Chuck Barris, game-show producer and occasional murderer, realized like P.T. Barnum before him–and Howard Stern and reality TV producers after–that there was money to be made off the marginal, the quasi-talented, the damaged and the freakish. I doubt, however, even Barris could have predicted that during his lifetime the sideshow tent would be relocated to the center ring, the audience would commandeer the spotlight and a fellow TV clown and salesman of schlock would become king. The defeat of professionalism, the experts getting gonged, being told “You’re fired,” is the cost of new technologies decentralizing the media. Such unfettered democracy comes with a high price, but is it one that will prove too dear?
Barris just (most likely) died. From his New York Times obituary by Neil Genzlinger:
Mr. Barris’s next game shows were less successful, but just as it seemed he was losing his touch, he came up with the concept that would catapult him to a new level of fame: The Gong Show, which had its premiere on NBC in June 1976. The show featured a series of performers, most of them amateurs, and a panel of three celebrity judges. Mr. Barris himself was the brash, irritating host.
The performers, who were often terrible, would be allowed to go on until one of the judges couldn’t stand it anymore and sounded a gong, putting an end to the spectacle. Those who weren’t gonged were rated by the judges on a 1-to-10 scale. In keeping with the ridiculousness of the proceedings, the prize amount they vied for was ridiculous: $516.32 on the daytime version of the show, $712.05 on the prime-time edition.
The show, which ran on NBC until 1978 and then in syndication (with revivals in later years), became a cultural sensation. Critics complained about its crassness and cruelty, but Mr. Barris, like purveyors of burlesque and circus sideshows in earlier generations, knew there was a large audience for lowbrow. At one point the daytime version was attracting 78 percent of viewers 18 to 49.
“In my opinion, a good game show review is the kiss of death,” Mr. Barris said in a Salon interview in 2001. “If for some strange reason the critic liked it, the public won’t. A really bad review means the show will be on for years.”
The ghost of The Gong Show is evident in numerous reality-television shows of more recent vintage — the early rounds of any given season of American Idol, for instance.
Mr. Barris always bristled at the “King of Schlock” label that was hung on him as far back as “The Dating Game.” In a 2003 interview with Newsweek, he noted that shows much like the ones he created were by the 21st century being received differently.
“Today these shows are accepted,” he said. “These shows aren’t seen as lowering any bars.”•
“I don’t know why they did that”:
“Step right up, folks”: