Confessions of a Friars Mind
By Barry Dougherty
He saunters into the Friars Club on feet that seem to have their own set of springs, returning hellos to people he passes on his way to the dining room. There, he banters with maitre d’ Frank Capitelli before taking his seat at a table with his guests. He blends in with the rest of the Friars in the crowded dining room, just your average Joe enjoying lunch on an ordinary afternoon. And therein lies the rub–because you see, Friar Chuck Barris is anything but average. His highly rated game shows, top of the charts song, intriguing novel, hit movie, not to mention a CIA assignment or two thrown into the mix, somewhat negates the ordinary.
By the end of the 1960s Barris' company was responsible for twenty-five half-hours a week of national TV, more than any other production company in the world. His specialty? Reality programming. “The fact that The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game were spontaneous and that there weren’t any right or wrong answers, there wasn’t a script, per se, I believe it was in some ways the beginning of reality programming. I think reality programming blossomed with the help of that,” notes Barris, the visionary.
To think that all those hours of entertainment might never have happened had Barris chosen another path, “When I came out of college I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to be. The only two industries that seemed to me that were just beginning to pop were plastics and television. I remember thinking, ‘Well, television has to be more fun than plastics,’ so I went to New York from Philadelphia and started out at NBC.”
By 1962 Barris may not have been a producer yet, but he wasn’t in plastics either, “I was ABC’s man on American Bandstand and my job was to watch Dick Clark. The Payola Scandals were touching everybody and ABC didn’t want to lose him. Dick was going to appear in front of the FCC and they wanted to be able to tell the FCC, ‘We’ve done everything in our power and he’s perfectly clean because we know that to be a fact.’ They figured that they’d send an executive down there from the programming department to actually watch him so I, in a sense, was his bird-dog. Of course, everybody in the station hated my guts because they thought I was a spy of some kind. But Dick, who if he’s anything else he is smart, realized I was his lifeline to staying on the air. Because as long as I was watching him ABC was keeping him.”
It was during his Dick Clark bird-dogging that Barris momentarily switched showbiz gears and came up with a hit song. “I thought, ‘Jesus I could write this stuff,’” says Barris of the genesis of Palisades Park. “I couldn’t read music but I played my guitar and I sang it into a tape recorder and I gave that to a piano player. I sent it out to four or five guys–Freddy Cannon, Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon, Paul Anka. I knew who was hot and I got it out to their managers and Freddy recorded it. It was supposed to be the B-side of a record and it became a big hit.
“Consequently, ABC fired me because they thought I was using exactly the influence that they sent me down there to protect Dick against. Dick and I purposely stayed away from using that song on Bandstand until it was a qualified hit. I mean, it was in the top ten with a bullet and at that point Dick started to play it on Bandstand. So I explained that to the lawyers at ABC. I got down on my knees practically and said, ‘Look, I can’t read music, that’s not where my future is, it’s here in television.’ And they made me sign a paper that I would never write another song again. I was thrilled. It saved me my job.” After he left ABC Barris wrote the theme songs for all of his shows so the musician within still had an outlet, sans teeny-boppers grinding to them on national TV, of course.
If there was one show, however, which has become synonymous with Barris it is The Gong Show. “The only reason the networks put The Gong Show on the air was because they were afraid not to. I had had so many hits before that so when I came in and told them I wanted to do a variety show of bad acts they went with me.”
The show, which became a mega-hit with fans, featured some of the worst acts imaginable, each trying to beat the “gong” that would eventually end their bit. Barris was not only the show’s producer but also its host, “The host that we had for the pilot didn’t understand the concept behind the humor of The Gong Show. He was too serious-minded for it, so the Vice President of the network said, ‘Either you do it, Chuck, or I’m gonna get another show,’ I did not want to lose the program idea so I did it.”
What viewers saw was a host unlike any other. “Oh it was awful!” laughs Barris, of his turn in the spotlight, “I had all sorts of nervous habits. I had a hat that was down over my eyes so I wouldn’t see the audience. That was the bad side. The good side was–I fit in. My inability, my unprofessionalism as a performer fit right in with the acts that were on the show. That was terrific as far as the show’s success was concerned.”
“My whole life has been basically having a ball, having fun,” says Barris which makes sense considering the antics that went on during his “lights, cameras, action” days, “One of the funniest [The Dating Game] shows we ever had was a show where we had the Marquis Chimps playing as the three bachelors. The girl couldn’t see them and we had three guys answering for them backstage. On The Newlywed Game I just remember a fellow giving his wife’s measurements. He had no idea what they were and he said something like, ‘Starting from the top 16, 74, 118,’ making me roll all over the place. I remember on The Gong Show we had a guy who was a unicyclist who went through a flaming hoop. His back was purposefully on fire and he had an attendant who had a little tiny hand squirter that would squirt him out. But I didn’t know what the hell was going on so I grabbed this huge fire extinguisher and blew him into the second row of the studio. I would put Alpo on my crotch when a dog act would go out and the dog would go nuts, that stuff would make me laugh more than anything else. There was always something to laugh about.”
But all was not as fun and carefree behind the scenes, “As far as my own persona, if I ever had one, and the history of my company, they suffered from my appearing on The Gong Show. I was a hands-on CEO and I watched all of my other shows but in this instance, when I started to do The Gong Show, I let the other shows go by the wayside. I became not the shy introverted person I truly am–or believe I am–but some wild buffoon up on the stage.”
While viewers couldn’t get enough of Barris’ shows, the critics were another story entirely, “When The Dating Game went on the air, day one–December, 1965–The Chicago Tribune headline was ‘Daytime television hits all time low.’ If The Dating Game, where one clean-cut looking little girl was asking three basically clean-cut guys for a date, if that was the all time low of television then I’m completely befuddled,” says Barris. “From the moment I went on the air I became the person the critics love to hate. It followed me right up the line and it seemed to crescendo with The Gong Show. Because The Gong Show was so off the board, it was so unusual in the sense of what was on television, that they were falling all over each other trying to criticize it. In my own humble opinion I think The Gong Show was just a culmination of everything that came before and the critics just couldn’t get it out fast enough.
“If you tend toward the sensitive, which I definitely feel I am, then criticism, no matter how bland or unimportant, will get to you. It took fifteen years but it got to me.” When it did, Barris retreated, “I checked into the Wyndam [hotel]. I only expected to stay a couple of months and I thought I’d just get some thoughts down. I had a lot of anger from the TV critics and the network executives. I wanted to get all that out and I figured the best way to do it was to get it on paper. Then, two-and-a-half years later I came out with a manuscript of a book called Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind. I was really amazed at what I wrote, I thought it was pretty good considering the mood I was in and without having any intentions of really writing a book. But the literary critics crucified the book. They kind of took up where the TV guys left off and they said basically, ‘What do you expect from a guy who gave us The Dating Game, Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show? What kind of a book could he have written?’ And so the book disappeared.”
The book is discovering a resurgence due to the recent film of the same title, directed by George Clooney. “I couldn’t ask for a better way to get the word out about the book than the movie. The movie just brought so much attention that the book is back out and selling well. I thank the movie for that,” says Barris.
In the book, and subsequent film, Barris suggests a double life–TV producer by day/CIA assassin by night. Always accommodating, Barris gives his sly smile and just the hint of a rolling eye, suggesting “here-we-go-again” to a question he’s obviously been asked over and over, “I’ve never answered that question for a very good reason–that I never felt that it was important what I did or didn’t do. I never thought that whether I was in the CIA or not, and if I killed anyone as an assassin for this country or not, had any relevance at all other than the fact–whether you like the book, it was a good read, or whether you like the movie or it was a good movie.
If the book was a good read, then I want as part of the fun of reading the book for you to figure out in your own head whether it’s true or false. I think that’s all part of the entertainment. Otherwise, what difference does it make? I know the CIA has been approached by almost every journalist that ever talked to me and they say the same thing, ‘Of course not. It’s absurd, it’s asinine...’ and I don’t care if the CIA doesn’t believe it, I don’t care if the reader doesn’t believe it, the only thing I care about is if the reader has been entertained.”
As with everything Chuck Barris does, the book, the shows, hanging out at the Friars Club–when he jauntily springs into our sphere, we’re entertained.