Chuck Barris, the quirky host of the controversial and absurd Seventies series The Gong Show and creator of hit game shows like The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, died Tuesday. He was 87.
Barris died of natural causes at his home in Palisades, New York, his longtime publicist told The Associated Press.
Dubbed the “King of Schlock,” Barris’ long career in show business began behind the scenes, first on programs like American Bandstand and then as a songwriter thanks to Freddy Cannon’s “Palisades Park.” The song peaked at Number Three in 1962 and was covered by artists like the Beach Boys and Bruce Springsteen.
After moving to Los Angeles in the Sixties and a stint with ABC, Barris formed his own production company – Chuck Barris Productions – that served as the brainchild for The Dating Game, where a “bachelorette” would question three unseen suitors before choosing which one gets to take her out on a date.
Barris, who served as producer, would soon follow that with The Newlywed Game, where newly married couples were probed about how well they knew each other and “makin’ whoopee.”
But Barris’ main achievement was as host and creator of The Gong Show, an unpredictable, anti-talent show that tested the limits of good taste with absurd humor and often controversial acts as well as mainstay “talent” like the Unknown Comic and Gene Gene the Dancing Machine. Guests who were deemed unfit for television were “gonged” off the show by Barris. Winners would receive $516.32, supposedly the minimum amount allowed by the Screen Actor’s Guild.
“When I started out, I was trying to find good talent but all I found was bad talent … so I said let’s do a show with bad talent,” Barris told NPR in 2009. “I always thought the people who did my shows, the contestants, were having the time of their lives.”
The Gong Show did unearth some genuine talent, including Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman), sound effect maestro Michael Winslow of the Police Academy series and composer Danny Elfman, who appeared alongside his then-band the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo.
However, the strangest chapter in Barris’ life might not have happened at all: In his autobiography Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Barris claimed that – while he was still hosting The Gong Show – he led a double life as a CIA assassin, alleging that he made dozens of kills for the government agency. Although Barris’ confession was never confirmed – the CIA flatly denied his involvement on numerous occasions – the tome served as inspiration for the 2002 film Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, starring George Clooney.
“It sounds like he has been standing too close to the gong all those years,” CIA spokesman Tom Crispell once said. “Chuck Barris has never been employed by the CIA and the allegation that he was a hired assassin is absurd.”
As Barris’ game show empire ruled daytime television, he made a crucial misstep with Three’s a Crowd, a Newlywed Game-like program that created awkward situations between a man, his wife and his secretary. (The premise: “Who knows a man better, his wife or his secretary?”)
The controversy surrounding the show – multiple couples would engage in cringe-worthy real fights over the sexually suggestive questions – forced it off the air within five months of its debut; three more of Barris’ shows, including The Gong Show, would soon be canceled in 1980, with Barris later blaming Three’s a Crowd for the viewer revolt against his programming. By the Eighties, Barris retreated from television production and hosting, even as his properties – including Three’s a Crowd – experienced revivals in the cable era.
“I went nuts up there on the stage to a point where it was pitiful. I. Was. So. Obnoxious,” Barris told Entertainment Weekly in 2003. “If I died, I wouldn’t be surprised if an obituary says, ‘Gonged. He’s Gonged. He’s finally Gonged.’ But that’s not me. It’s not me.”