Chuck Barris, Wacky Host and Creator of ‘The Gong Show,’ Dies at 87
He also produced ‘The Dating Game’ and ‘The Newlywed Game,’ shadowed Dick Clark for a year and wrote ‘Confessions of a Dangerous Mind’ and the pop song “Palisades Park.”
Chuck Barris, the goofball host of The Gong Show who also was the manic mastermind behind two other spontaneous game-show classics, The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, has died. He was 87.
Barris, who in his book, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind: An Unauthorized Biography, claimed to have been an assassin for the CIA — his implausible story became a fantastical 2002 movie directed by first-timer George Clooney and written by Charlie Kaufman — died Tuesday of natural causes at his home in Palisades, N.Y., his family announced through publicist Paul Shefrin.
The Philadelphia native also penned the 1962 pop song “Palisades Park,” a tribute to the old amusement park in New Jersey that was a hit for Freddy Cannon and figured high on Barris’ list of career achievements.
With his innovative shows, Barris changed the face of reality TV but was derided but critics who nicknamed him “The King of Schlock,” “The Baron of Bad Taste” and “The Ayatollah of Trasherola.”
On The Gong Show, which aired on NBC and in syndication in daytime and primetime from 1976-80, amateurs took to the stage to demonstrate their so-called talent in front of three celebrity judges. Quite often, they made fools of themselves.
Barris’ original idea had been to create a show that featured fine performers, but in his search for talent, he frequently encountered awful acts. “I came back and said, ‘Let’s change the show, have all bad acts and one or two good ones, and people can make a judgment,’ ” he said in a 2010 interview with The Archive of American Television.
When original host John Barbour didn’t work out after about a year, NBC execs insisted that the cuddly, curly-haired Barris come on as his replacement, so he donned a tuxedo and a floppy hat and introduced the acts.
Any of the three judges (a roster that included Jaye P. Morgan, Rex Reed, Rip Taylor, Jamie Farr, Arte Johnson and David Letterman) could send the bad performers packing by striking a large gong.
“Everybody could relate to somebody wearing a lampshade and dancing around,” Barris said. “Bad acts are inherent in everyone.”
Acts who appeared included The Unknown Comic (Murray Langston), Danny Elfman, Paul Reubens and Barris’ own mother, and at random moments, the host would call out Gene Gene the Dancing Machine (stagehand Gene Patton) to boogie for the audience to the tune of “Jumpin’ at the Woodside.”
On one particularly crazy show, Morgan unbuttoned her blouse to reveal her breasts to the cameras, and Barris said she never worked on The Gong Show again.
“The end of the show came because of me,” he said in the TV Archive chat. “I had a small nervous breakdown out there, doing strange things. When I see films of the last shows, I was walking around, busting up [studio] flats on the air. That was the behavior of a host who was bored to death.”
In October, ABC ordered a new version of The Gong Show to be executive produced by Will Arnett.
Barris first made his mark in the game show arena when he created The Dating Game, which bowed as an ABC daytime program in December 1965. Hosted by San Francisco radio personality Jim Lange, the program featured a bachelor or bachelorette asking three members of the opposite sex suggestive questions, then choosing one for a date.
ABC’s The Newlywed Game, produced by Barris and hosted by the cheeky Bob Eubanks, premiered in July 1966. Four couples who had been married for a year or less competed by matching answers to questions about their spouses’ likes and dislikes. Just like The Dating Game, it was a huge hit and played in primetime as well (both shows aired in tandem on Saturday nights for a time).
Barris often came off as a nut case, but he was an astute businessman. As a pioneer of first-run syndication, he sold The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game to stations after ABC canceled his shows, keeping them on the air.
He formed the public company Chuck Barris Productions in 1968 and sold his shares in the firm to producer Burt Sugarman in a 1986 deal that valued the company at about $86 million ($195 million today). The firm was eventually acquired by producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters and then by Sony.
Charles Hirsch Barris was born on June 3, 1929. The son of a dentist and a housewife, he graduated from Lower Merion High School and Drexel University, then landed a job in the foundry at U.S. Steel.
After working various odd jobs, including traveling around the country selling teleprompters, Barris moved to New York and became an NBC page. He went through a management training program and took a sales job, but then the network fired everyone in the department.
He then was hired by ABC, which offered him the dubious assignment of tailing Dick Clark, the young and popular host of TV’s American Bandstand, at Philadelphia station WFIL-TV. Barris’ task was to ascertain whether Clark was involved in the illegal practice of payola.
“It was so ridiculous. If I left at 6 o’clock, what’s to say he couldn’t be doing anything nefarious after 6 o’clock?” Barris said.
Still, he wrote daily memos detailing the goings-on at American Bandstand for about a year, and his notes were presented before a House of Representatives subcommittee in Washington. Ultimately, Clark was absolved of any wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, “Palisades Park” had reached No. 3 in June 1962 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. (Barris would also write the theme music for many of his game shows.)
As a result of his work shadowing Clark, ABC sent Barris to Los Angeles as its director of daytime television on the West Coast. When no one would return his phone calls, he set up shop in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. His innate sense of Hollywood tribal behavior worked: Now people were getting back to him.
His first show was Poker People, a failed pilot in which two celebrity panelists attempt to guess the professions of 16 guests just by their appearance. “It was a disaster,” he recalled. “I had brought prostitutes and policewoman on the show, and the policewomen wouldn’t work with the prostitutes.”
Shortly after attending a civil rights rally in Selma, Ala., Barris left ABC to become an independent producer. Living on his royalties from “Palisades Park,” Barris developed The Dating Game and sold the show to his former employers.
“When The Dating Game came out, women had to wait for a man to call,” Lange told the Los Angeles Times in a 2002 interview. “Having them make the choices [on the show] appealed to the female population, the target demographic.”
Future sportscaster Al Michaels was a member of his staff; Burt Reynolds, Michael Jackson and John Ritter were among the contestants; and it was Barris’ idea to have Lange and the contestants blow kisses to the cameras at the end of each show.
The Newlywed Game “was the easiest show to do,” he said in the TV Archive interview. “It only needed four couples, four questions and a washer/dryer.”
In the show’s most precious moment, Eubanks asked one wife,”Where specifically is the weirdest place that you personally have ever gotten the urge to make whoopee?”
“In the ass?” she answered. Her husband then turned over a card that revealed his response: “In the car.”
In 1980, Barris directed, co-wrote (with Robert Downey Sr.) and appeared in Universal’s The Gong Show Movie. An R-rated look at the game show, it was pulled from theaters after one weekend, he said.
Barris also presided over other game shows like The Game Game, How’s Your Mother-in-Law?, Dream Girl of ’67, The $1.98 Beauty Show, 3’s a Crowd — with the premise “Who knows a husband better, his wife or his secretary?” — The Family Game and The New Treasure Hunt.
In 1968, he produced Operation: Entertainment, a variety show that had a different host (George Carlin, Dick Cavett, Dick Shawn, et al) appearing at a different military base each week.
Barris read Erich Segal’s Love Story and figured he could write an even better romance novel. So he went to France and penned You and Me, Babe, based on his relationship with his first wife; and it was published in 1974 and became a best-seller.
After “the critics had harassed me for 15 years saying that I’d lowered the bar of civilization,” he said in a 2003 interview with A.V. Club, an angry Barris holed up in a New York hotel for two years and wrote Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.
The book was a dud upon its release but sold well when the film version, starring Sam Rockwell as Barris, was released.
Asked in the TV Archive interview if he really was an assassin, Barris replied: “I don’t answer that question, ever. I can just tell you that the No. 2 guy in the CIA said that I must have been standing too close to the gong when I said things like that.”
A sequel, Bad Grass Never Dies, came out in 2004.
His daughter, 36, died from an overdose of drugs and alcohol in 1998, and Barris wrote the moving Della: A Memoir of My Daughter, published in 2010.
He is survived by his wife of 16 years, the former Mary Clagett. In lieu of flowers, it is suggested that donations be made in his name to the New York Police Foundation.