Chuck Barris: Where No Man Has Gonged Before

03/22/2017 01:07 pm ET Updated Mar 22, 2017
NBC

Chuck Barris, best known as the spirited host of TV’s "The Gong Show" and the brainchild behind "The Dating Game" and "The Newlywed Game," died Tuesday at the age of 87.

Barris passed away from natural causes in his home in Palisades, New York, and no doubt he’ll be among the top hits in the next 24-hour news cycle. I haven’t seen the headline, “Gonged, But Not Forgotten” yet, but somewhere on the web it’s bound to pop up. Let’s face it: “The Gong Show” became a guilty pleasure when it ran from 1976 to 1980. Critically panned, it boasted lighthearted spunk with Barris at the helm as amateur performers tried to appease three celebrity judges—they just loved to halt those abysmal performances with a bold strike of a big gong.

But Barris was an curious creative bird. I had the opportunity to connect with him during press interviews for the 2002 film “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” directed by George Clooney. The big-screen outing was based on Barris’s 1980 memoirs of the same name, in which he wrote: "My name is Charles Hirsch Barris. I have written pop songs, I have been a television producer. I am responsible for polluting the airwaves with mind-numbing puerile entertainment. In addition, I have murdered thirty-three human beings.”

So, was Chuck Barris really a CIA operative, as the memoir suggests, or was it just confessions of a frivolous mind?

The CIA has repeatedly denied the memoir’s claims.

Barris’s backstory still fascinates me, however. Two decades after the beleaguered TV host thrust himself into a New York City hotel room to begin penning what would be “Confessions,” the fickle industry that once shunned him was welcoming him back with open arms upon “Confessions ...” release.

Shunned?

It went down like this: Barris was so bludgeoned by the press when his shows aired—the days between our love of that Farrah Flip—that it ultimately led to an emotional breakdown. He’d gone from paving the way for first-run syndication on television, a hotshot producer who spawned more half-hour television shows at the time, to being looked upon as yesterday’s entertainment leftovers.

Even his memoirs were dismissed—until Clooney caught wind of them. Suddenly, the concept—game show host by day, assassin by night—smacked of something cinematic.

“I believe it’s Chuck’s story,” Clooney mused at the time. “I believe it was important for him to tell it and fun for us because the story is so wild. There is something fascinating about someone of his wealth and fame who would want to say this about himself. Whether it’s true or not, it’s in Chuck’s head.”

But Barris’s mind was always burgeoning with ideas. At one time, his rock song, “Palisades Park” became a gold record, and his other book “You and Me, Babe,” hit the “New York Times” bestseller list. And, let’s be honest: There always something deliciously addictive in hearing “The Newlywed Game” host Chuck Woolery mutter the phrase “make whoppi” after network censors forbade the use of “making love” in the 1970s.

Imagine such a thing happening today.

In between finalizing his next novel, “Bad Grass Never Dies: More Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”, Barris and I connected. Here’s a snippet of our conversation from more than a decade ago.

Greg Archer: George Clooney has said that when he once asked you about the specifics of your story—being a CIA operative. And he said you looked him straight in the eye and said nothing. But he walked away believing this was indeed your story, your double life?

Chuck Barris: It’s something I’ll never confirm or deny. The wonderful part of being George, is that he can say those things [about my life] and [now] I can’t. Basically it’s for a reason that I can’t and it’s not always an acceptable reason. I really feel that it’s not really important whether I did or not participate in the CIA.

It was important that the book is a good read and that the film is a good film. I would say that it [the CIA events] are plausible. I would imagine that 90 percent of those who read the book or see the movie would not believe it. The CIA has been checked out by many people and they always say, “It’s absurd; Barris was never an assassin and would never be.” One CIA person said, “Barris must be standing right by his gong.” I went on David Letterman the other night and David even said, “I refuse to believe that Chuck could harm anybody.” But then he saw the movie and said, “I must say, I walked out of the movie a bit perplexed.”

Of course, not confirming or denying that you were part of the CIA is all part of the allure, isn’t it? Doesn’t it just make us want to see Confessions of a Dangerous Mind even more?

Of course.

And the impetus for writing the book?

It was a really bad time in my life. I’d been in television for 15 years. I remember when I created The Dating Game in 1965, the critics were all over it. “The Chicago Tribune” ran a headline on the main page of their entertainment section that read: “Daytime hits an all-time low.” I couldn’t understand what was so lowly and so awful and “puerile” about “The Dating Game.” And it never stopped, and all through the shows I created, and all the way through “The Gong Show,” I was always looked upon as the shlock-meister.

And then, around 1980, it all got to me. I was really in a bad way. I was hurt and angry and all my shows were canceled and I made a movie that came and went. I checked into the Windham Hotel in New York and I went about getting that anger out of myself. So it all crystallized on paper and you see it as a cathartic way to get rid of that stuff. Two and a half years later, I walked out with “Confessions of Dangerous Mind.”

The premise of the book was that there was this guy getting crucified for entertaining the public while on the other hand, he was getting medals for killing people for the CIA.

When the book came out, it came and went. Critics said, “What do you expect from the guy who created ‘The Dating Game?’ And as far as I was concerned, the book was history, but I looked at it later and I thought it was good. There were moments of humor. Well, then it was dead and buried and gone. All of a sudden, George Clooney found a script written by Charlie Kaufmann and now it’s a movie with people I could never imagine doing it—Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts, and Sam Rockwell playing me—it’s mind-boggling how this came to be.

Now with all that has unfolded, looking back over the last 20 years of your life, what’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned about yourself?

Let me tell you something, I just finished a sequel to “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” —it takes place from where it left off and goes up 20 years, to now. And I was trying to figure out the epilogue.

You see, my life has always been a roller coaster; it’s always been full of ups and downs and a lot of that had to do with the fact that I couldn’t do one thing for too long. I was always into something new. But when I was trying to think of a truth, a questioning truth, or a wisdom I’ve learned, I just don’t know—I don’t know what I learned from this. Everything sounds corny—“don’t give up” or “forgot about your regrets.” None of that seems true. I think there are times when you have to have regrets and times when you can’t hang onto them. I still have to come up with that epilogue …

So … what’s been the trick—the secret, that magic that keeps it all going for you?

The best thing I believe—and again it’s trying to figure out the epilogue—it’s to hang in there. All survivors … they hung in there when all of it seemed lost. It has to be intertwined with having some good luck too. I mean you can hang in there until the cows come home and not have an ounce of luck—so that’s important.

If there is a part of your life you could gong, what would it be?

There was one time in my life when I thought there were tons of things I’d like to “gong,” and now, looking back on it, and at my age now, I think it all had a purpose and a reason. I really wouldn’t gong anything now. If I had this life to live over again—all of it—it would be just fine.

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