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Chuck Barris (1929 – 2017)

by Legacy Staff

Chuck Barris, the “dangerous mind” behind game shows including “The Newlywed Game” and “The Gong Show,” died Tuesday, March 21, 2017. He was 87.

Chuck Barris, the “dangerous mind” behind game shows including “The Newlywed Game” and “The Gong Show,” died Tuesday, March 21, 2017. He was 87.

Barris was the King of Schlock TV, the creator of a genre of titillating TV shows that some say is the direct ancestor of today’s tell-all reality shows. That’s a judgment usually accompanied by hand-wringing. Barris’ TV creations were lambasted as the lowest-common-denominator viewing of the 1960s and ’70s, bringing down the country’s collective IQ by several points. Barris would argue, however, that his shows were harmless and positive: They were fun, simple, and eminently watchable.


It all started with 1965’s “The Dating Game.” Barris’ first game show, created after a stint of working backstage for Dick Clark on “American Bandstand,” “The Dating Game” took a simple concept and turned it into a long-running TV institution. Created by Barris but hosted by a variety of others, most notably Jim Lange in the show’s initial run, it saw three bachelors vying for the hand of one bachelorette. She decided among them by asking them questions about how they would woo her on a date. Once she chose a winner, they’d be sent on a destination date in a faraway city, paid for by the show. The twist: The bachelorette couldn’t see the bachelors while she questioned them and had to make her decision based on their answers and voices alone.

The twist jump-started Barris’ career and the careers of several others as well. One of the legacies of “The Dating Game” was the leg up it gave to a number of young actors and actresses who appeared as contestants before they became famous. They include John Ritter, Farrah Fawcett, and Casey Kasem.

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The success of “The Dating Game” opened the door for other romance-based game shows in a trend that culminated in more recent ratings-grabbers such as “The Bachelor” and “Who Wants To Marry a Millionaire?” For Barris, the obvious next step after setting up couples on dates was to feature young marrieds, in his next hit game show: “The Newlywed Game,” in 1966. Like “The Dating Game,” it was hosted by others, with Bob Eubanks taking the reins for years. Its premise: Ask a newly married couple questions about their lives together and see just how similar – or uproariously different – their answers would be.

Some questions had the contestants remembering romantic moments, like, “Where was your first kiss?” Others tested a husband’s memory: “What did your wife wear on your first date?” Risque answers were often encouraged, especially by the questions about “making whoopee,” the show’s frequently used euphemism. Barris loved the way the show’s simple premise brought never-ending hilarity: “In my opinion, the best game-show format ever was ‘The Newlywed Game’ because it’s so simple: It’s just four couples, eight questions, and a refrigerator or washing machine. That’s it. You’re done, and it worked.”

Indeed, it did work: “The Newlywed Game” became one of the longest-running game shows in TV history, with an original run of eight and one-half years, followed quickly by a syndicated run and a number of revivals in the decades that followed. It was still popular when, in 1976, Barris took on hosting duties in his next – and most notoriously strange – TV creation.

“The Gong Show” was a talent show gone off the rails, a deliberately awful collection of the truly talented, the sincere-but-dreadful, and the just plain strange. Originally slated as host, John Barbour was yanked before the first episode when he realized the show would be a parody rather than a genuine talent show and tried to change Barris’ mind about the angle. Barris didn’t want to change his mind, so he stepped in as host at the last minute, and his quirky persona proved the perfect final touch needed to elevate “The Gong Show” to legendary status.

On “The Gong Show,” contestants sang, danced, and otherwise tried to entertain, usually with a bizarre twist: Two competent singers squeezed into one outfit of clothes; a dentist played “The Stars and Stripes Forever” on his drill; an Elvis impersonator sang “Hound Dog” in a droning monotone. And those were the fairly normal acts. Things often got weird on “The Gong Show,” encouraged by Barris’ enthusiastic introductions. If an act were bad, the celebrity judges – a rotating panel of three that included 1970s notables like Jamie Farr, Phyllis Diller, and Jaye P. Morgan – would rush to hit a gong, signaling the act’s end. If it was good, or at least goofy enough to appeal to the judges, it didn’t get gonged, and the contestant might be the day’s winner of a check for $516.32 (the going day rate for Screen Actors Guild members at the time) and a trophy.

Pulling it all together was Barris, whose discomfort with being onstage manifested in a series of tics that audiences grew to love – he’d punctuate his sentences with claps, point at the camera, dance while watching an act perform. He pushed the envelope with risque acts, which contributed to the show’s cancellation in 1978 (though it ran in syndication for another two years and was revived later for a reboot). After the program’s cancellation, Barris tried to keep up the show’s momentum with “The Gong Show Movie” in 1980, but reviews were dismal; it quickly dropped out of sight.

Other shows created by Barris include 1973’s “The New Treasure Hunt,” 1967’s “How’s Your Mother-in-Law?”, and, in 1979, the contentious “Three’s a Crowd,” which pitted a man’s wife against his secretary to see who could answer more questions about his life, preferences, and proclivities. The latter show, which was seen as deeply problematic, was denounced by major groups including United Auto Workers and the National Organization for Women. A hostile backlash followed, with “Three’s a Crowd” being pulled from the air after just a few months and the rest of Barris’ creations also suffering in its wake. The ratings of his programs plummeted, including “The Gong Show,” and his various shows still in syndication came to abrupt ends.

Barris rallied, trying out new show concepts including “Camouflage” in 1980 and a new version of “Treasure Hunt” the following year. Then, in 1984, Barris once again demonstrated his ability to surprise the world with his eccentricity when he published the autobiography “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.” It included the legendary claim that he was an assassin for the CIA throughout the 1960s and ’70s. He asserted that when he chaperoned “Dating Game” contestants on their destination dates, sometimes in foreign – and hostile – countries, he would sometimes slip off to carry out his orders from higher-ups at the CIA, assassinating a target before accompanying the happy couple back home.

Barris insisted on the truth of the claim his whole life, though a CIA spokesman said that his assertion was “ridiculous. It’s absolutely not true.” But it was fascinating enough for screenwriter Charlie Kaufman to turn it into a feature film, directed by George Clooney and starring Sam Rockwell as Barris. The film added to the mythology of Barris’ life by including salacious details that were, themselves, made up. Barris told Time magazine, “(Kaufman) wrote stuff out of nowhere. My mother never dressed me like a girl. I was never on drugs. The part about my father being a serial killer? That’s Charlie. He writes such good stuff.”

“Dangerous Mind” was one of several books Barris wrote, including two additional memoirs and novels including 1973’s “You and Me, Babe” and 2009’s “Who Killed Art Deco?” Barris also had a career in music, primarily as a songwriter, though he also recorded. His greatest songwriting success was the 1962 hit “Palisades Park,” which Freddy Cannon recorded. The tune reached No. 3 on the Billboard chart.

Born June 3, 1929, in Philadelphia, Barris was married three times: to Lyn Levy, Robin Altman, and Mary Rudolph. He was preceded in death by his daughter, Della Barris, in 1998.

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