Charles Hirsch Barris, who died on March 21 at age 87, proved that one Jewish man’s inner conflicts could entertain America in a series of game shows. Creator of TV’s “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game,” in the ‘60s, Barris also launched and hosted “The Gong Show” in the 1970s, tapping into such matters as relational insecurity and the pathos of exhibitionism, all for the amusement of his audience. “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” his 1984 novel in memoir form, was filmed in 2002 by George Clooney with a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman.
Barris showed up newlyweds and prospective dates as mutually ignorant and inarticulate, apparently undermining the rituals of courtship and marriage to the greater delight of viewers. Much later, he claimed that the first taped programs of “The Dating Game” could not be broadcast because clean-cut young contestants had used too much profanity. Barris’ solution was to bring in an authority figure in the guise of an actor dressed in a law enforcement uniform, privately threatening guests with prison sentences for spreading obscenity over the airwaves; this supposedly reduced the number of naughty words.
Another sort of play with an authority figure occurred when Barris invited his mother Edith Cohen onto “The Gong Show.” Edith sang “Ain’t She Sweet” until Barris interrupted her, stating, “You’re not allowed to be on the show, you’re my mother.” An actor dressed as a policeman dragged her off the stage, still screeching “Ain’t She Sweet.” This nightmare scenario likely fulfilled some deep inner motivations, although to justify it, Barris merely admitted that his mother “must have been a ham. We were all hams.” Barris’ father Nathaniel, a dentist, escaped his own “Gong Show” appearance by dying several years before, but the show did include elements of breaking with the tradition of the Fathers. In segments ostensibly about the Wisdom of the Bible, a stagehand was repeatedly dressed up as a contestant, Father Ed, only for Barris to deliberately sabotage the pious guest’s cue cards, leaving the presentation in disarray.
A sense of humor fixed at the level of an overstressed bar mitzvah boy in desperate need of Ritalin was a trademark of Barris’ successful career. Admiring viewers accused him of working under the influence of drugs or alcohol, which he always staunchly denied. Barris had worked himself up into an all-natural state of excited nerves. Most tummlers are openly shameless, but Barris seemed aware of the crassness of presenting a series of ungifted performers, even if the acts in question were so desperate for attention that they were complicit in the display. His complex emotions were augmented by potshots from some journalists, although the difficult-to-please critic Tom Shales found a certain bonhomie in the show. In a review from 1977, Shales commented on the eager self-abasement of contestants:
“It’s the immortal story. It’s the human comedy. It’s a 350-pound woman burping in rhythm, a man who eats a banana to the theme from ‘2001,’ an 80-year-old diva so deaf she doesn’t know the band has stopped playing and the audience is shouting for her to get off the stage. ‘The Gong Show’ is loud, shameless and vulgar, but it’s not like any other game show on the air. People make fools of themselves, but not for Amana freezers. They do it for the incomparable thrill of fleeting fame. ‘The Gong Show’ is dedicated to the proposition that people will do almost anything to get on television… ‘The Gong Show’ is probably less demeaning to its participants than game shows that require shrieking and groveling for a Mr. Coffee machine or a trip to Puerto Vallarta. It’s also much more entertaining and sometimes, in some crazy show-biz way, moving… ‘The Gong Show’ is life itself.”
In 1980, Shales returned to the charge to counter those who decried Barris as the Ayatollah of Trasherola or as the critic Alan Farrell termed him, the “pied piper of the Lumpenproletariat.” Instead, Shales declared, Barris “brings to mind, of all things, a scaled-down, Hobbitty version of David Susskind… the program — still syndicated in reruns — is an almost infallibly amusing free-for-all and a basically warmhearted celebration of human variety.”
Despite such defenders, Barris felt emotional twinges about becoming a multi-millionaire on what was seen by some as the humiliation of contestants. In reaction, Barris wrote a novel in memoir form in which he claimed to be a professional assassin for the CIA in addition to producing TV game shows. He freely admitted that this was fiction on ABC’s “The Morning Show” in 1984, yet readers preferred to believe that it could be true, and George Clooney’s film presented the assassin theme as credible. Reviewing the movie, Roger Ebert pointed out that “any man who would claim 33 killings as a way to rehabilitate his reputation deserves our sympathy and maybe our forgiveness.”
Forgiveness for what? Silly, lighthearted idiocy “The Gong Show” surely was, but many of its contestants recall it with a degree of fondness, as one might recall embarrassing behavior by relatives at past family gatherings. Alan Katz, a West Coast comedian and wedding officiant, informed “LA Weekly”: “I’ve been an entertainer since I made my debut on ‘The Gong Show’ at age 16… I did a burping act, demonstrating different kinds of burping.” The Canadian Jewish comedian Murray Langston appeared in over 150 episodes of “The Gong Show” as “The Unknown Comic” with a paper bag over his head, so that fellow comedians would not know how he was earning money. Less image-conscious was another aspiring Jewish comedian, Paul Reubens, later to gain fame as Pee-wee Herman. Reubens appeared 14 times on “The Gong Show” and thrice on “The Dating Game,” earning much-needed cash as he assumed different disguises. Reubens told “Variety,” “I’ve told people for years that Chuck Barris supported a lot of struggling artists… I didn’t have to have a second job because of ‘The Gong Show’ for a couple of years.” Reubens tweeted in conclusion: “RIP Chuck Barris… a wonderful, happy, funny guy.”
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.