Chuck Barris has been accused of practically everything but lighting the fuse at Mount St. Helens. All he's done is make a lot of money by not overestimating the intelligence of the American people.
Barris created and produced smirky, risque shows like "The Dating Game," "The Newlywed Game" and "The $1.98 Beauty Show" -- programs very few people will admit to watching but mysteriously get big fat ratings just the same.
And now he is star, co-writer and director of "The Gong Show Movie" (reviewed on F2), with which his merry, manic "Gong Show" makes the unusual trip from the TV screen to the motion picture screen. It opens at 900 U.S. theaters today.
You'd think Barrtis lowered the standards of television -- which would be impossible. He is regulary characterized as the Shylock of Schlock, the Prince of Pap, the Hun of Fun. TV Guide denounces him in editorials and Johnny Carson makes nasty cracks about ridding the world of him in his monologues.
"I can always take the easy way out and feel it's mostly envy or jealousy," says Barris of the criticism. "Somebody said you can't make a million bucks and still have a lot of friends. It hurts temporarily because, you know, it hurts your feelings. You feel like you've been trying to entertain people and you get this strange rap back from holier-than-thou types like 'As We See It' in TV Guide.
"I was on a radio talk show in Chicago and some guy called in and accused me of bringing out the worst in people. It's such an easy statement to make. And I said, 'The worst what? What's your definition of the worst? I mean, is the worst a person wearing a lampshade on her head and telling a joke, or is the worst-in-people somebody cutting a man's tongue out in Miami?"
We'll have to think about that one Chuck.
In person, the short, wiry Barris hardly appears to deserve his reputation as the Sultan of Slop or the Maestro of Mortification. Looking younger than the 50 he is, Barris brings to mind, of all things, a scaled-down, Hobbitty version of David Susskind. He speaks softly and carries a big pipe, a Sherlock Holmeser that gives him a moderately contemplative air.
The man who has referred to his own TV ouput as "rubbish" strongly suggests he wouldn't dream of watching the programs he produces. He just defends the right of other people to watch them. Now, however, they are all in limbo, since Barris stunned the TV industry by suspending production on all his syndicated game shows earlier this year.
He'll wait awhile, he says, then perhaps plunge back in when there are "better deals to be made" in a less glutted market. In the meantime, there will be motion picture properties to develop, income from the reruns of the suspended shows, and, Barris says, he may want to "aquire another company or two."
He puts the assest of Chuck Barris Productions at an ain't-hay $25 million. Not bad for a failure as a Tele-Prompter salesman and son of a Philadelphia dentist, Chuck Barris has his fingers on the pulse of the people. Or maybe a little lower.
The most endearing and defendable of all his projects, "The Gong Show Movie." Barris co-wrote, directed and stars in the film, which culls some of the best -- meaning worst -- acts from "The Gong Show," an amateur hour in reverse in which the most cherishable acts were the most dreadful ones.
Barris, who'd made pickup rituals public with "The Dating Game" and turned marital tiffs into spectator sport for "The Newlywed Game," took grandpa and his musical saw out of the parlor and put him on television for "The Gong Show," where the fattest of women would shake their booties and the terminally tone-deaf could sing their little hearts out.
The program appeals to the frustrated performer who lurks within most of us and to the modern-day primal urge of wanting to be On Television. The first person to alert me to "The Gong Show" was a fumigator -- probably just a coincidence. Actually, the program -- still syndicated in reruns -- is an almost infallibly amusing free-for-all and a basically warmhearted celebration of human variety.
Of course, some people think it is cruel.
Barris recently hosted the film's premiere at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood, with 4,000 old "Gong Show" acts in attendance, and he says, "Those people don't feel it's cruel. They don't go out there to humiliate themselves. I know these people, and I'm not benefiting from their embarrassment, because they're having a ball.
"The angriest they get is when we don't tell them when their show's going to appear. If we fail to send them a postcard or call them up and say, 'Your show's on Thursday, Oct. 6' and it goes by, they're furious! If that's our biggest problem, then I don't really believe that we're in any way humiliating them.
"That premiere was something to see. It was Fellini-esque, whatever that means. There was a great warmth there. It was like the last and only reunion of a passing thing that was never going to come back. Everbody said, 'Where are we going to go now? Who's going to take care of us? Where are we going to be seen?
"I love those people. They were never the lunatic fringe to me."
Barris got tired of hosting the show -- what he calls his "inept bumbling" as an emcee contributed significantly to the program's bizarre charm -- and says the end was near when "We bled Southern California to death" in the pursuit of kooks and zanies.
Asked if there is a reel of outtakes, or unaired fluffs, from "The Gong Show," Barris says none exists because the actual program "was really not far away" from whatever outtakes might have been collected. On "The Gong Show," the outtakes were the intakes.
The brainstorm that truly earned "Chuckie Baby" (as The Unknown Comic, a gagster with a paper bag over his head, calls him) the title of Chuck Embarrass did a Comet Kohoutek earlier this season. It was called "Three's a Crowd" and it brought into the video arena a man, his wife and his secretary, and then encouraged the women into cat-fights with sexy questions about who knew the man better.
Barris says the only thing he regrets about the program is that it went bust-o.
"I put on 'Three's a Crowd' because I thought it was going to be a tremendously successful television program, successful in the sense that it would entertain the people and make me a lot of money," he says. "I thought the show was a blockbuster."
But feminists were apolectic. To them it gave bad taste a bad name. Yet Barris says it wasn't the outcry that killed the program. It was the fact that nobody watched it despite the outcry.
"It bombed because in every other show we've done, no matter what the outcome was, the contestants, or the acts or whatever, enjoyed themselves," Barris says. "Whatever they were doing, they were having fun, and it was coming out of the box in 'Three's a Crowd" it was the first time the participants did not have fun. They were uncomfortable. The only one who wasn't uncomfortable was the secretary; she had nothing to lose.
"And this discomfort came right out and everybody felt it at home. And I still believe," Chuck Barris says -- with the finality of a position paper -- "that nobody finds entertainment in watching somebody truly being truly being , uncomfortable, or humilited, or embarrassed. And I think they just turned that set off. I mean, we got abysmal ratings. I was shocked. I was surprised. It was one of the great surprises of my being in business.
"And the women's groups took credit for the demis of the show, and it's totally untrue. If the show had gotten 22 ratings and 30-some shares, it would still be on, and people would still be yelling. They yelled at 'The $1.98 Beauty Show,' and 'The $1.98 Beauty Show' is a success."
Did the feminists hurt the show at all? "Naw! That always helps! You get that kind of publicity, it must create interest in what they're yelling about.People will tune it in. I take some protests seriously, if they accomplish something, but I think people protesting about 'Who knows you better, your wife or your secretary,' are just phffft."
Barris talks now as if he is no longer in the market for game show ideas (worst one he ever got: "Eat Your Answers" -- "it was a cooking show and if you didn't get the question right, you are what you cooked") and somewhat anxious to rise above his reputation as the Ayatollah of Trasherola. He fancies himself something of a Renaissance man, having published one novel ("You and Me, Babe") and at work on another.
As evidence of his seriousness, he claims to be way above the kind of programs he produces for the rest of us. He doesn't like to watch TV. "Hardly any commercial television, other than sporting events," he says. "But I love public television. Oh, I'm a sucker for those English soap operas -- 'My Son, My Son,' and 'Mystery Theater.' I just love it. I get in bed, get cozy, and it's just like old radio to me."
The sanctimoniousness with which some people regularly attack Barris makes one all the more anxious to defend him. All Chuckie Baby has done is to provide some side-show attractions for the midway of television. And who knows, in 10 to 20 years things may have deteriorated to the extent that we'll look back on his programs as, if not exactly TV's good old days, at least among the less bad ones.