The spotlight beckons. Up strikes the studio band, and a 350-lb. lady struts her shtik—it’s belching to the music. A white-smocked dentist does his famous solo rendition of The Stars and Stripes Forever—on his drill. Andy Warhol is, maybe, half right. Everyone can indeed be famous, though hardly for 15 minutes. This is NBC’s Gong Show, and as in precursors like vaudeville with its hook or Major Bowes and his bong, the most painful performers are humiliatingly gonged into oblivion after as little as 45 seconds.
TV’s King Gong is Chuck Barris, not only creator-host of the cruel-and-un-usual network daytime version of the series, but also of its first prime-time special April 26 and (starting next fall) of the syndicated supper-hour edition. Barris, 47, was previously perpetrator of The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, How’s Your Mother-in-Law? and what he calls “the ultimate greed show,” Treasure Hunt.
“I don’t know how cynical I am,” moans Barris in his eternal existential agony. But he maintains that The Gong Show was conceived as a showcase of genuine genius. “There just wasn’t enough good talent to sustain even one year.” Thus he evolved the present format and its turkey-to-talent ratio of about 5-to-2. “A certain percentage of them,” Barris says defensively, “are really good.” Some 250 acts are auditioned every week, “so we can siphon out the characters who are dangerous or whacked out.”
Barris’s own dad was a Philadelphia dentist who didn’t play anything on his drill. “We were very middle-class,” Chuck recalls. “Then my sister married a very wealthy guy and after my father died, my mother married a very wealthy guy. So I married a very wealthy girl. It was what we did.” Only trouble was that his wife’s family (she was the niece of CBS chairman William Paley) disinherited her, he says, when they were married. So Chuck suffered eight years of middle-level $250-a-week TV jobs before he started his own production company with a $20,000 loan from his stepfather and conjured up The Dating Game. Three years and eight shows later, Barris was worth $8 million. “I went through a materialistic scene,” he says. “I had everything anyone could possibly buy, but I guess I felt a little guilty about making all that money. We lived in Malibu, and it was the time of the fire. The whole house could have burned down—I was kind of rooting for it.”
It didn’t, but Chuck scaled down. He and his wife divorced, and he forsook his old life-style, moving to a simple, three-bedroom house in the Hollywood hills with his 14-year-old daughter Della and two mutts. It’s revealing of Barris’s self-image, perhaps, that the front gate bears the sign A Rotten Dog Lives Here.
Back in 1971 Chuck fled to Europe and wrote You and Me, Babe, a fictionalized autobiography. To date, it’s sold 23,000 copies in hardcover, nearly 750,000 in paperback and is being developed as a movie script. The sequel’s been in the works for two years, but Barris has had to shelve it because of the demands of The Gong. “The ultimate game show,” he’s confessed, “will be the one where somebody gets killed at the end. I wish I could shake all that,” stews Barris. “I’d like to produce something like Eleanor and Franklin.”