The Gong Goodbye
Chuck Barris can’t stand the sight of himself. Old episodes of The Gong Show, the daffy ’70s talent show he created and hosted with manic glee, turn his stomach. ”I went nuts up there on the stage to a point where it was pitiful,” he says. ”I. Was. So. Obnoxious.” Three decades later he still can’t shake his buffoon persona. ”If I died,” says the 73-year-old Barris, ”I wouldn’t be surprised if an obituary says, ‘Gonged. He’s Gonged. He’s finally Gonged.’ But that’s not me. It’s not me.”
So who is Chuck Barris? The new movie Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, based on his ’80s memoir, alleges that when he wasn’t bedding leggy ladies or dreaming up The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, Barris was a CIA assassin who murdered 33 enemies of the American state. So he was the dreaded killer of Cold War criminals. Or he’s the Game Show King who inspired today’s reality TV. Either way, he just wants to leave the past behind.
When Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind: An Unauthorized Autobiography was first published, the reviews were terrible and the sales even worse. Out of the 100,000 copies released, a mere handful sold. In 1980, The Gong Show Movie, which Barris cowrote, directed, and starred in, hit theaters. The critics ripped it up. ”Life is cruel enough without Chuck Barris around,” declared one reviewer. The film opened on a Friday, Barris claimed, only to close three days later. Tired of critics calling him the ”Baron of Bad Taste,” the ”King of Schlock,” the ”Ayatollah of Trasherola,” he quit the business. (”I think that I was much too vulnerable,” he says today. ”I should not have let the criticism destroy me like it did. It’s ridiculous! It happens to everybody else and they shrug it off.”) He sold Chuck Barris Productions for a neat sum of $100 million and moved to St. Tropez with his second wife.
Barris lay around some but couldn’t stop thinking about his next score. So in 1993 he published another memoir, The Game Show King: A Confession, which was conspicuously devoid of CIA shenanigans and largely ignored by the public. (”Don’t bother with it,” he advises. ”It’s not any good.”) He moved back to New York City, where he sweated through all the nasty snags his first memoir hit on its way to the big screen.
”One green light after another!” he remembers, sipping ginger ale at an Upper East Side restaurant (he hasn’t had a drink in over 20 years). ”It was crushing to me. I mean, we had Johnny Depp in it, Ben Stiller was going to do it, Mark [read: Mike] Myers said he was going to do it, [Russell] Crowe was going to do it, Kevin Spacey was going to do it, Ed Norton was definitely going to do it. I mean it went on and on and on. I remember sitting in my little apartment and I would hear it was going to be made by such and such and then I’d hear that it fell apart. I kept saying to myself, ‘It’s only a movie,’ but it was abnormally debilitating.”
In 2000, he fell apart. He was still reeling from the overdose death of his only child, Della. He was drowning in an angry divorce. The doctors told him he had lung cancer. He beat it, only to be felled by a life-threatening staph infection. ”Life was a zero! Zero!” he says. ”There was a point in October when I was in the hospital room overlooking the Hudson — it was gorgeous, the Subway Series was going on and I had World Series tickets — and life was about as bottomed out as it could get. I wasn’t writing, nobody cared where I was, the picture wasn’t being made, I didn’t have an occupation to go to that I felt excited about, I was single, alone, and it just looked dismal.” (Waitress, another round of drinks. A ginger ale for the gentleman, but his interviewer needs something stiffer.)