Chuck Barris' Gong Show Paved Way for Reality TV Competitions | Phoenix New Times

Thanks, Chuck Barris. You Almost Assassinated Television

The Gong Show paved the way for today's reality competition TVscape.
Chuck Barris died earlier this week.
Chuck Barris died earlier this week. By NBC Television Network. (eBay item photo front photo back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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This has been a bad week for the initials C.B.

First Chuck Berry, and then Chuck Barris shed this mortal coil. If I were Charles Barkley or Chris Berman, I would be nervous as hell. And Mr. Death, please stay the hell away from Carol Burnett. That one will not be easy and, hopefully, it won't come for a long time.

As the host of The Gong Show, which he also created, Barris cemented an acceptance of outlandish reality television in the American — no — the global psyche that is alive and well to this day. More than any other television program in the history of the medium, The Gong Show paved the way for the present-day surplus of mind-numbing, pseudo-reality programming that floods the airwaves.

Without it, would there be such things as America's Got Talent, American Idol, or The Voice?

While those shows celebrate what are often truly talented people, The Gong Show was the theater of the absurd, even by the odd standards of the mid-1970s, when television, like the rest of the culture, was still coming down from the psychedelic late '60s. It was a weird time in history, to say the least, and The Gong Show was nothing short of ridiculous. Barris cleverly orchestrated the weirdness, sometimes one cracked act at a time, and if you were more than 5 years old in 1976 when it debuted, you probably have at least one memory of The Gong Show.

Barris, though, was more than just the ringleader of the show that set a precedent for seemingly regular people behaving badly on television on a regular basis. He was a true innovator, with the perfect combination of risk-taker and shrewd businessman. And the guy could take and deliver a sarcastic punch. He also created The Newlywed Game, The Dating Game, and The $1.98 Beauty Contest, among many other titles during his TV days before eventually selling his piece of Barris Industries Inc. and moving to semi-permanently to France.

In 1984, Barris published Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind (St. Martins Press), which many saw as an autobiography. Only Barris knows how much of it was actually true. Within the 240 pages, Barris claimed to have worked for the CIA as an assassin during the '60s and '70s. Actor George Clooney was so taken by the story that he worked for years to get it made into a film that eventually starred the talented actor Sam Rockwell as Barris. Confessions was the second of Barris' seven published novels, although none of the others got nearly as much attention as his most famous literary work.

Barris was married three times and had one child, Della, who preceded him in death from a drug overdose in 1998. Barris' final book, Della: A Memoir Of My Daughter, told the story of her struggle with addiction and his own shortcomings as a father.

“I think I contributed a great deal to her unhappiness,” Barris told the Bowling Green Daily News in 2010. “I made huge mistakes, I mean big mistakes, in raising my daughter.”

It's harder to say what Barris saw as his legacy in the television world. Would he have taken credit for firing one of the first shots across the bow in terms of talent competitions with a warped version of reality? Even though The Gong Show was truly a parody, it set the stage for the "anything goes" type of activity that now punctuates so much of "reality" television.

Without a doubt, Barris must've loved seeing the parade of lunacy brought on after his game show heyday.

If there had been no Chuck Barris, there may have never been a Jerry Springer or a Kim Kardashian or a Real Housewife from Anywhere, and perhaps nobody would know who Simon Cowell or Ryan Seacrest is. In fact, at least one of those people should send a nice bouquet of flowers to Palisades, New York, where Barris took his last breath on Tuesday. While he probably didn't set out to destroy television, Barris definitely left an indelible mark on the boob tube and helped to change the way we view our opportunity for 15 seconds, minutes, or hours of fame.

At least until the gong sounds.
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