Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Manic Genius of Chuck Barris

(Note: I have also posted this article at Helium under the title "Chuck Barris and the Gong Show.)
America needs Chuck Barris and his Gong Show. Now more than ever.
In the 1960’s, Chuck Barris was one of two visionary television producers who helped to revitalize the nearly moribund institution of the game show. Whereas Merv Griffin restored intelligence, dignity and class to the genre with Jeopardy, Barris opted to go in the other direction entirely. His signature successes, The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, danced gleefully along the edge of, and often leapt merrily over, the boundaries of what network Standards and Practices officials of the time considered good taste.
In 1976, Barris returned with his most outrageous and irreverent offering yet, a half hour talent contest called The Gong Show. The format was simple. Contestants performed for a panel of three C-level celebrity judges, any one of whom could cut the act short at any time by banging on a giant gong hanging behind them. If the contestant got through his performance with being gonged, the judges rated him on a scale of one to ten and the contestant with the highest daily total won a whopping five hundred dollar prize.
The Gong Show was originally hosted by veteran Laugh-In announcer Gary Owens, who was quickly replaced by Chuck Barris himself. After Barris assumed the hosting chores, the true nature of The Gong Show began to emerge. It was not so much a talent show as a parody of one.
As host, Barris adopted a freewheeling, manic persona. He often seemed barely in control of the show, creating an atmosphere which fostered in viewers the feeling that anything could, and most certainly would, happen at any time, and where, in true Chuck Barris fashion, the lines of good taste were not just blurred but erased altogether.
The show feature an often bizarre line up of acts, ranging from singers bad enough to give Simon Cowell nightmares to, in one of the show’s most memorable moments, a pair of attractive young ladies in cheerleader outfits whose entire act consisted of sitting in the center of the stage suggestively licking popsicles. Adding to the madness where a company of recurring acts, highlighted by the enthusiastically untalented Gene, Gene: The Dancing Machine and the abrasive Unknown Comic, who hurled insults at Barris and the judges while concealing his visage beneath a paper grocery sack.
Today, with the phenomenal success of American Idol, the airwaves are saturated with talent competitions looking to capture even a small piece of Idol’s audience and, more importantly, profits. The TV talent show is ripe for parody, and therefore, as I said at the beginning of this piece, America needs Chuck Barris and The Gong Show more than ever.

No comments: