Come On Home, Chuck Barris
“I came up with a new game show idea recently,” says Chuck Barris, as deftly played by Sam Rockwell, in George Clooney’s “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.” “It’s called The Old Game. You got three old guys with loaded guns onstage. They look back at their lives, see who they were, what they accomplished, how close they came to realizing their dreams. The winner is the one who doesn’t blow his brains out. He wins a refrigerator.”
Whether or not the real Chuck Barris actually said that (there are elements of the famed game show producer’s life that, ah, border on the wackadoo) is a moot point. Someone’s probably pitched it already, had Kenmore all fired up and rarin’ to go, only to be turned back at the gates by the FCC. Damn this freakin’ nanny state.
Not that we need one more. “American Idol,” “The Bachelor,” “The Biggest Loser,” “The Apprentice,” “America’s Next Top Model” — I could rattle off discomfiting “game shows” from now until John Davidson comes home. I know it’s no longer fashionable to lament reality programming, but I have to wonder how many people, exactly, are watching and loving tenderly all this awful crap… and of that number, how many dissed poor Chuck Barris the first time he tried to bring quality junk to the masses.
Hundreds of clips from Barris’ touchstone programs – the holy trinity of “The Dating Game,” “The Newlywed Game” and “The Gong Show” – are available on YouTube, and while I’ve yet to finish an episode of “American Idol” without playing fast and loose with my gag reflex, I have watched hours upon hours of “Gong Show” highlights with no ill effects. The first thing that struck me about them — aside from the bad haircuts and powder-blue suits — is how good-natured they are in comparison to the shows they spawned. When a contestant crashed and burned on one of Barris’ programs, they usually took it pretty well; it was enough for them that they were on TV, if only for a moment. And there’s no follow-up interview in which the performer is encouraged to expound on how it all went wrong.
That’s the part I can’t figure about today’s reality-based game shows — the instant post-mortem. When a contestant is knocked out of one of these programs he or she is immediately interviewed, coddled, and encouraged to reflect upon the fleeting nature of celebrity. (Or they move over to another reality/game show. See: “I Love New York” or “I Married a Brady” — or better still, don’t.) This is precisely the kind of nonsense Barris discouraged. He knew the longer you kept those saps hanging around the studio, feeding on their own hype, the more likely they were to sue.
There are a number of names associated with Barris (and Barris’ own rumpled, drunken hosting of “The Gong Show” is legendary), but at no point did any of these shows build an actual star, or someone who felt like they deserved to be one. There were no Simon Cowells in Barris’ universe, thankfully. Bob Eubanks did commercials; Gene Gene The Dancing Machine appeared on “The Gong Show” just often enough for the gag to remain fresh; Jaye P. Morgan did … something.
But none of these personalities ever eclipsed the real star of Barris’ shows, which was us. Chuck Barris knew and knew well the secret that eludes the producers of every reality show on the air today: we need to laugh at ourselves. We need to see our worst traits writ large in order to feel better about ourselves.
“The Bachelor” doesn’t get inside my head the way someone singing “We’ve Only Just Begun” in a cracked, wheezing voice can — and when that singer’s three minutes are up, he respects my most heartfelt wishes by disappearing forever. I’ve already gotten what I need from him. I don’t need to know what he thinks of his competitors, his country or his mother. He knew what he was playing for, and if he requires sympathy from the audience, maybe he should have just contented himself with the refrigerator he’s already got.
Come on back, Chuck. Come back and wipe this entire slate of also-rans and crybabies clear off the tube. Quality appliances and hard knocks are what built this country, and man alive, do we ever need them now.
A version of this piece originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.