Barris loaded ’60s and ’70s television with game shows, and later made waves when in an autobiography he claimed to be an assassin for the CIA, which the agency flatly denied. This book was adapted into a feature film “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.”
Barris began his career as a songwriter — his biggest hit was “Palisades Park” for Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon in 1962 — but he truly burst into show business in 1965 with the debut of his brainchild “The Dating Game,” an updated, televised version of a World War II radio show titled “Blind Date,” The Washington Post reported in 1965.
Hosted by Jim Lange, the show’s premise was simple. A divider separated a three men from a woman. Without being able to see the eligible bachelors, she would ask each a few questions. At the end of the show, she chose her date based solely on their answers. Sometimes a man asked three women questions.
It ran for 11 of the next 15 years, during which young celebrities such as Farrah Fawcett, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Jackson and Suzanne Somers appeared as contestants.
One of the show’s primary draws was the sexual innuendo that often cropped up in the dialogue. The phrase “make whoopie” was commonplace.
In one exchange, for example, Schwarzenegger mentioned he was new to the United States and didn’t understand some phrases, specifically “hanky-panky.” A blushing female contestant asked he if understood “playing around.”
“Playing around with what?” Schwarzenegger knowingly responded with a smile, to which the blushing woman said, “My goodness. We might have to take a little time with you.”
The show’s impact can still be felt in dating shows like “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette.”
Fueled by its success, Barris created several more of the genre we now call reality shows, most ending in the word “Game.” Among them were “The Newlywed Game,” “The Parent Game,” “The Family Game” and “The Game Game.”
“Everything was dealing with people, and no right and wrong answers, and no scripts,” Barris told the A.V. Club.
The shows performed well, but critics often derided Barris, giving him nicknames like “The King of Schlock,” “The Baron of Bad Taste” and “The Ayatollah of Trasherola.”
That didn’t slow his output. At one point his televised concoctions accounted for 27 hours of network time each week, according to the Associated Press. Which is ironic, considering Barris told the A.V. Club, “I don’t particularly like game shows.”
From 1976 to 1980, he became not just a household name but a recognizable face as the host of his magnum opus of lowbrow entertainment, “The Gong Show.”
It was ostensibly a talent show, but Barris was careful to often invite guests who lacked any discernible talents. When a guest proved inept, Barris would strike an enormous gong. Meanwhile, he and a panel of judges — which often included David Letterman, Jamie Farr, Jaye P. Morgan and Phyllis Diller — lobbed insults at them.
It, too, pushed boundaries. One act, which called itself “Have You Got a Nickel,” simply featured two young girls sitting cross-legged on the studio floor and suggestively slurping on ice pops.
Both the show and Barris’s hosting style were manic to the point that some accused him of substance abuse.
“I was never on drugs, but everybody thought I was,” Barris said in an interview with the Archive of American Television. “When they saw ‘The Gong Show,’ and I would come out, they all thought I was whacked out of my mind. But I never did drugs. I had a public company.”
Barris’s most outlandish moment, though, came in 1982 when he wrote an autobiography announcing he had served as a contract CIA assassin during his time working in television.
By that year, his shows had all begun to wind down. “The Gong Show Movie,” which he directed and starred in, only stayed in theaters for one week, the Associated Press reported.
“Critics had harassed me for 15 years saying that I’d lowered the bar of civilization,” Barris told the A.V. Club. “I couldn’t deal with this anger, and I had to get it out of my system. So I found a hotel that had monthly rates. I thought I’d take about a month before I went back to California, and I would write it out.”
He emerged with “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind: An Unauthorized Biography,” which was made into a 2002 film directed by George Clooney and written by Charlie Kaufman. In it, he claimed his trips to foreign destinations, supposedly to scout locations to send his game show victors, were merely a cover for him to assassinate CIA targets.
A CIA spokesman flatly denied the claim.
“It sounds like he has been standing too close to the gong all those years,” said then-CIA spokesman Tom Crispell. “Chuck Barris has never been employed by the CIA and the allegation that he was a hired assassin is absurd.”
Though asked many times over the years if it was true, Barris told the Los Angeles Times, “I’ll never answer that question.”
Time’s Joel Stein, who seemed to believe the book to be fiction, wrote:
[Barris] wrote the book partly because he’s a huckster: he faked a resume for NBC, peddled game shows even though he didn’t like them, and God knows what he has told his three wives. But he also fabricated his life because it might have been the best way of getting at the truth. The truth was that back when he was the Jerry Springer of his day, he couldn’t stomach being attacked for doing something he considered harmless.
Many point to Barris’s television output as a precursor today’s reality landscape with shows like “America’s Got Talent” and “American Idol.”
“I think anything would have been possible without my shows,” Barris told A.V. Club. “I think ‘The Dating Game’ and ‘The Newlywed Game’ began the momentum for what eventually became ‘Fear Factor,’ ‘The Jerry Springer Show,’ ‘Joe Millionaire,’ and so on.”
Added Barris, “But if I wasn’t there, somebody else would have been.”
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