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The Game Show King

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Life in Hollywood can be tough when you used to be somebody. Back when Chuck Barris was not only producing but hosting the infamous, occasionally hilarious Gong Show, he could hardly go to a restaurant or a ball game without some bozo tap-dancing or trying to show him a card trick. A man once ruined a Dodger game for him by strumming a toilet seat strung like a guitar, as a “beery friend played ‘Dixie’ by thwacking his armpit. In New York, between the second and third period of a Ranger hockey game, a woman slithered down my aisle and sang ‘Hello Dolly’ standing on her hands. At a basketball game a belly dancer humped my knee.”

But as Barris tells it in The Game Show King (Carroll & Graf), he chucked it all in 1986, sold his production company, and moved to the south of France. Looking back, he thinks it was the Popsicle Twins who convinced him he was wasting his life — a pair of teen nymphets with “deliciously ripe bodies under clinging tank tops, the swell of young breasts peeking out of the armholes, and high, round bottoms in very short shorts,” whose “talent” was simulating oral endearments to the tune of “I’m in the Mood for Love.”

Anyhow, there he was back in town a couple of years ago to pitch a few new game-show ideas after getting bored with the French and their tedious insistence on speaking a foreign language, when he got invited to a Clinton- for-President fund-raiser at $10,000 a pop. Now this is the kind of thing the Game Show King would normally skip, as “most of these events are generally filled with affected Hollywood types either talking glowingly about themselves or backbiting some other Hollywood type to the bone.”

But Chuck had something he wanted from Bill Clinton, and he figured his 10 grand ought to buy him the politician’s ear. What he wanted — especially after the networks reacted to his new ideas as if they were museum exhibits — was for the Armed Forces Network to start broadcasting to the French Riviera so he and his fellow expatriates in Saint-Tropez “can watch pro football games on Sundays instead of all that European soccer s—.” No sooner did candidate Clinton shake the Game Show King’s hand, however, than he noticed Nicole Kidman over Barris’ shoulder and bolted like a beagle who’d spotted a fat rabbit. Chuck was left standing there with his hand out like a losing bachelor on The Dating Game — his first big hit. It was like he’d been gonged.

So anyhow, it was back to Saint-Tropez, his lovely home (Maison Très Cher), his speedboat (Bam Bam), his afternoon games of boule, and his writing career. As Hollywood autobiographies go, The Game Show King is witty, engaging, and surprisingly modest — even if Barris does devote an awful lot of space to the kind of showbiz boasting and bitching he supposedly deplores. But then, a tasteful, self-deprecating fellow would never have created such diversions as The Newlywed Game (“What household chore did your wife say you do exactly the same way as you do when ‘making whoopee’?”), much less the Popsicle Twins — whom Barris swears he booked only to twit network censors, who let him down. Relentlessly sexist and an unapologetic vulgarian, Barris nevertheless emerges as a likable rogue who knows how to tell a very funny story. B