Oddly, I always used to confuse the names Chuck Berry and Chuck Barris, and now they've died in the same week. Barris, most famous as the host of The Gong Show (1976-1980), has died of natural causes at 87.
Barris also created the unbelievably, intentionally trashy game show, which featured Z-list celebs attempting to sit through the marginal talents of a host of never-gonna-bes, always having the option of banging a gong to stop them dead in their tracks. Those who won took home $516.32 (or $712.05, $716.32 or $996.83 in syndication).
The judges were a hoot, often pushing the boundaries of good taste. Among them, Jaye P. Morgan (b. 1931) was the show's Brett Somers (1924-2007), and Rip Taylor (b. 1935) was more than game. I remember Phyllis Diller (1971-2012) almost looking like she was considering refusing her paycheck so she could split.
Though most of the contestants were average people with below-average gifts, there were notable exceptions: Boxcar Willie (1931-1999), Pee-wee Herman (b. 1952), Andrea McArdle (b. 1963), Cheryl Lynn (b. 1957), Oingo Boingo and Mare Winningham (b. 1959) all gave the show a shot.
Danny Lockin (1943-1977), who was seen in the movie version of Hello, Dolly!, won the show in 1977, only to be brutally murdered in the hours after, probably after a gay one-night stand gone wrong; his killer, who kept a torture diary, stabbed him more than 100 times, but was sentenced to just four years for manslaughter.
But it was the crappiness of the acts that made the show absurdly pomo fun, along with staples like the painfully unfunny Unknown Comic aka Murray Langston (b. 1945); big, bopping black dude in a tracksuit Gene Gene the Dancing Machine aka Gene Patton (1932-2015); and The Wizard of Oz (1939) star Jerry Maren (b. 1920), who would emerge as the winner was announced.
Once, when Gene was doing his dance, Morgan did a stripteease and briefly flashed her boobs. On TV.
The most infamous act — by several inches — was the sister act who came out, sat on the stage and started earnestly licking phallic popsicles. Impossibly, they were not gonged, and Morgan announced, Do you know that that's the way I started? It was pulled from airing elsewhere after censors on the East Coast realized they'd goofed.
Barris was a terrible host, always shifting around uncomfortably, but it worked with the format, which was purposefully schlocky. The entire, parodic production had an air of, “Yes, we really can do something this bad, and you really will watch.”
Barris had other accomplishments aside from The Gong Show, including creating both The Dating Game (1965-80 and many other incarnations) and The Newlywed Game (1966-1974, and many other incarnations); writing the song “Palisades Park” (1962), a #3 hit; and writing the memoir Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (1984), which became a successful film directed by and starring George Clooney and adapted by the esteemed Charlie Kaufman in 2002.
He claimed to have been a CIA assassin in the memoir.
Barris is survived by his third wife, Mary Clagett. His daugher, Della, who appeared on The Gong Show, preceded him in death.