As far as Chuck Barris' detractors were concerned, his bawdy, lowbrow game shows exploited and demeaned their contestants, cheapened the level of discourse on television, and appealed to the basest instincts of the lowest common denominator. But to his fans, Barris was an affable scoundrel who provided ordinary folks with a shot at fame (however fleeting) and entertained the masses with unpretentious populist fare. A self-deprecating renaissance man, Barris made an indelible mark on pop culture as a game-show creator, beginning with 1965's The Dating Game. The program was an enormous hit and inspired 1966's The Newlywed Game. Barris followed that with an assortment of new shows, and also branched out into literature with You And Me, Babe, a bestseller based on his relationship with his first wife. Then, in 1976, he created The Gong Show, a raunchy spoof of talent shows, and stepped in as host. The Gong Show made Barris a household name, but also a target for critics, who were hostile to him, the show, its 1978 TV follow-up The $1.98 Beauty Show, and The Gong Show Movie, a disastrous 1980 offshoot he co-wrote, directed, and starred in. Stung by the nonstop invective, Barris retreated to a hotel to write Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, an "unauthorized autobiography" in which he claimed to have moonlighted as a CIA hit man while producing his shows. The book was a commercial flop upon its release, but eventually became a cult sensation, and in 2002 it was adapted into a film by Being John Malkovich screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, with George Clooney in his directorial debut. Barris, who served as a consultant for the film, recently ended his decades-long self-imposed exile in France by returning to the U.S., where he recorded Confessions Of A Dangerous Singer, an album of old chestnuts and original compositions (including "Palisades Park," a hit he wrote for Freddie Cannon in 1962). The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Barris about his Confessions sequel, his history, and his adventures in selling TelePrompTers.
The Onion: What have you been up to lately?
Chuck Barris: I'm writing the sequel [to Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind], and it would be finished if I didn't have a goddamned computer problem this morning, which has got me this side of completely panic-stricken because I'm almost finished, I've got another week and a half, and my computer just went "plop." So I got a guy coming over here soon, and hopefully we can retrieve my manuscript.
O: What can you say about the sequel?
CB: Bad Grass Never Dies is the title, maybe. It picks up where Confessions left off, in 1980, about, or a little bit before, like last week. That should be that, and then I don't want to see any more Confessions.
O: It's the end of the Chuck Barris saga?
CB: Actually, it's the end of a trilogy of books I wrote about myself. I thought at one time that that was the only way I could ever write, and maybe it still is. I wrote another book called You And Me, Babe. That was a bestseller. It was the first book I ever wrote. It was on the New York Times bestseller list for about two months. And that was the first part of my life, or something, and then there's Confessions 1 and Confessions 2. That's enough.
O: Who influenced your writing style?
CB: It used to be Hemingway and Fitzgerald. That's why I went to the south of France to write You And Me, Babe, the first book I wrote, and it was a bestseller, so that's part of the reason I finally quit television. The fun kind of ran out of television in the 1980s, and I dabbled around for a couple of years before finally selling the company so I could pretend I was Fitzgerald and Hemingway and go write on the Riviera. I was lucky enough to make enough money to live happily ever after, so I took off. You know, I probably should have never quit my day job. The books I wrote in Europe, I couldn't even get them published. I think I wrote two manuscripts, and neither one was published. Well, one was, but it wasn't that good.
O: What was it?
CB: It was a thing called The Game Show King, which was mistitled, for a book that was basically a memoir of living in France. It did okay, but nothing to rave about, and it wasn't that good. But then Confessions got reissued, what with the making of the movie and everything, and a book which hardly sold at all the first time it came out is selling up a storm all over the world, which is remarkable. The whole thing is so weird. It also gave me another day job, which is to write the sequel. Afterwards, if I write again, I'd like to write something a little more meaningful, if that's possible.
O: Why do you think Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind sold so poorly originally?
CB: That's an easy question. I think I have to go back a step. In 1980, when I wrote Confessions, I was in a really bad place. I haven't been in really bad places often in my life, but this was one of them. The other bad place was when the Dating Game pilot didn't sell. I was shocked. That was a really bad place. 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. I had moved from California to this hotel room by way of FedEx–you know, sweaters, socks, shoes. I thought the book was great. When I read it, I thought it had an edge. I took it to the CEO of St. Martin's, and he loved it, too. He printed up 100,000 copies, which was big at that time, and when it came out, the literary critics, I don't even think they read the book. They just took the television criticism and carried it into the book. Publishers Weekly said, "What do you expect from the guy who gave us The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game? Come on." That was the tenor: "What do you expect from a writer who hosted The Gong Show? What kind of book could he write?" That's it. The book came and went. Television criticism is meaningless as far as I'm concerned, because it's dealing with something you get for nothing. Criticism for books, movies, plays, drama–that means something, because people spend their money unless they have a reason not to. So the book disappeared, and we had about 90,000 in remainder. So that's why it didn't sell then, but now, with the movie and the hype and all that stuff, people bought it and read it and seemed to like it. So I call the retired CEO of St. Martin's, and we kind of enjoyed the fact that it ended up being what it is.
O: It seems silly that anybody would say the book is a literary equivalent to The Gong Show.
CB: Publishers Weekly re-reviewed the book and said it was a classic. That doesn't mean anything to me, if it's a classic or non-classic. It's just a difference of opinion that shows what 20 years can do with some different publicity.
O: Do you think it was ahead of its time?
CB: You know something, I don't know if it was ahead of its time. I think if you're ahead of your time, you've failed. I think if you're behind the times, you've failed. I think the only way to measure success is being right on time with what people want. At one time, I had this reputation for having my finger on the pulse, of knowing what people wanted. I don't believe that, either. I think you may be a product of your time. You may be a singer who can only sing during the '60s, or a guy who can only do television during a certain period of time, because the stuff you create is the stuff that people want then. That's why I never put much stock in being ahead of my time, which I heard a lot.
O: Even though Confessions is your story and your novel, it has a lot of themes in common with other screenplays by Charlie Kaufman, who adapted it.
CB: That's a good point. You must remember that Charlie, I believe, wrote Confessions before he wrote Being John Malkovich, before he wrote Adaptation. I felt there was a lot of Adaptation that seemed to come from Confessions. I have no idea whether that's right or whether that even matters, but that's the way it was, because when [Confessions producer] Andrew Lazar, who found the book in somebody's house, took it home and finished it and then got it optioned, he gave it to Charlie Kaufman and paid for Charlie to write a screenplay. That was, I think, before the other screenplays Charlie wrote. Charlie's great. He's just bizarre as can be, but he's a good writer.
O: You've said that there are things in the movie that didn't happen in the book or in your real life, that he embellished some things. What kind of stuff did he add?
CB: Stuff you didn't see. Once Clooney became the director, he said to me–which I thought was terrific–that if there was anything I didn't like, or anything I didn't want, to tell him, and then he'd do his best to change it or get it out. One of the things was that Charlie had me as a drug addict. In the original script, I was a druggie, and that's something I never, ever did. I had this tremendous horror about drugs. I was a big extremist: If I chewed a pack of gum, I chewed 20 packs. I knew that if I ever touched drugs, I'd be a junkie, and I had a public company to run, with a bunch of shows on the air. There was too much to lose to fool around with something like that. So it was a perception of myself that I did not want, and that was taken out. I didn't mind if it looked like I drank or I smoked. I didn't care about that. There were a few other little things that kind of escaped my notice that made it into the movie. My mother never dressed me like a girl. That's a Kaufman-esque thing. My father wasn't a serial killer. That's another Kaufman-esque thing. I would have mentioned that to George, but I didn't, and I don't think it's the end of the world. Those are some of the things.
O: What did you want to be, growing up?
CB: I never knew what I wanted to be. I still don't. I always admired and envied kids who did, who definitely wanted to be a doctor or who were going to go to West Point because their father was in the war, or if somebody wanted to fly, that that was something they definitely wanted to do. I thought that was great, because I didn't have any big desires or great ambitions for anything. When I graduated college, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I kind of wanted to be a doctor, but I didn't want to go to school for four more years and all that crap, being pre-med. The closest I came to doing anything that I wanted to do was to try and check and see what industries were just starting out. There was plastics and television, and I figured television had to be more fun than plastics. So I went out and started on my way up in television. I wrote music, I wrote books, I played an instrument half-ass. I would always have liked to play in a band. I would always have liked to be a substantial writer, to write country music for big singers. I had all sorts of proclivities, but I never had any big success. My television programs never got an Emmy. "Palisades Park," which I wrote, never got to #1. It got to #2. A book got to #7 on the bestseller list, but never to #1. I was always kind of a second-level jack-of-all-trades, and unfortunately not a master of any of them.
O: You also sold TelePrompTers. How does one go about doing that?
CB: In the first place, the TelePrompTer was an instrument that a station could make. It wasn't very hard to put words on rollers and then run them by the camera. Or they could do it with cue cards. The company that made TelePrompTers ended up being a huge company working in cable. I talked them into loading me up with all the latest equipment so I could go around the country, going from station to station trying to talk the engineering department at these local stations into leasing a TelePrompTer. I would come to the station and dump the equipment there, and you know the engineers: They didn't have a whole lot to do, so they got a kick out of looking at this crap. Then they would look at it, and I'd take off. Like if I went to Louisville, I'd go the Louisville station and give them the TelePrompTer equipment and say, "You're the first station in Louisville that I'm going to, so you have a leg up here. I'm not going to give you a sales pitch, it speaks for itself." Then I'd take off. I'd go around Louisville, checking out the horses, the big stables, and the countryside, and so on and so forth. I was fired a year later because I hadn't sold a single TelePrompTer. I'd go back to the stations and they'd go, "Nah, I don't think so," and give it back to me. That was a great year, though, because I visited the whole country. I was up in Seattle, I did a little business just south of the border in Mexico, trying to sell to a station that fed into the United States. I was everywhere, and I got to know the local stations.
O: Then you worked as a network watchdog for Dick Clark.
CB: It was at the time of the payola scandals, where these station guys were taking money to play records. It was a big scandal, and a lot of station guys were fired. On the network, they had just gone through the quiz-show scandals, so after that, they didn't want another scandal. Dick Clark had American Bandstand, and that was a big show. One play on American Bandstand was worth 20,000 in sales, was the way they used to figure it in those days. So he was highly susceptible to having payola. At the same time, there was a guy, [legendary DJ Alan] Freed, who was on an ABC-affiliated station in New York. He had a big record program, and he billed $200,000 a year. Dick Clark was billing $2 million a year. Once again, in those days that was big, big money. ABC fired Freed. They gave him over to the lions, and they kept Clark. They were going to have to go down to the FCC and testify as to why Clark was not guilty of any misdemeanors. So they got called, and I was out of work at the time–I had just come down to see if they had anything available for a former NBC management-training-program guy–so they said "Yep, here," and gave me a suit, because I didn't have a suit and they wanted me to look like an executive. They brought me down to Philadelphia and introduced me to Dick Clark and said I had to watch him until he went to Washington, and they expected him to go to Washington any week, so I was there on a week-to-week basis. You figure it out. What was there to watch? I worked from 10 to 6. Then I'd get on the train, and I always thought, "Well, whatever he does, he could be doing it from 6 p.m. to when I get back to work." But I never suggested anything like that, because I needed the job. Actually, he did finally go to Washington after about a year, and was cleared automatically. I think by that time the scandal had blown away. And I got a permanent job in the programming department, which really started me off with game shows.
O: What interested you in game shows initially?
CB: Only that I was privy to watching them. See, ABC would go on the air at 5 at night, and they wanted to get competitive with NBC and CBS. So they backed up–they went from 5 to 4 to 3 to 2, all the way back to 1–and they did it with game shows, because a) they were inexpensive, and b) if they hit, they hit big, and if they didn't hit, they could be replaced immediately. So game shows were on a 13-week cycle, which was not much. It's like three months, which was only about eight weeks, really, because they had to give you four weeks' notice. So ABC tried tons of game shows. Tons. And I'm there watching them as a low-level clerk. I watched what worked. I watched what didn't work at the time and what I hoped we could do differently at the time. Then, when I thought the time was right, I went out and created The Dating Game and went back and sold it to ABC.
O: Of all the game shows you watched, which was the worst?
CB: Well, I don't particularly like game shows. I mean, I think I did them well. I could do them, but it didn't mean I really liked them. I never watched any of the game shows that were on television at the time, like The Price Is Right, To Tell The Truth, all those shows. I think that also probably gave me an edge, because I never really copied much of what they did. I liked my shows–they made me laugh–but I didn't like anybody else's, so I didn't think much about that. Today, television is not my favorite medium, my favorite form of entertainment. Certainly game shows aren't. I don't watch reality shows at all. I don't remember what was good or bad back then. The only thing I really remember is what I did.
O: Of your shows, which do you think was the best?
CB: The Dating Game has a special place for me because it was my first. It was my baby. 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. The Gong Show, that was fun. That was, for me, the epitome. In between, I had a game show called Three's A Crowd, which was "Who knows a husband better? His wife or his secretary?" It was the most powerful game show I ever created. I mean, it was really a visceral experience. It was too embarrassing and devastating for the contestants, so I pulled that show off the air. I did another one called How's Your Mother-In-Law?, which wasn't good because, as I did with all my shows, I tried to do something that my audience could relate to. And I thought everyone could relate to a mother-in-law. If you didn't have one, you certainly knew about them. But the problem was that you were making fun of somebody's mother, so it didn't work. There were other things. There was a show called Family Game, which was about how well kids know their parents and how well parents know their kids. I hated working with kids, so I didn't like that show.
O: So, just for the record: Who does know more about husbands, their wives or their secretaries?
CB: The secretaries. No, the wives, I'm just kidding. The difficult thing about that one was that it was basically built around the lowest common denominator. The thing was built around the shock value of the wife realizing that her husband's secretary had bought a lot of her presents and so forth, so you were looking for the devious side of things, which wasn't really so good. It was tremendously successful, because people love that stuff. They appreciate watching that. Right before their eyes, they were watching a wife become shattered to realize that the Valentine's Day present that she thought was from her husband was really purchased by the secretary. And the secretaries never liked the wives, because basically they were competing with them for the husbands. They were really kind of an office wife, as a secretary sometimes is. The whole thing reeked of ridiculousness.
O: Do you think any of your other shows went too far?
CB: No. No other show went too far. We were accused on other shows of going too far, but we never did. On a show called Treasure Hunt, the object was to win $25,000, which was hidden in one of 25 boxes. And if the contestant didn't get that, there might be a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. We would take those women and run them up and down the roller coaster. Like one time, we said to a woman, "We're giving you a peanut-butter sandwich so you won't be totally disappointed," and she'd look disappointed, and then we said "…to put in the back of your Rolls Royce!" and then she fainted. We were accused of making people faint, and stuff like that. It was a classic Rolls Royce, it wasn't a new one, but it was still worth a lot of money. I did 60 Minutes, and Mike Wallace interviewed me and said, "How about the woman who fainted on your program? Didn't you run her ragged emotionally, make her a basket case?" And I said, "No, she was having the time of her life." He said, "We decided to check up on her and see if she said she was." I didn't know they were going to do that. But they went out to her little house and checked on her, and she said she'd had the time of her life. That was always the key.
O: Do you think reality television would have been possible without your shows?
CB: I think anything would have been possible without my shows. I was the first one there. I was there in the late '50s, and when you're first in any new environment in history, you have lots of legs up. What I was doing was spontaneous. The Dating Game was the first program of its kind that didn't have a Q&A or a big production. After that, everything had a twist: The Newlywed Game, The Gong Show. Everything was dealing with people, and no right and wrong answers, and no scripts. I think The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game began the momentum for what eventually became Fear Factor, The Jerry Springer Show, Joe Millionaire, and so on. But if I wasn't there, somebody else would have been.