Appreciation: For TV host, life was one big game

  • Mar. 22, 2017 12:30 a.m.

Chuck Barris, who died Tuesday at the age of 87, was an American wildflower genius, a creator and producer of game shows, including “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game,” and eventually the host of one, “The Gong Show.”

He was also a one-hit songwriter — Freddy Cannon took his “Palisades Park” nearly to the top of the charts in 1962 — and a cameo player in the actual movie of his life, George Clooney’s 2002 “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” based on his 1984 “unauthorized autobiography.” In that book, Barris claimed to have worked as an assassin for the CIA, even as he was producing “The Dating Game.”

Barris’ later refusal to confirm or deny whether that account was fantasy — “I wrote the book,” he told the Los Angeles Times in a 2002 interview, “and that’s how I felt when I wrote it” — was somehow in keeping with the contradictions that characterized many of his shows. Appearing in an era of rapid social change, Barris’ shows could somehow seem at once of their time, ahead of their time and behind the times.

Launched at the end of 1965, “The Dating Game” — with its Tijuana Brass soundtrack and its semi-psychedelic stage design, its organized flirtatiousness and vague promise of sex — felt at once old-fashioned and freshly free.

Although superficially couched in the verities of love and marriage, “The Newlywed Game,” which debuted the following year, was the harbinger of an age of confessional openness, in which people would go on television to talk, and sometimes fight, about anything. In these series, Barris planted the seeds of reality television — what is “The Bachelor,” after all, but a blown-out version of “The Dating Game”?

“The Gong Show,” an upside-down talent contest and trash-can vaudeville show, was a not entirely ironic parade of ineptitude and cheek, in which mediocrity was not always distinguishable from cleverness. (It was named, appropriately, for the very thing that signified losing.)

Its anarchic impudence also felt timely. The series debuted on NBC in 1976, not long after the arrival of “Saturday Night Live.” A little-known Andy Kaufman, who guested on the premiere of “SNL,” lip-syncing to the “Mighty Mouse” theme, might as easily have appeared on “The Gong Show.”

As host of “The Gong Show,” a kind of anti-talent show that mixed celebration and humiliation, Barris was everything that television hosts were not. A world away from the theater- and radio-trained, Teflon-coated emcees of other game shows, including some he produced himself, he was the appropriately amateur host of a (mostly) amateur hour.

Goofy and informal, puckish and boyish — though already in his mid-40s — Barris was a disco-era Jewish hipster, vaguely countercultural, a little uncomfortable. He was that daffy teacher you loved in high school.

There were less successful series too, including “The $1.98 Beauty Show” (1978-80), a “Gong”-like show that was either a critique of beauty pageants or an opportunity for body-shaming, but in either way not an actual contest. And then there was the old-on-arrival “Three’s a Crowd” (1979-80), in which wives and secretaries vied to see who knew their shared male better. A few shows in different genres filled out his TV resume.

But by 1980, after the Barris-directed “The Gong Show Movie” — which he co-wrote with underground filmmaker Robert Downey Sr. — went nowhere, his era was effectively over. He lived in France for many years. He wrote books, including a sequel to “Dangerous Minds” titled “Bad Grass Never Dies” (2004). “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game” and “The Gong Show” returned and left and returned again, but with different hosts, under different corporate colors.

Barris could downplay his achievements. “I’ve created hit TV shows,” he told The Times in 2002, “but nothing has been great. … It’s just middle-of-the-road greatness.”

But if a game show might be said to achieve the quality of a classic — and also a kind of classicism — he has three to his name, each in its own way looking toward the past and pointing toward the future, each revealing how absurd and entertaining it is to be human among humans.

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