(Reuters) - Chuck Barris, who tapped into Americans’ hunger to be on television by creating game shows such as “The Dating Game,” “The Newlywed Game” and his showcase for the acutely untalented, “The Gong Show,” died on Tuesday, media outlets reported.
Barris died of natural causes at age 87 in Palisades, New York, Variety.com said, citing his publicist.
Decades before television talent shows such as “American Idol” and “America’s Got Talent” came along, Barris was putting everyday people before the cameras in what was more of a reverse talent show with everyday people who did not mind exposing their vulnerabilities or answering embarrassing questions.
His masterwork was “The Gong Show,” which seemed to be the result of let’s-put-on-a-show day at the asylum in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The media mocked him as “the king of schlock” and accused him of exploiting his contestants.
“Let me ask you something - which does the most harm, a ‘Gong Show’ or the killings, pistol whippings and flying blood you see on evening ‘drama?’” Barris said in a Los Angeles Times interview. “And the critics blame me for cracking culture?”
Barris also wrote “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” called it an autobiography and claimed to have carried out CIA assassination jobs while hosting “The Gong Show.” Barris never admitted it was a joke but in 2007 told CBS: “Somebody checked (with) the head of the CIA and the head of the CIA said that I must have been standing too close to the gong.” The book was made into a movie directed by George Clooney.
Barris, who grew up in Philadelphia, started in entertainment as a page at NBC headquarters in New York in the 1950s and eventually used forged recommendations to get into the network’s management training program. Later he would work for Dick Clark on his popular “American Bandstand” show and write the 1962 hit song “Palisades Park” for Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon.
At the ABC network in the early 1960s, Barris was in charge of deciding which game shows were put on the air but quit to form his own company. He eventually would put more than 15 shows on the air during the 1960s and ‘70s, starting by conceiving and producing “The Dating Game.”
That show played into the emerging “flower power” culture of the time with a young woman or man asking flirtatious questions of unseen members of the opposite sex and then choosing one for a blind date. The show’s first run lasted nine years - including a prime-time slot - and it had a series of revivals into the ‘90s.
Things grew a little more provocative with Barris’ next show, “The Newlywed Game,” as couples tried to predict how their new spouses would respond to a series of leading questions. The highlight of every episode was when the couples were asked about “making whoopee” - the euphemism the show used for sex to mollify censors.
Barris said there was no need to offer expensive prizes on “The Newlywed Game” because couples were so excited about being on national television that a new washer was all they needed.
In 1976, Barris debuted “The Gong Show,” which featured contestants of varying degrees of earnestness being judged by a three-person panel comprised of B-list actors and comedians. Once a judge found an act intolerable, he would bang a big gong to send the performer off in a cloud of mockery. Contestants who passed the test could win $516.32, which was the union payscale minimum.
“When I started out I was trying to find good talent but all I found was bad talent ... so I said let’s do a show with bad talent,” Barris said in a 2009 interview with the NPR show “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” “I always thought the people who did my shows, the contestants, were having the time of their lives.”
Barris hosted “The Gong Show” himself and his bumbling manner, odd wardrobe and the irreverent party-like atmosphere he maintained were a big part of the show’s cock-eyed appeal. Some acts were so popular they became regular attractions, such as Gene Gene the Dancing Machine and the Unknown Comic, who told corny jokes while wearing a paper bag over his head.
Television censors had to keep a close eye on the show. Panelist Jaye P. Morgan was banned after flashing her breasts on air.
Other Barris-produced shows included “The $1.98 Beauty Show” and “The Parent Game” but were not nearly as successful as “The Gong Show,” “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game.”
Barris was married three times, most recently to Mary Rudolph in 2000. His only child, Della, died of a drug overdose at age 36 in 1998.
Writing and reporting by Bill Trott,; Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien; Editing by Nick Macfie