If you buy the premise that the ’70s was the Golden Age of inappropriate behaviour, the guy on the poster would be Chuck Barris.
Barris, who died Tuesday at 87 (days after another famous Chuck named Berry), created the long-running TV game shows The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game in the ’60s. He hit the lowbrow bulls-eye in the ’70s, however, with The Gong Show.
I was in high school the year it started and you could not look away. Barris, not his own first choice to emcee, was fascinatingly bad as the host. Un-rehearsed and looking like he dressed in the dark, his eyes were often hidden behind a series of hats as if even he was embarrassed to be identified. He had this nervous tick where he’d clap his hands and soon the entire studio audience would clap right along with him. That was probably the moment Barris realized this thing he’d created was beyond his control, and that he was now helplessly part of the joke.
When things got silly, however, no one on TV was ever happier. He seemed to take such genuine glee when things went sideways. If he was going to humiliate America, already humiliated with perms and platform shoes, he would happily humiliate himself. Barris conducted a daily, electronic, group therapy session where, if getting gonged was all you had to worry about, let’s dance.
The idea behind the game show was simple: three judges rated a series of amateur performers. Most acts were terrible, providing a blueprint for early rounds on American Idol and other talent shows to come. Bad acts were gonged. One act would win five hundred or so bucks at the end and no one would care.
The three panelists were mainly a collection of show biz veterans who saw their Q score soar as part of the Gong Show rotation. Jamie Farr, Arte Johnson, Rip Torn, Phyllis Diller, Louie Nye and even Rex Reed all got in on the gonging. The most notorious turned out to be Jaye P. Morgan, a singer and TV personality of note in the ’50s who unfurled her freak flag daily on Gong. Although the nudity never aired, Morgan famously flashed her breasts during one of Gene Gene the Dancing Machine’s hopelessly irresistible show stoppers — insuring that her 15 minutes would extend into the YouTube era.
Barris ran into plenty of flack from standards and practices as it was, especially during the show’s 500-episode run at NBC. The host/producer would purposely submit a vulgar act into the potential show mix just to have the censors throw it out. One, later known as “The Popcycle Twins,” snuck through and got on the air. The act: two teenage girls sat on the stage performing fellatio on popcycles. The studio audience went crazy and the duo did not get gonged. Phyllis Diller looked aghast. The NBC switchboard lit up and Barris was blasted.
The whole vulgar, vaudeville scene eventually flamed out but, for viewers at home, the party was fun while it lasted. The Gong Show, like CHCH’s Party Game and Match Game, seemed like an adult party with plenty of refreshments that veered out of control, and lack of control was rare and tantalizing, especially to teens, on network TV in the ’70s.
Mention the Unknown Comic (former Sonny & Cher regular Murray Langston) or Milton DeLugg (NBC’s house bandleader who truly made the series swing) and couch potatoes get a little teary-eyed and give each other the secret ’70s handshake.
Barris led a fascinating and sometimes sad life. He wrote pop hits in the early ’60s and later penned several novels. His daughter, who used to occasionally appear on The Gong Show in a tux and introduce her “daddy,” died several years later of a drug overdose. Barris wrote a book about his loss and his own pain and remorse over mistakes he felt he had made as a parent.
Sometimes, when life gets too real, you have to make stuff up. George Clooney made a great movie based on Barris’ 1984 book, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.” That’s the one where Barris suggested he was a paid assassin for the CIA while he was producing game shows for US TV networks. This made him not only the inventor of reality television, but the father of fake news.
Barris figured “Gonged at last,” would be his epitaph. There are worse ways to exit. Cue the Gene Gene the Dancing Machine music.