Chuck Barris, whose game show empire included “The Dating Game,” ”The Newlywed Game” and the infamous, “The Gong Show,” has died. He was 87.
Barris died of natural causes Tuesday afternoon at his home in Palisades, New York, according to publicist Paul Shefrin, who announced the death on behalf of Barris’ family.
Barris was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Edith (Cohen) and Nathaniel Barris, a dentist. His uncle was singer, songwriter, and actor Harry Barris. He attended Drexel Institute of Technology where he was a columnist for the student newspaper, The Triangle. He graduated in 1953.
Barris got his start in television as a page and later staffer at NBC in New York City, and eventually worked backstage at the television music show American Bandstand (then filmed in Philadelphia), originally as a standards-and-practices person for ABC. Barris soon became a music industry figure. He produced pop music on records and television, but his most successful venture was writing “Palisades Park”. Recorded by Freddy Cannon, it peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks (June 23–30, 1962), the biggest hit of Cannon’s career.
Barris also wrote or co-wrote some of the music that appeared on his game shows. Barris was promoted to the daytime programming division at ABC in Los Angeles and was put in charge of deciding which game shows ABC would air. Barris told his bosses that the producer/packagers’ pitches of game show concepts were worse than Barris’ own ideas. They suggested that he quit his ABC programming job and become a producer.
Barris formed his production company Chuck Barris Productions on June 14, 1965.
Barris became successful during 1965 with his first game show creation, The Dating Game, on ABC. On this show, which was hosted by Jim Lange, three bachelors or bachelorettes competed for the favor of a contestant of the opposite sex blocked from their view. The contestants’ sexy banter and its “flower power”-motif studio set were a revolution for the game show genre. The show would air for eleven of the next fifteen years and be revived twice in the 1980s and 1990s.
The next year Barris began The Newlywed Game, originally created by Nick Nicholson and E. Roger Muir, also for ABC. The combination of the newlywed couples’ humorous candor and host Bob Eubanks’s sly questioning made the show another hit for Barris. The show is the longest lasting of any developed by his company, running for a total of 19 full years on “first run” TV, network and syndicated. Game Show Network airs a current version with Sherri Shepherd.
Interviewed on the NPR program Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! on August 1, 2009, Barris said that the Newlywed Game was the easiest program he had developed: “All I needed was four couples, eight questions, and a washer-dryer.”
Barris created several other short-lived game shows for ABC in the 1960s and for syndication in the 1970s, all of which revolved around a common theme: the game play normally derived its interest (and often, humor) from the excitement, vulnerability, embarrassment, or anger of the contestants or participants in the game. Barris also made several attempts through the years at non-game formats, such as ABC’s Operation: Entertainment, a variety show staged at military bases akin to USO shows; a CBS revival of Your Hit Parade; and The Bobby Vinton Show, a Canadian-based syndicated variety show for singer Bobby Vinton (produced in conjunction with Chris Bearde and Allan Blye). The last was his most successful program other than a game show.
The Gong Show
The somewhat shy Barris rarely appeared on camera, though he once dashed onto the set of The New Treasure Hunt to throw a pie at emcee Geoff Edwards. However, Barris became a public figure in 1976 when he produced and served as the host of the talent contest spoof The Gong Show, which he packaged in partnership with television producer Chris Bearde. The show’s cult status far outstripped the two years it spent on NBC (1976–78) and the four years it ran in syndication (1976–80). As with some of Barris’ other projects (including The Newlywed Game), it was at one point possible to see The Gong Show twice daily, a relatively uncommon feat in the years prior to cable TV’s expansion into the commercial market.
The planned host of the NBC show was John Barbour, who did not understand the show’s concept and considered it a straight talent show as opposed to Barris’ parody concept. Barris scrapped Barbour at the last minute; in order to save the show, Barris followed the advice of an NBC executive that he should host his show.
Barris’ jokey, bumbling personality; his accentuated hand-clapping between sentences (which eventually had the studio audience joining in with him); and his catchphrases (he would usually go into commercial break with, “We’ll be right back with more er … STUFF …”, occasionally paired with shifting his head to reveal the ubiquitous sign behind the stage reading simply “STUFF”, and “This is me saying ‘bye'” was one of his favorite closing lines) were the antithesis of the smooth TV host (such as Gary Owens, who hosted the syndicated version in its first season).
Barris joined in with the eccentricity of the format, using unusual props, dressing in colorful and somewhat unusual clothing (such as the occasional hat pulled over his head, if not his eyes), he became yet another performer of the show, and for many, quite a cult hero. Dubbed “Chuckie Baby” by his fans, Barris was a perfect fit with the show’s goofy, sometimes wild amateur performers and its panel of three judges (including regulars Jamie Farr, Jaye P. Morgan, Rex Reed and Arte Johnson). In addition, there was a growing “cast of characters”, including an NBC stage carpenter who played “Father Ed,” a priest who would get flustered when his cue cards were deliberately turned upside-down; Canadian comedian Murray Langston, who as “The Unknown Comic” wore a paper bag over his head (with cut-outs for his eyes, mouth, and even a box of Kleenex), and “Gene Gene the Dancing Machine” (Gene Patton), arguably the most popular member of the “cast”, the show’s prop man, who would show up and dance whenever the band played the song “Jumpin’ at the Woodside”.
In the early 1980s, Patton was even pointed out by tour guides of incoming NBC tours as his onscreen character, while at the same time adhering to his more typical off-camera work duties.
One Gong Show episode consisted of every act appearing singing the song “Feelings”, which was popular at the time. One of its most infamous incidents came on the NBC version in 1978, when Barris presented an onstage act consisting of two young women slowly and suggestively sucking Popsicles.
Another incident, which most missed originally, was when during a “Gene Gene, The Dancing Machine” episode, Jaye P. Morgan slowly undressed, and in a brief sub second shot, opened her blouse to reveal her bare chest.
In 1980, he starred in and directed The Gong Show Movie. The film flip flopped at the box office. Its storyline and approach, though including a number of Gong Show segments, was a bit less “zany” (another favorite Barris phrase) than some audiences may have expected.
The Gong Show has had three subsequent revivals, one under Barris’ title (with Don Bleu) in 1988–89, one on The Game Show Network in 2000 called Extreme Gong and another with current format owner Sony Pictures Television (with Dave Attell) in 2008.
Comebacks and setbacks
Barris continued strongly until the mid-1970s, when ABC cancelled the Dating and Newlywed games. This left Barris with only one show, his weekly syndicated effort The New Treasure Hunt. But the success of The Gong Show in 1976 encouraged him to revive the Dating and Newlywed games, as well as adding the $1.98 Beauty Show to his syndication empire. He also hosted a short lived primetime variety hour for NBC from February to April 1978, called The Chuck Barris Rah-Rah Show, essentially a noncompetitive knock-off of Gong.
The empire crumbled again amid the burnout of another of his creations, the 1979–80 Three’s a Crowd (in which three sets of wives and secretaries competed to see who knew more about their husbands/bosses). This show provoked protests from enraged feminist and socially conservative groups (two otherwise diametrically opposed viewpoints), who charged that the show deliberately exploited adultery, to advocate it as a social norm.
Most stations dropped this show months before the season was over as a response to those criticisms. At the same time, Newlywed lost the sponsorships of Ford and Procter & Gamble and earned the resentment of Jackie Autry, whose husband and business partner Gene Autry owned the show’s Los Angeles outlet and production base, KTLA, because of its supposedly highly prurient content. So strong were the feelings of the Autrys that Newlywed came close to being expelled from the KTLA facilities, but the show was discontinued by the syndicator before any action occurred.
Gong Show and Dating Game also ended otherwise successful syndicated runs in 1980 because of the Three’s a Crowd and Newlywed controversies, likely because stations were fearful of community and advertiser retribution on account of Barris’ reputation.
During the winter of 1980, Barris attempted to rebuild by bringing back another game show that was not an original of his, Camouflage, in which contestants answered questions for the chance to locate a “hidden object” (such as a toaster) concealed within a cartoon-type drawing. Although a noncontroversial format, it lasted only a short time in syndication.
By September 1980, for the first time in his company’s history, Barris had no shows in production.
After a year’s inactivity, Barris revived Treasure Hunt again in 1981 in partnership with the original 1950s version’s producer, Budd Granoff, who had become his business partner (the show itself was created by its original host, Jan Murray).
Unlike with the 1970s version of Treasure Hunt, Barris did not have direct involvement with the production of the show itself. This revival, a five-day-a-week strip, lasted only one year.
Barris, by this time living in France, came back again in 1984 and formed Barris Industries. He formed a distributor arm called Bel-Air Program Sales (later Barris Program Sales) and an ad-sales barter called Clarion Communications (later Barris Advertising Sales).
After a week-long trial of The Newlywed Game on ABC in 1984 (with Dating Game emcee Jim Lange), Barris produced the daily Newlywed Game (titled The New Newlywed Game) in syndication from 1985 to 1989, with original host Eubanks (and in 1988, comedian Paul Rodriguez).
The Dating Game returned to syndication the next year for a three-year run (the first year hosted by Elaine Joyce, and the next two hosted by Jeff MacGregor). The Gong Show would also return for one season in 1988, now hosted by “True” Don Bleu. All of those shows (except for the one-week trial run of Newlywed on ABC) aired in syndication, not on the networks.
Chuck Barris sold his shares of Barris Industries, Inc. in 1987 to Burt Sugarman and left to move back to France and was no longer directly involved in his media company. In 1988, Barris Industries acquired the Guber-Peters Company. On September 7, 1989, Barris Industries was renamed as the Guber-Peters Entertainment Company.
After the shows’ runs ended, Sony Corporation acquired Guber-Peters Entertainment (formerly Barris Industries) for $200 million on September 29, 1989, a day after Sony Corporation of Japan acquired Columbia Pictures Entertainment. The sale was completed on November 9, 1989 after Sony’s acquisition of Columbia Pictures Entertainment a day earlier.
Sony revived Dating and Newlywed from 1996 to 1999. Sony also revived The Gong Show in 1998, this time as Extreme Gong, a Game Show Network (GSN) original production. Three’s a Crowd would be revived as All New Three’s a Crowd, which, like Extreme Gong, was a GSN original. A few years after Extreme Gong ended, Sony planned to revive the show again under its classic name and format for The WB Television Network, but this version was never realized.
Sony and MTV Networks’ Comedy Central collaborated on a fourth Gong Show revival as The Gong Show with Dave Attell in 2008; this did sell and aired on Comedy Central from July to September 2008.
One more attempt at reviving an old game show that was not his own originally resulted in an unsold pilot of the 1950s-era game Dollar a Second, hosted by Bob Eubanks. It had at least one showing on GSN, and has since become part of the collector/trader’s circuit. Two more unsold pilots were called Bamboozle and Comedy Courtroom.
In Barris’s autobiography, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, he states that he worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as an assassin in the 1960s and the 1970s. A 2002 feature film version, directed by George Clooney and starring Sam Rockwell, depicts Barris killing 33 people. Barris wrote a sequel, Bad Grass Never Dies, in 2004.
The CIA denied Barris ever worked for them in any capacity. After the release of the movie, CIA spokesman Paul Nowack said Barris’ assertions that he worked for the spy agency “[are] ridiculous. It’s absolutely not true.”
Barris published Della: A Memoir of My Daughter in 2010 about the death of his only child, who died in 1998 after a long struggle with drug addiction.
Barris’ first wife was Lyn Levy, the niece of one of the founders of CBS. Their marriage lasted from 1957 to 1976, ending in divorce. Together they had a daughter, Della, who sometimes appeared on The Gong Show. Della died of a drug overdose from alcohol and cocaine in 1998 at age 36. By the time of her death, she was also HIV positive.
In 1980, Barris married Robin Altman, 23 years his junior. That marriage also ended in divorce in 1999. The following year, he married Mary Clagett.
Barris was diagnosed with lung cancer in the 1990s. After undergoing surgery to remove part of his lung, he contracted an infection and spent a month in intensive care.
Barris died on March 21, 2017, of natural causes at his home in Palisades, New York at the age of 87, where he lived with wife, Mary Clagett.
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