Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Chuck Barris, The Legend, The Myth, and a Few Versions of the Truth According to Chuck

When the news came that the iconic entertainment jack-of-all-trades Chuck Barris had died on Tuesday, March 21, the first thing I thought of was not “The Gong Show,” but instead the Freddie Cannon hit, “Palisades Park.” It’s less well known that the Prince of Silly TV (my name for him) actually wrote the 1962 hit. It was “just one of those things” that showed Barris had real talent, even if he constantly played a buffoon as the host of “The Gong Show” for several seasons.

Palisades Park, the amusement park is famous outside its home state, mostly due to WABC DJ, Bruce Morrow’s “Star Spectaculars,” featuring entertainers like Frankie Avalon, Tony Orlando, The Sentimentals, and of course Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon performing there in 1960s weekends. Morrow is better known as “Cousin Brucie,” as he still plays his role today on SiriusXM 60s on 6, and hosts live broadcasts from time to time at Palisades Park in New Jersey. Back in the day, admission there was only $.30; time has changed that!

Chuck Barris Productions began as a series of launching (at the time) slightly racy game shows in 1965, the first being “The Dating Game” featuring favorite host, Jim Lange.” Everyone remembers the horn-heavy popular tv theme:

And then Lange would introduce the three bachelors or bachelorettes hidden away from the contestant, whose job was to quiz them to select a potential date. Many popular celebrities of the day appeared as contestants but they weren’t under any obligation to actually keep the dates that were made. A Barris special caveat, no doubt.

That show was so popular that Barris then launched “The Newlywed Show,” with the ever-smiling host Bob Eubanks.

Newly married couples were quizzed on how well they knew each other, and when they didn’t get the answers right….that’s when the fun began.

Ultimately, though, it would be “The Gong Show” that brought Chuck to the forefront of audiences’ attention. He was constantly laughing on camera; he’d laugh at his own jokes, and the show was essentially a farce created by Canadian producer Chris Bearde, who was also known as the co-producer of “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour” with Allen Blye. The only reason to mention that is that “The Unknown Comic” of “The Gong Show” was Murray Langston, who was also a popular regular on “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour.” Every time he came on, Murray put a brown paper bag over his head, came out to do a few bad jokes, and he never missed the chance to insult Chuck. To Chuck's delight, Murray reprised the role many times over the life of the show.

On “The Gong Show,” America also fell in love with people who would have otherwise been considered “forgotten talents,” including Jaye P. Morgan, Jamie Farr, Arte Johnson, and Rip Taylor among those who could judge the talent (limited as the contestants typically were) and put the audience out of their collective misery by hitting the gong. People loved the parody aspect, they loved to watch Chuck (or “Chucky Baby” as he was nicknamed) crack up at his own creations week after week. They loved Gene Patton, aka "Gene, Gene the Dancing Machine," as he took every opportunity to dance whenever he heard "his" theme song, "Jumpin' at the Woodside." And, he had everyone dancing with him, including Chuck. In real life, Patton was a stagehand at NBC, but when he danced, everyone thought that dancing was his full-time job.

Here are some snippets of their 400th episode, where Chuck said, “And they said it wouldn’t last!” It did.

In rewatching “The Gong Show,” all the favorite things he’d say came back, “We’ll be right back after a lot of 'stuff'” and various other signature catch phrases. But the more I watched him laugh, crinkle his eyes, and throw his head back and smile, it seems almost exactly like Matt Czuchry used to as he portrayed Logan Huntzberger on “Gilmore Girls.” That could be Gilmore overload talking, though.

Chuck Barris lied to get his first job at NBC, a page, if memory serves correctly. He schmoozed his way through a lot of his career, ultimately working as an assistant to Dick Clark, but he was crazy like a fox as he managed to rise in an industry that surely would never have welcomed him in the first place. Truth was not always a necessity in Chuck’s world…in his biography he claimed he’d once worked for the CIA, as an assassin, per his biography “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” and the Biography channel collective. The CIA disavows all knowledge of that being correct of course, and then again, accuracy is in the eye of the beholder.

“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” both Barris’ autobiography and the 2002 movie based on the book may or may not contain the truth, but it was always “Barris’ version of the truth” that audiences saw and enjoyed on TV. That, and probably George Clooney’s directing the movie starring Sam Rockwell (as Barris), Drew Barrymore, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Cera (as a young Chuck Barris), and even Jaye P. Morgan and Dick Clark played themselves.

Here’s an interview from 2007 where he answered a few questions about the shows he created:

Chuck created an image far larger than life, and yet his personal life contained sufficient tragedy. Ultimately, he wrote a book, “Della: A Memoir of My Daughter,” in remembrance of the daughter he lost far too soon, a victim ultimately of drugs and alcohol, fueled by a trust fund she received from Chuck when she turned 16. She defiantly had decided to move out, but Chuck agreed and then provided her means to live on. Ultimately, it ended tragically.

Chuck was actually a prolific writer, given his 1974 book "You and Me, Babe," "1984's "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," "Bad Grass Never Dies" (2003), "The Big Question" (2007, "Who Killed Art Deco" (2009), and "Della, A Memoir of My Daughter" (2010).

Music gave him a start, television fueled his success, and writing gave him an outlet for his overly creative expression. And who knows, maybe he was a CIA assassin. Or not. It doesn't matter.

Looking back over the body of work Chuck created in his career, we have much to be grateful for and much to laugh about.

Thanks for the hours of entertainment, Chucky Baby, and most of all, thanks for “Palisades Park.”

1 comment:

  1. A great, insightful piece. Chuck was a treasure. God rest his soul.