How ‘Gong Show’ Creator and Fake CIA Assassin Chuck Barris Paved The Way for Trump
Chuck Barris gave us our first schlocky reality TV in “The Dating Game” and “The Gong Show” but he yearned for a more dangerous biography.
Three decades ago, game show producer Chuck Barris predicted how his obituaries would begin: "Gonged!"
And that he has been. If there is a celestial game show host, He has rung the bell for Barris, who died this past week at the age of 89. The creator of such lowbrow but sometimes amusing TV shows as "The Dating Game" and "The Newlywed Game" and the creator and host of "The Gong Show" was living a quiet life in Rockland County, New York. He had been mostly forgotten by the world. It has been 15 years since "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," the movie loosely based on his "unauthorized autobiography" came out, and decades since the sale of his TV production company made him a centi-millionaire.
Although Barris was widely dismissed as "The Baron of Bad Taste" and as the premier purveyor of schlock TV in the 1970s, he deserves our grudging acknowledgment. He was the John The Baptist of our age. Whether we like it or not, he pointed the way. He was the forerunner.
There would be no President Trump if there had been no "The Dating Game" and our current culture in which people want to Live Stream their tonsilectomies would not have arrived—at least not so soon—without him.
Raised in a moderately well-off Jewish family in Philadelphia, Barris's first interest was in music. Hoping to get into Tin Pan Alley, he started out professionally as a writer of pop ditties, something he did with intermittent success. Indeed, among his tunes was "Palisades Park," which reached #3 on the Billboard singles chart and was later recorded by no less than the Beach Boys.
Barris then talked his way into an internship with NBC and his songwriting brought him a position working with the young Dick Clark, and, through that, he wound up at ABC. As he became increasingly aware of the poverty of ideas among those pitching the network on games shows, he left and decided to sell his own. First among these was "The Dating Game."
What many fans of the show may not realize is that the "couple" matched up on the show went on a "date" that was chaperoned. Like all reality shows, there was little reality. Beyond airtime filler and a source of profits, the show served as a reliable source of employment for unemployed Hollywood actors. Among the future stars who appeared on its various incarnations were Burt Reynolds, Arnold Schwarznegger, John Ritter, Sally Field, Tom Selleck, Farrah Fawcett, Suzanne Somers, Lee Majors, Andy Kaufman and Jon Hamm. (It was during Kaufman's appearance—long before the TV show "Taxi"—that he introduced the character of Latka, telling a gorgeous woman that if he ever were in her lap and she were Santa Claus and he could have anything he wanted that he would request a television.) Although its racy questions annoyed censors and much of Middle America, it seems strikingly tame in retrospect.
Consider how it contrasts with its most obvious and flourishing successor: "The Bachelor." On that "romantic" program would-be contestants will close the doors on the cameras in order that they may further investigate their "chemistry." Then, perhaps the following morning, a bachelor will report to interviewers on how the "competitor" he has just been with has really "upped the stakes" or brought the contest to "a whole new level." Although the producers are essentially functioning as panderers, the whole is spun to the audience as dreamy and loving through the addition of sequences with roses and candlelight and a hope that it will lead to a trip to the altar. In spite of its constant reliance upon sexual innuendo, "The Dating Game" was at once more honest and more wholesome.
Equally if not more important in the evolution of our current culture was "The Gong Show." Among its contestants were Steve Martin, Andrea McArdle and Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman). The show both anticipated David Letterman and his use of deliberately amateurish features like Stupid Pet Tricks and the appearance on shows like "American Idol" of contestants expressly selected for their ineptitude and talentlessness. Yet, unlike onetime "Idol" host Simon Cowell, Barris never belittled guests when they were "gonged" off the show, instead praising them and greeting them warmly.
Barris returned to the public eye in 2002 when the George Clooney-directed film, "Confessions of A Dangerous Mind," about his life, appeared in theaters. That provoked much discussion about his claims of having been a CIA assassin responsible for dozens of patriotic slayings. This talk was not focused on whether he had actually been a government killer though, which no one believed, but as to why a hugely rich and successful man would make such a preposterous claim.
The answer, it would seem, is that he was deeply insecure and that he believed that he was seen by many as a wimp who had contributed nothing of enduring value to the world. Barris was a passionate admirer of the British historian Thomas Carlyle, and, as readers of his two accounts of his life may know, a naturally-gifted storyteller. His success was not that of a Chance The Gardener-like figure, an imbecile who wandered into a fortune through happenstance. Necessarily, he himself wished to believe—as he wished to persuade others—that he had performed great and manly deeds. In his autobiographies, this is related through accounts of his supposed murders of dangerous communists connected to men like Che Guevara.
But, arguably, Barris's real legacy was more profound. One might argue that the rise of the culture of narcissism was inevitable, that, as Marshall McLuhan put it, the medium was the message. And that's almost surely right. But, just as the telephone would eventually have been developed without Alexander Graham Bell, AT&T was not a predestined creation. Likewise, that a show like "The Apprentice" was certain, the timing of it and its form were not. President Trump then is part of Barris's legacy. It will not be his final one though. For we have only begun the journey. The question is whether this resultant concoction— our culture— will ultimately prove so toxic that we will be gonged off the stage.
Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and journalist. His most recent play, "Deconstruction," closed on March 25th after a critically lauded New York run. His website is http://jonathanleaf.weebly.com/.