Friday, 16 November 2012

Chuck Barris - Truth, Stranger than Fiction and Fiction, Stranger than Truth


The name Chuck Barris may not mean much to people in Britain and who he actually is, but for nearly a decade in American television, he was the man who could do no wrong at all. Presenter, creator, executive, songwriter, these are some of things that Barris has been throughout his career. He has also claimed to be a hitman for the CIA as well, his story maybe seemingly as varied as one person can have, though is it true?

His self-described “unauthorised autobiography” 'Confessions of a Dangerous Mind' charted his career inside and outside the media and beyond that, first published in 1984 first put out the claim that he had worked for the CIA as a hitman during the Cold War. Though the CIA refuted claims that Barris had ever worked for them, but this adds to the myth of a man whose life seems to perpetrate its own story. His book was turned into a film in 2002 with George Clooney directing and Sam Rockwell playing the part of Barris. Though he did realise a sequel in 2004 called 'Bad Grass Never Dies', charting more of his 'true' life both with the CIA and also within the entertainment industry. But away from that he wrote a memoir of his only child, his daughter Della in 2010 and her personal struggle with drug addiction.

Though the people who know or have known Barris describe him as a shy man, with a darker side to him, but the criticism of his shows by the press, critics and the moral majority may have added to this, in his own words “I wanted to get out of the kitchen because of the heat when all this criticism happened, but in truth I should have stayed.” It seemed that he wanted to push the boundaries of what television could do and to almost play on what was happening in society as such for entertainment. Maybe the finger on the pulse, not so much reality television, but to bring everyday reality to entertaiinment.

Barris himself, born Charles 'Chuck' Hirsch Barris on June the 3rd 1929 in Philadelphia, USA. Attending Drexel University as a student and becoming a columnist on the university's own newspaper showed an aptitude for working in the media and also being able to spin a good yarn as well. Though his start in television came when he became a page and a staffer later on in his at NBC in New York. He worked his way up until he got a job at ABC as a standards and practices person on American Bandstand, who filmed the show in Philadelphia. His uncle Harry Barris was a singer/songwriter and sometimes actor, so it is quite possible that this may have influenced him to go into the music industry.

With surrounding himself with people already with in the music industry, it was only matter of time that he was to start to produce pop music both on records and more importantly on television. It was through these links that Barris wrote the song 'Palisades Park' for Freddy Cannon even though he could not read music himself. The success of the record shot it upto to number three in the American Billboard charts and becoming Cannon's biggest hit in Cannon's career. Though the royalties for the single were to prove important to Chuck, as they could be spent on a room at the Bel-Air hotel in New York, allowing him to stay there whilst pitching a programme to the ABC network. It seemed almost natural to Barris, that this would be the way to do it, by making money from something else to be able to do another thing which could lead on something or as he tells the tale.

The truth is pretty as unspectacular. Barris had been promoted throughout the network, moving to Los Angeles to the daytime programming, specifically being put in charge of what gameshows ABC would broadcast during the day. But when Chuck suggested to his bosses that most of the pitches for new possible shows were worse then his own ideas, the suggestion came up he changed from being a programme planner to a producer instead. So he did and came up with a new format and pitched to the executives 'The Dating Game' for their daytime schedules, but everything was different about what had gone on with gameshows before. The 'flower-power' set itself and the sexy banter between contestants, set the programme out from anything else on other networks let alone ABC, though it was a sign that Barris had observed what was going on around him with the flower-power revolution and wanting to get that into a show that was like nothing else. Such was the popularity of the show during the daytime that a prime-time version was produced an year on year the programme returned for seventeen years. If it was not for 'The Dating Game' though that Australia would not have made their version of it in 'Perfect Match' which would give LWT the idea to produce a British version taking the best bits from The Dating Game and Perfect Match to form Blind Date.

Riding on this success, Chuck was asked to took an idea of young newly-weds answering for electrical goods they might need for their new martial homes and started producing 'The Newlywed Game'. Though he only cajoled the couples along with their candour and allowed Bob Eubanks to pull as much detail out of the contestants as was possible without crossing the line. The combination worked once again leading to the programme having a nineteen year run on network television.

A Very Christmassy Newlywed Game...

Though Barris also produced several other gameshow formats for ABC based on the interest of the contestants, such as their humour, excitement, anger, embarrassment or vulnerability. Almost capturing the right mood for the show, by pulling out of the contestants what they thought wasn't possible, their inner feelings whilst being swept along by the action. But gameshows may have been what he was most famous for, he also tried producing other formats in light entertainment such as 'Operation Entertainment' which was a modern version of the old USO shows staged at military bases and The Bobby Vinton Show for the Canadian based singer Bobby Vinton, which outside gameshows became his most popular show.


But the one show he will be remember for is 'The Gong Show', a different type of variety/talent show thought its beginnings were a lot different to what the show would eventually become. The format developed by Chuck was a strange one, Barris himself had pitched it to the NBC executives as a parody show, where they saw it as a straight talent show and thought of it as such giving it to John Barbour, an actor/comedian who had previously played a part of a game show host in Sanford and Son. Barbour was given the pilot to present, but he could not get the concept that the show was trying to be a parody of this type of show. So eventually, when the network heads decided they liked the show and the one only one to understand it was Chuck Barris, they gave him the opportunity to present it and over time he developed his style playing on his personality of being almost shy to being on the screen. A couple of attributes to this was wearing oversized hats so that he was a bit hidden by them, the nervous clapping inbetween sentences and also being bumbling and jokey. With the parody angle, this always was meant to be like that, the antithesis of much more smoother and slicker hosts on other shows.

The atmosphere was meant to be eccentric, right down the interaction between himself and the judges, with a irreverent style between them both joking and playing off each other for laughs, introducing characters in to the show to give a more variety feel with them coming on at various times to do their acts such as 'Gene Gene The Dancing Machine' actually an NBC stagehand who would turn up when 'Jumpin at the Woodside' was ever played and start to dance, the unknown comic would tell really bad jokes and sometimes as Barris' expense. Opportunity Knocks, this was not.

His strange, surreal side would often come out wanting to see how far he could push the show before the executives had enough of him and the show as well. On one show in particular show, he got all the acts to sing 'Feelings' not matter if singing was their main talent or not. Another one featured two young women suggestively and slowly sucking ice pops to all intensive purposes looked like they were performing fellatio to them, though Chuck suggested that it was only in the viewers minds that they saw it like that. Though when judge Jaye P. Morgan exposed her breasts on camera just as a performer was doing in her act, NBC fired her from their version of the show but she was kept on the syndicated version though as Chuck though that it wasn't such a major thing really.

Come 1980 with the success of the show, Barris was give the chance to star in a movie version of the show with all the characters interlinked by a storyline which itself was a very common type of movie in the late 1970's and early 80's. But the film itself flopped at the box office, all the popular elements of the show were in there, the audiences didn't get it quite as much as the TV show as the 'zaniness' as Chuck put it wasn't not so much in evidence.


The height of 80's elegance...

Though with new shows being added to the rosta, such as the $1.98 Beauty Show where it was a parody of beauty contests where the judges deliberated over three rounds on personality, abilities and the final round being a swimwear contest with the eventual winner receiving $1.98, rotten vegetables as a bouquet and a cheap plastic crown as well. The whole idea came from Barris noticing that the least attractive contestant always won beauty contests with the whole contest being a 'fake' and already decided before filming, but was covered by the opening announcement to say it was fake and also with a note in the end credits to say the same staving off any controversy right from the start. But the end of the run came to pass with 'Three's A Crowd', a game show which involved husbands, wives and their secretaries to see who knew most about each other, from protests groups from both end of the spectrum declared that the show was promoting adultery, a much bigger blow was to come when the syndicated version of The Newlywed Game lost two of its biggest sponsors in Ford and Proctor and Gamble. Even worse was when the wife of Gene Autry, the owner of the studios and production base felt the content of the production was too much and too racy, so they had misgivings about keeping the show and production at the base. Though the syndication of the programme ended before that threat could ever come to pass.

By 1984, Barris was living in France and had set up his own distribution company though he could come back to produce a new version of The Newlywed Game between 1985 and 1989 for syndication and he sold his shares in Barris Industries to Burt Sugarman in 1987, eventually leading to being sold again in 1989 to Sony Pictures Distribution owning all of Barris' formats. With this new version of both The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game were revived between 1996 and 1999 being syndicated as well, though during the 90's new pilots for new shows were tried out such as Comedy Courthouse and Dollar A Second and revivals of the Gong Show.

So its certain that some of these things happened, others not so. But the mystery of the person still lingers on, perhaps he was ahead of his time with the programmes he created and produced. In a time of reality television with it having gone to a more open and creative angle now, maybe his ideas could fit in or perhaps they were of a world of their own. Though what ever was happening on Planet Barris, the truth maybe stranger then fiction but its fiction is a good as the truth..

1 comment: