Famed television producer Chuck Barris, the man behind The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show, died on Tuesday at age 87 in his New York home. Barris’ publicist told the Associated Press that the former host died of natural causes.
Born in Philadelphia in 1929, Barris scored his first cultural success by writing Freddy Cannon’s hit 1962 song “Palisades Park.” Three years later, however, Barris would become a fixture of 1960s television, creating The Dating Game and producing The Newlywed Game in quick succession. On the former show, a single woman would ask three unseen suitors questions to discern which one she’d like to date; on the latter, newly married couples would try to answer personal questions about their significant other to often hilarious results. For instance, The Newlywed Game helped popularize the term “making whoopee” as a euphemism for sexual intercourse.
“We were censored constantly. We couldn’t say ‘God,’ we couldn’t say ‘toilet seat,’ we couldn’t say ‘make love.’ So we created our own vocabulary, and that’s how we came to ‘make whoopee,'” Barris said in a 2010 interview with The Archive of American Television. “‘Where was the strangest place you made whoopee?'” According to Barris, the term was not a reference to the popular American standard “Makin’ Whoopee.” (“No, not at all. It was just a phrase,” Barris said.)
After those successes, Barris moved on to The Gong Show in 1976. He acted as the eccentric and outlandish host of the amateur talent contest, which turned acts like The Unknown Comic and Gene Gene The Dancing Machine into household names. The success of Barris’ reality television shows earned him the nickname “The King of Schlock.” (He hosted The Gong Show, which with its three-judge format served as an inspiration to talent competitions like American Idol, until 1980.)
In 1984, Barris shocked the world again, writing in his “unauthorized biography,” Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, that he worked as a C.I.A. operative and assassin while touring the world as a television executive. (The book and Barris’ alleged work for the C.I.A. was turned into a 2002 movie starring Sam Rockwell as Barris and directed by George Clooney.)
“I don’t answer that question, ever,” Barris said in the 2010 interview when asked about the veracity of his claims. “I can just tell you that the No. 2 guy in the C.I.A. said, in answer to reporters asking that question, that I must have been standing too close to the gong when I say things like that. But still, I’ll never say one way or the other.”
Asked why people are fascinated with his claims, Barris added, “It’s an interesting question. Being an assassin for the United States is not near the general public.” As the New York Times notes, the C.I.A. has denied Barris had any involvement with the agency.
But despite his potential government-sponsored wetwork, Barris will be remembered most for his contributions to the television landscape. It’s an idea he wrestled with during the 2010 interview when asked about being known as the “godfather of reality TV.”
“I don’t know about the title. I don’t know if that is really true,” he said. “I do know that this will happen: When I die, the headline will be ‘Gong Show host dies.’ And I don’t think that was everything that I was. That bothers me. … I think I’ve had a great life and I think I’ve succeeded in doing more things than I ever thought I would do.”