Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The Tycoon of Tastelessness, Chuck Barris

In November 1979, the Associated Press reported:
The "Gong Show" and its producer, Chuck Barris, were singled out yesterday by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York for presenting "vulgar and degrading" prime-time entertainment to children in the metropolitan area in its condemnation of the "Gong Show."
The archdiocese gave this capsule description: "Entire thrust is to demean and ridicule its guests while furnishing a platform for the crude and vulgar comments of host Chuck Barris."
I suspect if Chuck Barris could have fit those sentiments on his tomb stone, he would have. The phoney talent show was the highlight of his career.

Barris has died at his home in New York at the age of 87.

I loved the “Gong Show.” So did millions of others. It was stunning, unbelievable weirdness surrounded by complete pandemonium. It spawned all kinds of off-screen imitations; some group somewhere was staging its own version. At the centre of it was producer Barris, who turned out to be the perfect emcee for the show. Gary Owens handled the job for a bit, but while he had a wonderful sense of the absurd and a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, he was just too professional. The Brillo-headed Barris came off as a proudful amateur, which is exactly what the show needed. (Later in the show’s run, some viewers wondered if Barris was on something—and I don’t mean on camera).

Barris’ earliest fame came with “The Dating Game,” a collective of harmless silliness and banality wrapped in Herb Alpert’s music (and, eventually, Alpert knock-offs). But why should I tell the story? Here’s a column from the Associated Press wire from May 21, 1967 giving his successes to date.
No Brain Games for Chuck Barris

Associated Press Writer
New York—Sixteen months ago, Chuck Barris was an unemployed man of 36, fretting furiously in a $25-a-month office in West Hollywood.
Today he is the hottest thing in the television game-packaging business. He is now producer of three daytime and two nighttime network shows, employer of 65 people, head of several corporations and currently negotiating to put two more shows in network channels.
Barris, for better or worse, is the master-mind who concocted the ABC trilogy called The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game and Dream Girl of '67. None is likely to emerge with a Peabody—or even an Emmy—award, but the maestro couldn't care less.
He apparently has developed a not-so-secret recipe for inexpensive, time-killing daytime now spilled successfully into early evening time game shows with broad appeal.
• • •
GOODSON and Todman, fathers of What's My Line? Password and To Tell the Truth are fond of intellect-tickling word games — a shrewd mixture of celebrity-watching and audience involvement, Barris has no use for cerebral stimuli.
"What we're looking for is people, as opposed to playing with words and clues," he said. "My idea is to pick some lively people, put them into a format and get them talking. You never know what is going to come out, but whatever it is, it's spontaneous."
Barris, like most "overnight" successes, has been around for a number of years, learning techniques. A Philadelphia boy, he entered NBC through its management training program, moved on to daytime sales and worked in a minor capacity, on the old Steve Allen variety hour and in the news and public affairs department.
• • •
LATER BARRIS moved to the coast and spent three years as ABC director of daytime programs. He found it a bore—and quit.
"I was looking at 'Where the Action Is,' which was aimed at the audience between 18 and 35," he said, "and it occurred to me that there might be something interesting in having a teenager talking to a few guys and picking one for a day.
"It would be a sort of Russian roulette — particularly if out of the bunch she happened to pick on somebody famous. It would be just as interesting to see her reaction if she skipped him for somebody else."
Within weeks of confiding the idea to Leonard Goldberg, youthful ABC vice-president in charge of programming, Dating Game slipped into ABC's afternoon channels.
It did so well in the ratings that Barris came up with a second, The Newlywed Game, which simply relies on how well young married couples know each other's tastes and personalities.
• • •
THE STIMULATION for the viewer comes when young couples come fairly close to mayhem when they are not doing very well.
"I suppose I do these shows because I don't find any fun in intellectual games," said Barris. "To me the interest is entirely in the revelation of the personalities."
When ABC's Shane, a western series that cost over $125,000 per episode, turned out a ratings disaster, Barris was tapped for evening editions of his two games as replacements.
Now Barris is busily working the same rich vein. He has something called The Mother-in-Law Game and another, The Family Game, merely awaiting a network okay.
Daytime television, Barris claims is "the real TV jungle," since there is a fierce network battle for the housewife audience. Barris' success has been so swift and big that he really has not yet become accustomed to it, and he worries constantly about his unaccustomed role as employer of a large staff.
"They are all young, enthusiastic and creative," he said. "Their average age is 24 and they want to try everything. I hate to knock down their ideas, but at the moment I'm concerned just about staying on the air. What I keep going for is strictly a commercial winner."
“The Gong Show” premiered Monday, June 14, 1976 from 12:30 to 12:55 Eastern on NBC, followed by a short newscast. (The sight of the dour-looking Edwin Newman after a string of outrageous acts was incongruous, to say the least). The TV critics dug in. Outrageous acts brought outrage. One huffing, puffing columnist from Gannett, invoking the sacred memory of Ted Mack (who had an amateur hour that sold Geritol and liver pills), managed to write virtually the same unsmiling article twice in three years, demanding the end of the gong. But some critics got it. They knew the show wasn’t serious. It wasn’t a competition, it was a twisted party. A sampling:
"'The Gong Show' is loud, shameless and vulgar, but it's not like any other game show on the air" ...(Tom Shales, Washington Post Service).
"It has managed to be the most gawdawful show on television...It is silly, puerile, objectionable, insulting, degrading and ridiculous. And I wouldn't miss it if my house were on fire " ...(John H. Corcoran Jr., National Observer).
"It exploits greed and need, it is based on the lowest principles of public humiliation...a piece of assault on public taste ...It is also funny" ...(Bill Granger, Chicago Sun-Times).
I was hoping to find a column quoting Barris during the show’s run. Instead, you’ll have to settle for this syndicate story from December 22, 1976. If you’re too young to have seen the show, this gives you an idea of what it was about.
The 'Gong Show' is a feast of lunacy

Copley News Service
HOLLYWOOD - The one new show this season that is always certain to wrench a laugh out of me — and, often as not, a very big laugh up from the toes — is an incredible oddment called the "Gong Show." It is — I believe the word is apt — bizarre. It is also wildly, outrageously funny and I salute Chuck Barris, the man who also gave us "The Dating Game" and "The Newlywed Game" and others, for conceiving this nonsense.
There are two versions of "Gong Show." The first is hosted by Barris himself, and it can be seen weekdays on NBC; the nighttime version is widely syndicated and it is hosted by the mellow-voiced veteran of "Laugh-In," comic and author, KMPC jockey and all-around good sport and jitterbug champion of South Dakota, Gary Owens.
A television columnist in Chicago, writing in a cold fury, has already lambasted the show, saying that "it exploits greed and need, it is based on the lowest principles of public humiliation." He calls it a "piece of trash" and an "assault on public taste." And those are his compliments.
Frankly, I suspect that this fellow's humor has been swept away by the harsh winds off Lake Michigan. As I say, the "Gong Show" is a genuine laugh-provoker. "It is," says the redoubtable Owens "a feast of lunacy."
Inspired lunacy, really. And inspired, moreover, by a relic from out of the distant past—the amateur hour once conducted by Major Bowes who would tap a gong to indicate that fee aspiring entertainer did not exactly measure up. On the "Gong Show," they have an enomorous gong that rests behind the panel chairs for the three celebrity judges. Often, one of them — or all of them in unison — will strike the gong if an act strikes their displeasure.
Onstage, the genial emcee, one Gary Owens, brings on the acts and what acts they are! There was, for example, a rather large woman said to weigh about 450 pounds and dressed like a kewpie doll singing "The Good Ship Lollypop." And there was the fellow who sings "These Boots Are Made for Walking" as it might be rendered by Peter Lorre. And the fellow who strums his guitar for 20 seconds and then, to finish off his act, mutters: "I'm so lonely since my horse died." And the act billed as Oscar and Pancho — Oscar plays the flute while Pancho plays the piano. Pancho is a dog. He doesn't play very well.
One night — I'm not making any of this up, you understand — I saw a contestant on the show whose entire act consisted of eating a banana to the theme from the movie, "2001: A Space Odyssey." I mean, that was his entire act. He wore white tie and tails and tennis shoes.
Comic Rip Taylor, on the panel, watched him eat the banana and said, afterward: "Well, it had appeal. Take your banana and split, kid!"
Phyllis Diller, another panelist, was singularly underwhelmed. "I don't see where the act can go," she said, "except to the grocery."
Let's see now, and there was a girl singer who was brought on by Owens with this encouraging introduction:
"The good news is that she sings in 10 languages. The bad news is, one of them is English."
And there you have the "Gong Show," which is syndicated not only to 130 cities but also to England and Australia, where it's an enormous hit.
As Gary likes to say, "This show may seem a bit silly at first but then it develops into something totally ridiculous."
“The Gong Show,” in some ways, was Barris’ last TV hurrah. He came up with “The $1.98 Beauty Show,” which soon faded as viewers felt they had seen the Barris Productions’ campiness all before. There were other short-lived shows and rehashes of old ones. Barris turned to writing, penning a book about his daughter who died of an overdose, and then an autobiography where he claimed to have been a CIA assassin. He showed he still had some power; he spun the rights to that book into a 2003 movie.

Was it true? Who knows. But does it really matter? After all, he brought the world Gene, Gene the Dancing Machine and the Unknown Comic. Nobody else can make that claim, for better or worse. I say, for better.


  1. Chuck Barris and Chuck Berry within a few days of each other. If your name is Chuck B.....beware!

  2. Have to admit it. About fifteen of us would gather around the television between classes in the student center at college and watch it. For 1976, it was wild,just plain silly and unpredictable. As of bunch of nineteen year old freshmen, that's probably why we enjoyed it.