anything about it. But a few years earlier we did have a daytime 'talent' show called Pot Of Gold where most the acts were questionable, sometimes deliberately so. The show ran for about 3 years but I can't see anything of it on YouTube, although the format was revisited in the 1980s as Pot Luck but the calibre of the talent hadn't improved a great deal!

    The 'gong' concept did get a local treatment with a mock talent quest called Red Faces which was a send up of the more serious talent show New Faces. Red Faces was a segment on the variety show Hey Hey It's Saturday. If an act was truly bad enough it would get gonged off.

  2. I always like The Gong Show both it's original incarnation and it's late 80's revival. I've heard NBC killed it due to it's (by the standards of the day) risque content. One thing not commonly known was the judge's desk had two lights out of view of the camera: ''no gong'' (not a contestant, such as ''the unknown comic'') and ''gong it'' (the act must stop, like it or not).
    Never cared for either The Dating Game though I never knew about it's controversy until much, much later (When I found out I said ''What the hell were you thinking? His criminal record was already known at that time!'') or The Newlywed Game.
    The $1.98 Beauty Show however, was simply awful. It tried too hard to be funny (and usually failed) and there simply wasn't enough there to work even as a half-hour show.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!