Chuck Barris Didn't Invent Schlock Television, He Weaponized It
Chuck Barris, the game show producer, emcee, author and songwriter who died Tuesday at his home in Palisades, N.J., at age 87, was in his time called "The King of Shlock," "The Baron of Bad Taste" and "The Ayatollah of Trasherola."
(... In fairness: It was the '70s.)
Barris was a product of television. One of his first jobs was traveling the country trying to talk local stations into leasing the then-innovative technology TelePrompTers. Trying, and failing — though he was the first to admit he never tried particularly hard. In a 2003 interview he told The A.V. Club:
I would come to the station and dump the equipment there, and you know the engineers: They didn't have a whole lot to do, so they got a kick out of looking at this crap. Then they would look at it, and I'd take off.
Like if I went to Louisville, I'd go the Louisville station and give them the TelePrompTer equipment and say, "You're the first station in Louisville that I'm going to, so you have a leg up here. I'm not going to give you a sales pitch, it speaks for itself." Then I'd take off.
I'd go around Louisville, checking out the horses, the big stables, and the countryside, and so on and so forth. I was fired a year later because I hadn't sold a single TelePrompTer.
He then got a job as an NBC page at Rockefeller Center, and parlayed that into a gig backstage at ABC's American Bandstand — where his duties included shadowing Dick Clark to reassure the network that Clark was not taking part in a payola scheme (he wasn't). During this time, he began writing and producing music, most notably "Pallisades Park," which became a hit for Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon in 1962 — peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard charts.
ABC placed Barris in charge of its daytime schedule, because television was growing more competitive: NBC and CBS were beginning to program game shows, which were famously cheap to produce, earlier and earlier in the afternoon. Barris felt confident he could come up with better ideas than those he was being pitched, and formed his own production company in 1965.
He built his career on game shows, because, as he said in that same A.V. Club interview, "a) they were inexpensive, and b) if they hit, they hit big, and if they didn't hit, they could be replaced immediately."
The Dating Game premiered in ABC's daytime lineup in December 1965. On the show, young, attractive contestants quizzed three prospective — but unseen — dates for the right to take them out to dinner. It was a simple concept, and the contestant pool was stocked with toned, tanned, Southern-California wannabe actors, and the set was gloriously cheesy: a stucco wall splashed with a bright flower-power design scheme — think Rubbermaid daisies — separated the contestant from Bachelors Nos. 1, 2, and 3.
The Dating Game was followed by The Newlywed Game, logically enough, on which newly married couples would guess how their spouses would answer a series of lightly risque questions. The show was responsible for hauling the phrase "making whoopie" — first popularized by a 1928 Broadway tune — out of the Great American Songbook and into television history.
(Barris would go on to produce subsequent shows that continued to trace the arc of an American marriage, at least as it was popularly portrayed at the time: Three's a Crowd was built around the question, "Who knows a man better: his wife, or his secretary?"; How's Your Mother-in-Law? doubled down on its howlingly schticky titular premise; and The Family Game assembled adorable tots and beleaguered parents and applied Barris' "Who knows whom better?" formula to the mix. None of the three took off.)
The 'Gong Show'
Both The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game proved hugely successful for Barris. Not coincidentally, both came in for light criticism for lewdness, and a general lowest-common-demoninator approach to mass entertainment.
And then came The Gong Show.
Barris was fond of telling interviewers that The Gong Show was originally conceived as a sincere, straight-ahead showcase of amateur talent. (Note: Here's a good place to point out that Barris also wrote a book claiming to be a CIA assassin.) According to Barris, it was only after he noticed that most of the acts auditioning for him were hilariously terrible, that he revised the show's concept.
This was a turning point. Barris could easily have continued to enjoy a long and successful career as a producer, behind the scenes of the television industry. But when he replaced original host John Barbour as the show's emcee, he became the public face of a kind of television loathed by critics, if not the public.
Part of it was the show itself, of course: It was cheap (deliberately so), it was crass (exultantly so), and it traded on a specific species of casual mean-spiritedness that felt like bad taste — and that left one in the viewer's mouth.
But there was also Barris's style, or lack of it. For a former TelePrompTer salesman, he was famously uncomfortable in front of the camera, and it showed. He attempted to overcorrect by creating a goofy, grinning, amped-up persona partial to silly hats (that he could tilt over his eyes and thus avoid looking into the camera). Where you or I would fill pauses with an "um" or an "uh," he'd forcefully punctuate the end of most phrases with a resounding clap of his hands. It became a signature tic — audiences grew to anticipate this move, and frequently joined in.
The Gong Show's premise: D-list celebrities sit in judgment of a series of amateur acts, who are given a few seconds to sing (or dance, or play the spoons, or spin plates) until they are summarily dismissed by the striking of a huge gong. Barris comes over to "comfort" them, ("I don't why they did that, I liked your act. But then again, I like rancid milk."), he quizzes the celebrities as to their motivations, at which time they deliver a canned insult.
Repeat, until the half-hour is up, at which time any act which was not gonged receives a modest check ($516.32, originally).
The twist: Barris stacked the deck. Producers always included a ringer — a recognizably talented act — among the gongers. This implicated the viewing audience. Instead of empathizing with the sing-their-guts-out strivers, we found our sympathies nestled firmly with the conventionally "good" acts.
We wondered to ourselves why the guts-but-no-talent acts would even go on the show in the first place, to submit themselves to such humiliation. We told ourselves they must be too deluded or egotistical to understand the limits of their talents. We reassured ourselves it was thus OK to laugh at them.
Had he not struck upon that formula, television today would look much different than it does.
Barris would go back to that well with The $1.98 Beauty Show, which was to beauty pageants what The Gong Show was to talent shows: something intended as a light spoof which only served to intensify — to weaponize — the ugliest aspects about the very thing they were ostensibly making fun of.
The joke, on The $1.98 Beauty Show, was that women whose appearance did not conform to the calcified beauty standards of 1970s popular culture (read: Southern California bikini-ready blondes) would dare to put themselves out there, alongside wannabe actress/spokesmodels, to be judged by the Jamie Farrs and Jaye P. Morgans of the world.
The twist: On The $1.98 Beauty Show, the ringers always lost, because the winners were pre-selected. The blonde models would be passed over, and the prize would instead go to a contestant of a certain age, and/or a certain size. The audience would, dependably, jeer.
Put that in context: Other popular game shows at the time, like Match Game and The Hollywood Squares, exuded a wholly different sensibility. There was a low-wattage glamour to them, because of the relationship between their celebrities and their contestants.
On those shows, their various C-list celebrities seemed like a pantheon of boozy, convivial Greek gods, eagerly inviting contestants to join them on their orange-shag-carpeted Olympus. It's just a party, they seemed to say. Come in.
The relationship between celebrities and contestants on Barris's shows, despite his oft-cited fondness for "regular people," was instead one of exclusion. Figures who have achieved a modest level of fame exist as gatekeepers, using ridicule and crowd mentality to keep wannabes from entering. How dare you, they seem to say. Stay out.
Plenty of shows before and since The Gong Show have been dubbed schlock; a slightly smaller number have even deserved it. For every serious-minded cultural touchstone like Playhouse 90 or I, Claudius in television history, there are 10 or 12 My Mother the Cars and The Bachelorettes.
Television needs both, and always has. Over his career, Barris dutifully supplied the medium with the kind of schlock that would get ratings — and that would encourage audiences to feel superior to the people onscreen.
That legacy endures. It's not pretty, or high-minded, or even, strictly speaking, decent. But we go to television, at different times, for different reasons. Sometimes it's to be uplifted by art, or to be informed by experts, or to bask in the light and warmth of human achievement.
Other times, after a bad day, we might just need to say: Geez, look at this guy.
That ability to generate, and to run on, our collective disdain, or at least disbelief, later went on to fuel a spate of television talk shows like Jerry Springer, of course. But the feeling that animated The Gong Show — "Can you believe this? That someone put this on TV?" — will always be part of the fuel mixture of television.
When hosting The Gong Show, Barris would often cut away to commercial the same way:
"We'll be right back [CLAP] after the break [CLAP] with moooorrre STUFF."
That's all he ever called it. Stuff.