Variety reports that Chuck Barris, the man who helped find the subversive, human side of the modern game show, has died. Barris—a songwriter, producer, author, and the paradoxically camera-shy TV host of The Gong Show—was 87.
Originally a songwriter, Barris’ biggest hit was “Pallisades Park,” which he wrote for Freddy Cannon in 1962. At the same time, he was also working his way into TV, starting at ABC as a standards and practices man—an irony, given his later battles with network censors. After reviewing the game show offerings the network was fielding, Barris promptly decided he could do a better job, quitting his job to found Chuck Barris Productions in 1965. The company’s first success, The Dating Game, would establish a principle that would define Barris’ career (not to mention the million reality TV producers who would follow in his footsteps): Human beings are naturally funny, sexy, interesting, and, most importantly, watchable when left to their own devices (with just a little bit of prompting from the people behind the scenes.)
Barris followed The Dating Game with his most enduring success, The Newlywed Game. Leveraging the tensions and giddiness of newly married couples, the show frequently went wildly off the rails, most infamously in a 1977 episode in which host Bob Eubanks asked “Where, specifically, is the weirdest place that you personally have ever gotten the urge to make whoopie?” and got the legendary answer, “In the ass”—often misremembered as “In the butt, Bob”— from a gamely laughing contestant. Responding to the appeal of that uncontrolled TV chaos, Barris would follow Newlywed with The Gong Show, a show where there was very little rail in the first place for the show to go off.
The Newlywed Game made Chuck Barris a wealthy, successful man; The Gong Show made him a star. Hosting the show—reluctantly, after the planned host failed to grasp its oddball nature—“Chuckie Baby” became the ringmaster for a circus full of bizarre characters like Gene Gene The Dancing Machine and the Unknown Comic, watched over by a panel of judges that pulled from the ranks of ’70s TV mainstays like Jamie Farr, Jaye P. Morgan, and Phyllis Diller.
Ostensibly a variety competition show, Barris delighted in filling the series’ stage with the most inept acts he could find, daring them to survive the wrath of the judges and the show’s omnipresent, act-ending gong. And while Barris would later describe his performance as a host—in the less clearly farcical of his two autobiographies, The Game Show King—as an on-camera “mid-life crisis,” his satirical, unpolished appearance made him a beacon for the counter-culture, the functional opposite of the slick, traditional veneer that comes to mind when the phrase “game show host” is heard.
Inevitably, The Gong Show’s penchant for the risque eventually killed its run in the world of mid-afternoon TV. (Jaye P. Morgan’s infamous topless moment didn’t help, but it was the act people now remember as “the Popsicle sisters” that pretty much sealed its doom.) A few years later, another of Barris’ shows—a twist on The Newlywed Game that added married men’s secretaries into the question-answering mix—provoked so much outrage that it pretty much ended his run as a TV producer entirely. He would occasionally launch a new project—and reboots of The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game continue to show up on TV with studied regularity—but he spent much of the rest of his life writing in France. His books include both Game Show King, and his “unofficial autobiography,” Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, in which he claimed that his TV producing work was cover for his real job as an international assassin for the CIA. (The CIA has loudly denied that Barris ever worked for them, but, then again, they would.) George Clooney adapted Confessions as his directorial debut in 2002, with Sam Rockwell in the lead role.
More than maybe any TV producer of his generation (or any that came before it), Chuck Barris recognized the importance of raw, uncontrollable humanity as one of television’s most powerful appeals. His shows championed real emotion—attraction, anger, laughter, and, yes, humiliation—in order to find surprises that no screenwriter could match. And he did it all with a subversive, “fuck the squares” glimmer in his eye, one that reassured everyone who tuned into his “zany” wavelength that they were in on the next big joke.