Game show impresario Chuck Barris died two days ago at age 87. He leaves behind a legacy of pop-culture residue: a one-hit-wonder song named “Palisades Park,” a book and movie wherein he claimed he worked undercover for the C.I.A., and several no-bad-taste-holds-barred game shows such as “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game.”
I always thought all of his game shows were trashy, especially “The Newlywed Game,” in the way that it brought out the worst in its husband-wife contestant teams just so they could compete to win a washer-dryer.
But Barris eventually sucked me into his whirlpool of wacko when he created a little gem titled “The Gong Show.”
I first saw this tacky time-capsule entry when I was 15 years old, at which point any kind of comedy that seemed “honest” really spoke to me. “All in the Family” turned family sitcoms on their ears with the sounds of family members arguing and toilets flushing. “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” presented clueless adults doing outrageous things as though it was just another day at the office. And “The Gong Show” was the anti-talent show.
Barris said he had first intended the show as a tribute to genuine amateur talent. But when the terrible audition acts outweighed the good ones, Barris flipped the format and went full-tilt-bozo for the trash. Unhappy with his show’s original host, who didn’t get the joke, Barris himself turned TV-show hosting into Amateur Hour by doing it himself.
Initially, the show was fairly tight. A voluptous Swedish actress named Sivi Aberg introduced Barris at the top of each show. One by one, a parade of acts (mostly bad) appeared on stage. Three celebrity contestants observed the acts, and after 90 seconds, if at least one celeb decided the act was no good, it got gonged.
Little by little over its two-year broadcast span, the show unraveled. Barris amused himself by bringing on a little stock company of crazies, including “The Unknown Comic” (“Sonny & Cher” regular Murray Langston with a bag over his head) and an eccentrically dancing NBC stagehand who was dubbed “Gene, Gene, The Dancing Machine.”
Once the show became wildly popular and began commenting on itself, it started losing its way. Sivi Aberg was eventually replaced by busty porn star Carol Connors in a bikini. Barris himself admitted he was nearing a nervous breakdown, which is why he eventually pulled the plug on the show.
But even as it capsized, the show always remained fun, with did-I-just-see-that acts appearing on network television to “normal” viewers’ surprise.
Everyone’s favorite bad memory of the show is “The Popsicle Twins,” two teenage girls who sat on stage eating Popsicles. While one girl ate her treat quite normally, the other one gave her Popsicle quite the merry time.
I still remember other outre acts, including:
- “The Embryo Twins,” two guys who came onstage covered by a large, yellow plastic bag and proceeded to sing Paul Anka’s “You’re Having My Baby.”
- “Dr. Flamo,” who arranged a series of small-to-large lit candles like piano keys and then held a bare hand over them so that he could shriek out the notes of the song “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”
- And most memorably, “Miss Dolly,” an extremely plus-sized, barely covered woman who did a hoochy-coochy act that mainly showed off her extreme case of cellulite. This caused a speechless Jamie Farr to bang the gong with his chair.
I never felt the least bit guilty about laughing at these acts, even when these unknowing people humiliated themselves at their own expense. Why should I? They wanted to get famous somehow, and for at least 90 seconds, an ultra-cheap TV show gave them their wish.
(In that way, at least, Barris was ahead of his time. The executive producer of any TV reality show should be tipping a battered hat to Barris’ work from three decades previous.)
Barris’ party persona hid a very unhappy personal life. He was married three times and divorced twice. Della, his daughter from his first marriage (who occasionally did the intro bit for “The Gong Show”), eventually died of a drug overdose. And in 1980, Barris co-wrote, directed, and starred in The Gong Show Movie, which died within a week of its theatrical release and has only recently made it to DVD.
But I think you have to give the guy credit. Even in outspoken 1976, other than the Norman Lear string of hit sitcoms, there was rarely a TV show that let it all hang out at any time, much less at 10:00 in the morning.