Chuck Barris, the character who created The Dating Game, The Gong Show, and a pile of other game shows from which our current contest-heavy TV lineup is directly descended, has died at 87.
The Washington Post recaps the beginning of his fairly madcap career:
Barris began his career as a songwriter — his biggest hit was “Palisades Park” for Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon in 1962 — but he truly burst into show business in 1965 with the debut of his brainchild “The Dating Game,” an updated, televised version of a World War II radio show titled “Blind Date,” The Washington Post reported in 1965.
You’ve probably seen clips from the racy-for-its-time “Dating Game,” often featuring celebrities just getting their start.
A 2002 LA Times article throws it back to the atmosphere in the offices at the time:
A 1969 Times article described his company as “a swinging, with- it outfit” staffed by “super-cool chicks in miniskirts clacking away on typewriters.” The office walls were “a freaky collage of pop- hippie art,” and Barrissported “a groovy mod haircut.”
Barris followed it up with The Newlywed Game and several other spinoffs on the concept; at one point, according to the AP, his shows accounted for 27 hours of TV a week. (And remember, this is before cable.) But it was The Gong Show, which he launched in 1976 and wound up hosting, that made his name known to many Americans. It was part talent show, part spoof of a talent show featuring randos without any talent, and utterly wacky. The AP explained:
Patterned after the Major Bowes Amateur Hour show that was a radio hit in the 1930s, the program featured performers who had peculiar talents and, often, no talent at all. When the latter appeared on the show, Barris would strike an oversize gong, the show’s equivalent of vaudeville’s hook. The victims would then be mercilessly berated by the manic Barris, with a hat often yanked down over his eyes and ears, and a crew of second-tier celebrities.
The Washington Post notes that his efforts earned him an array of unflattering nicknames: “The King of Schlock,” “The Baron of Bad Taste” and “The Ayatollah of Trasherola.” Harsh, but pretty hard to mount a counterargument when your show aired this:
For what it’s worth, Salon explained in 2001 that the “Popsicle Twins” weren’t necessarily supposed to make it onto the show:
Also in 1978, the Popsicle Twins appeared on “The Gong Show.” Barris used to keep the NBC censors off the show’s back by throwing sacrifices at them — acts he knew the censors wouldn’t approve, but that would distract them from the acts he wanted on the air. The Popsicle Twins were one of the stooges, but the censors didn’t get the dirty joke, so the Twins made it onto the show.
Once it actually aired on the East Coast, somebody with a dirtier turn of mind caught on and it didn’t make it all to the Pacific.
Perhaps the weirdest twist in Barris’s long career came in 1982 with the publication of his memoir, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, in which he bizarrely suggested he’d been a hitman for the CIA during his time as a game-show host. He told the AV Club in 2003:
But this was ‘80 or ‘81, and all my shows had been cancelled, and I made a movie, and that was a disaster, and the critics had harassed me for 15 years saying that I’d lowered the bar of civilization, and all that. So I was really bummed out and pissed and angry and hurt. I was living in California, so I checked into this hotel. I couldn’t deal with this anger, and I had to get it out of my system. So I found a hotel that had monthly rates. I thought I’d take about a month before I went back to California, and I would write it out. I’d get this anger and all this stuff out of my system. I thought it would be a cathartic thing, getting all of it down on paper. Who knows, maybe I could use it sometime. Two and a half years later, I came out of that hotel with a manuscript.
That manuscript was Confessions. The CIA denied it, with a spokesman suggesting that, “It sounds like he might have been standing too close to the gong all those years.” In 2002 the LA Times asked how much of the book was outright fantasy and he insisted, “I’ll never answer that question.”
“Believe what you want. I wrote the book and that’s how I felt when I wrote it,” he said.
He also admitted that he feared the headline on his obituary would read “Barris gets gonged.”