Remembering Chuck Barris, Self-Proclaimed 'King Of Daytime Television'
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DATING GAME")
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: From Hollywood, the dating capital of the world, it's "The Dating Game."
DAVIES: Chuck Barris, the creator of "The Dating Game," "The Newlywed Game" and "The Gong Show" died yesterday at his home in Palisades, N.Y. He was 87. Barris called himself the king of daytime television. His critics called him the king of schlock. At one, point he was generating 27 hours of programming a week, mostly in daytime game shows. Barris invented a game show format that played on contestants' personal relationships. Some of the laughs came from watching people publicly embarrass themselves as they revealed things about their private lives. "The Newlywed Game" had couples competing against each other. Husbands and wives were separated and asked questions about their marriages. "The Gong Show" was Barris' intentionally tasteless answer to the talent show format, showcasing painfully bad performers. Barris sold his company in 1980, reportedly for $100 million. He later wrote an autobiography, "Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind," in which he claimed to have been an CIA assassin, an assertion the CIA called absurd. That book was turned into a 2002 film directed by George Clooney. Here's a clip from his first show, "The Dating Game," which gave a young, single contestant the chance to cross-examine a panel of eligible bachelors or bachelorettes and choose one for a chaperoned date.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DATING GAME")
JIM LANGE: Thanks, everybody. Thank you very much. Welcome to "The Dating Game." We have three eligible bachelors ready to compete for a date with the today's first lucky lady. Let's jump right in. And here they are.
LANGE: Bachelor number one - he's a financial analyst from California. He's into adventure and says nothing turns him on like a romantic rock climb. Give a hand to Ken Haumschilt (ph).
LANGE: Hey, Ken.
Bachelor number two works in membership sales at a health club. And he says that one kiss from him will put sparks in any girl's heart. From Seattle, Wash., let's meet Ruben Hernandez (ph). Hey, Ruben.
LANGE: Bachelor number three is an artist from the Hamptons, and he loves to make collages for his girlfriends. Say hi to Steve Brambach (ph).
DAVIES: Terry spoke to Chuck Barris in 1986. She asked him about creating the format for "The Dating Game."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
CHUCK BARRIS: I tried to think of a show in which three teenage girls would be separated by a wall from three kids. And one of which - one of them might be a rock star. And in some form or other, I was looking to match them up so that the girl would - one of the girls would get the rock star and just faint from excitement. That never happened. But what did happen was one girl, three guys, or vice - one guy, three girls. Any age - it could be any age.
The premise evolved down to a celebrity, a very handsome what I would call civilian, a celebrity, and then the nerd, the guy who you would go - ugh, if she picks him - who was generally a very personable - with a great personality. And that was the ideal "Dating Game," you know, with a very pretty, innocent girl. It didn't always work that way. But to this day, if I were doing "The Dating Game," that's who I'd look for.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Did the nerd usually get chosen?
BARRIS: Invariably 'cause he had the best personality, you know?
GROSS: And so when they went out on their date, was there a chaperone?
BARRIS: Yes. Well, originally, we - the dates went in and around Los Angeles. And there really wasn't a need for a chaperone because they were chauffeur-driven in a limousine in those days. That was pretty good. And the limousine driver more or less kept an eye on him. He worked for the company. He worked for "Dating Game," you know, Chuck Barris Productions. But then, you know, the network came to me and said they wanted something for nighttime, primetime, if I could come up with something different. And it dawned on me through a bunch of things that sending those dates, instead of in and around LA, make them these romantic dates to places all over the world. I remember saying to the network executives - well, they said we can't send couples that are unmarried off for a weekend or a week. And they were right, and I said, well, send a chaperone.
So the chaperones turned out to be my employees. Anybody who was 21 or over - again, I made the rule. When you were - if you're 21 years old or more, you could chaperone a couple. People who work for me who were - who worked at Chuck Barris Productions, kids - I mean, 21-year-olders (ph), 22, 23 and all the way up - went everywhere. I mean, each week they were going off to Morocco, to Rio de Janeiro, to Hawaiian Islands, you know, Tahiti, Moscow. It was incredible. And they got - at first, you know, I had so much fun saying, Ralph (ph), Paris, and he'd go oh, my - he'd jump. And I'd say Mary (ph), Stockholm. But then after about, you know, we were on for eight or nine years. And in the second year, I'd say Ralph, North Africa. And he'd say, what part, you know?
BARRIS: They became so blase about it. I got furious.
GROSS: I'm thinking about how bad a blind date can be and then imagining what it's like in Stockholm trapped with somebody who you realize you're not very compatible with.
BARRIS: Well, that's scary. But what happened was that the three - it became a threesome. It became a kind of a legal menage a trois in that the girl, the guy and the chaperone sort of teamed up. The chaperone became one of the gang. And that's how it generally evolved, you know? If they didn't quite get along, no one had to stay with any one person. They could stay with the threesome, you know? And it worked out really well.
GROSS: Did the chaperones end up falling in love with any of the women (laughter)?
BARRIS: Yes, and vice versa...
BARRIS: ...Because, you know, the kids that worked for me were young and kind of great.
GROSS: Well, your next really big hit was "The Newlywed Game" as if, you know, after you date then you're married and you could go on "The Newlywed Game."
BARRIS: Well, I looked to the household, you know, for my show ideas. And I wanted highly identifiable shows where the audience could identify what was going on. I thought that was critical to the success of a daytime show. And of course, the next logical step was, after dating, was marriage. So the newlyweds came with a with a reputation, you know, built-in reputation. It was slightly sexy and it was this, that and the next thing. And it was naive, and it was this. It worked fine. That worked fine.
And I think "The Newlywed Game" was - and it turned out to be the best show I ever created and ever would, I guess. If I wanted to put something in a time capsule, I'd put "The Newlywed Game" in there because it's so simple and it works; just need four couples, eight questions, Bob Eubanks, and if we're a hundred years from now, it'd be Bob Eubanks' great-great-grandson. And you'd have the potential of a very funny half hour if the questions were good. And I think that's what's so wonderful about the show, it's so basic. I also think it evolved into a microcosm of marriage as we know it. I mean, I think if anybody really loved their partner and respected their partner, they would never do "The Newlywed Game." You couldn't put your partner up to so much potential embarrassment.
However, I don't believe that the great - in the great wash of marriage that most people love and respect each other. I think they get married for any number of reasons and that's not - those two aren't some of them. It's rare when - I believe, and maybe this is, you know, extremely cynical, that people really marry because they really are truly in love with each other. So there was "The Newlywed Game" and everybody was saying all those wonderful things. And I checked to see how divorce ran, and we had about a 40 percent divorce rate, and that's exactly how the country runs. So there was "The Newlywed Game," as I say, a kind of a microcosm of marriage. But I think it's a - it has been and it still is a very funny show.
DAVIES: Game show creator Chuck Barris speaking with Terry Gross in 1986. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DON BYRON'S "HEWBIE STEPS OUT")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to Terry's interview with Chuck Barris, creator of "The Dating Game," "The Newlywed Game" and "The Gong Show." Barris died Tuesday at the age of 87.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Let's talk about some of the game shows that you tried that weren't as successful, one of which is "Three's A Crowd."
GROSS: What was the premise of that?
BARRIS: Well, there were two basically that weren't successful very quickly. I remember distinctly one was "How's Your Mother-In-Law?" I went to the "Mother-In-Law" next from "The Newlywed Game." I just, again, thought the "Mother-In-Law" was much like newlyweds and dating. It was an institution that we all had a preconceived notion about.
The one thing I failed to take into consideration was that the mother-in-law is somebody's mother, and you cannot, you know, make fun of somebody's mother. It just didn't work. It was funny, but you were always making fun of somebody that you really shouldn't be making fun of. So the mother-in-law game was a quick, short disaster. There were a couple of more shows that worked, and then we came to "Three's A Crowd" which was a show I always believed was one of the great dramas that I could translate into a game show, and that I was convinced it would be the best.
It was the very obvious triangle. Who knows the husband better, the wife for the secretary? Again, I was looking for humor. I was looking for spontaneity, saying lines that, you know, you could never write yourself. The preparation to the shows were fine. We went through the questions. Everything seemed to work well. But something happened between the rehearsal or rather the prep and the air. It became serious. It wasn't funny.
I always prided myself in the fact that anybody that I ever did my show had fun doing them. These people were not having fun. They were uneasy, ill at ease, things were emerging from the show which were very unfunny and very embarrassing. And it came across through the screen like a rainstorm. I had that uneasy feeling, and I knew I was in deep trouble that I had created something that went against all those rules.
GROSS: Let's talk about "The Gong Show." I know I used to watch Ted Mack's "Original Amateur Hour" all the time when I was a kid, and I used to laugh all the time at the acts on there. And then when your show came on the air - it was a talent show where you're supposed to laugh (laughter) at the acts that were on there. How did you dream "The Gong Show" up?
BARRIS: I thought first that we needed an outlet for talent. There weren't any variety shows, and there weren't any nightclubs anymore where you could go to see singers and comics and magicians and so forth. And I thought there must be out there tons of them. There - just no outlet. I sold the premise to ABC television network. And then when I started auditioning, I realized there really weren't that many great acts, but it was an awful lot of bad acts out there.
We went back and said we couldn't do the show, but then as an afterthought, I kept thinking, well, what if we reverse it? What if we did a parody on all these talent shows like Ted Mack and Major Bowes and what have you and had more bad acts than good and had this big gong and so forth? And that's how the show came to be.
GROSS: Were all the acts on there in on the joke? Do you think that they all got that it was a parody?
BARRIS: Yes. They should've, and most of them did. I must say that I don't believe 100 percent did. I think there was always that small percentage that may have thought that they were going to get a break, that this was - that they were really good when they weren't. We did have good acts on. We had to just to have the difference so that you get a set of a difference.
But I'm sure I'm talking about the people that weren't good and thought they might be, but I - we try to establish among all the people there that this was "The Gong Show," and they should know that going in. We never tried to fool anybody.
I did on occasion - I remember I once talked a guy into doing the show - he sold books out in California - who I knew at the time I was - that I was misleading him. He was a terrible singer, and I wanted him on the show. And I kept telling him he was good. He really was. And when I had him on the show, and he got gong, he was hurt. And I realized what I had done and made sure I would never do that again.
GROSS: You had said that there's a show that you could do - you really want to do a show called "Greed." Do you want to explain how that would work?
BARRIS: I heard that as - it was expressed to me not too long ago as a legend about a Chuck Barris joke. It wasn't a joke. It was - I was trying to tell somebody what the critics or what the intellectual elite might consider the destiny of day - of daytime television that was a show called "Greed" in which, you know, an old man, an arthritic old man on crutches would be standing there and four contestants would be bidding down to see who would take the littlest amount of money to go out and kick the crutches out from that man.
Now, you know, and then the next person out was a little boy and his dog. Well, you know, what would happen then? It was only my mouthing off as to what other people's concept of what they thought daytime television might be trying to go to. And it was never in any shape or form what I was trying to go to.
DAVIES: Chuck Barris speaking with Terry Gross in 1986. Barris died Tuesday at the age of 87. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you've missed, like our interview with comic Pete Holmes or with New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer about a little known but influential supporter of Donald Trump, check out our podcast. You'll find those and many other interviews.
(SOUNDBITE OF HERB ALPERT AND THE TIJUANA BRASS' "A TASTE OF HONEY")
DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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