This Day in Jewish History

1929: Maybe Chuck Barris Was Born (And No, the CIA Says He Wasn't a Hitman)

Love his creativity or hate his gift to society, Chuck Barris invented the reality genre of humiliation as TV entertainment.

Chuck Barris, right, on the Gong Show.
Chuck Barris, right, on the Gong Show. Screengrab from YouTube

June 3, 1929, is the birthday of TV game show creator and executive Chuck Barris. Or maybe not: Barris is a notoriously unreliable witness when it comes to his own life.

What's beyond dispute is that it was Barris who gave the world such creations as “The Dating Game,” “The Newlywed Game” and “The Gong Show,” television shows of the 1960s and '70s that set the stage for the reality TV of the '90s. Some would call Barris a marketing genius, while others are certain that he almost single-handedly brought down the level of Western civilization a few notches – not that the two are mutually exclusive.

Whether it was in 1929, 1930 or 1932, Charles Hirsch Barris was born in Philadelphia. the first of the two children of Nathaniel, a dentist (apparently), and the former Edith Cohen, a homemaker.

Chuck graduated from Philadelphia’s Drexel Institute of Technology (today, Drexel University) in 1953. He worked a number of odd jobs before landing a position as a page at NBC headquarters in New York.

By his account, it was then on the strength of forged letters of recommendation that he was accepted into a network management training program.

When cutbacks led to his being laid off from NBC, Barris moved to ABC. There he was assigned to work for Dick Clark, host of the popular weekly music show “Bandstand.”

Barris quickly became indispensable to Clark, and he soon began producing musical acts himself. In 1962, he even wrote a song, "Palisades Park," that was recorded by Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon and made it to the number-three spot on the pop charts. 

Palisade Park by Freddy Cannon, written by Chuck Barris YouTube

After moving to Los Angeles, and working briefly fielding proposals for ABC's daytime-programming department, Barris decided he could do it better himself, and formed his own production company.

Embarrassing, if possible

“The Dating Game” premiered in 1965. Its premise was simple: Three bachelors or "bachelorettes" would compete to be chosen for an evening's date. As they were hidden behind a partition, the woman or man doing the choosing had to judge them on the way they responded to questions. Questions were funny and suggestive, embarrassing if possible, and the show, which remained on the air for 11 seasons, succeeded because it was sexy and a bit edgy.

That was followed by “The Newlywed Game,” where several young married couples competed to show how well acquainted they really were. Since they were married, they could be asked about their sex lives, although the euphemism “whoopee” – as in, “Where’s the strangest place you've ever made whoopee?” – was used.

These shows were wildly popular among viewers – "The Newlywed Game" was in production for 19 years – and bemoaned by critics. Barris astutely observed at one point that, "A really bad review means the show will be on for years."  

Neither of those shows, however, was adequate preparation for "The Gong Show," a mock talent show whose acts were chosen on the basis of tastelessness. What made the "Gong Show" really special was that Barris himself was its host – at the insistence of the broadcaster, NBC. Now he was in his element.

The Gong Show - Gene Gene The Dancing Machine YouTube

Uh huh

As Barris' shows became increasingly humiliating for contestants, they served as proof that people would do just about anything for a few minutes of fame. The prizes were generally modest, certainly by today's reality show standards. When the "Dating Game" moved from daytime to prime-time, the date was upgraded from a romantic restaurant dinner to weekends abroad, with a chaperone.

When Barris wrote "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," his first memoir, he claimed that his work escorting couples on junkets to Europe served as a cover for his work as a paid assassin for the CIA, and that he carried out countless hits for the agency during the Cold War era.

The CIA took the rare measure of responding to the claim, calling it "ridiculous," but the theme paid a central part in the film version George Clooney made of the book in 2002.

After a number of failed TV shows, Barris sold his production company, Barris Industries, in 1987. Since then, he has written another two memoirs, one about the death of his daughter from a drug overdose, in 1989, and several novels. Today, he turns 87 – probably.