Photo: Publicity photo of American television host, Chuck Barris promoting the June 14, 1976 premiere of the NBC reality talent show The Gong Show (detail). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Pour one out for Chuck Barris, game show genius and alleged CIA assassin, who died of natural causes on Tuesday, March 21, at his home in Palisades, New York, at the age of 87.
Best known as the creator and host of The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show, in 1982, Barris stunned the world with the publication of his memoir Confessions of a Dangerous Mind: An Unauthorized Autobiography, in which he claimed to be a former CIA agent and assassin. In 2002, the book was adapted into a feature film of the same name, directed by George Clooney and starring Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts, and Clooney. The CIA adamantly denied Barris’ employment, calling the whole thing “ridiculous.”
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is a must-read for anyone who enjoys the madcap adventures of a freethinker who takes pleasure in subverting the system from within. In the book, Barris reveals the indisputable genius that led to the creation of his game show, each more outrageous than the next, gently cultivating a taste for reality television with its sly nods and winks at all the things you couldn’t say on TV, until he came on the scene.
By the time Barris came out with the Gong Show he had American eager to make fools of themselves on national television for the sheet pleasure that such nonsense brings. Contestants were invited to show their ‘talents” to a panel of three celebrity judges until their acts wore thin, inviting the a bang of the gong to seal their fate.
Now, the plot twist, as on Barris could envision it. In his memoir, he recounts how it all went down. In 1961, ABC had reneged on an agreement to finance a pilot of The Dating Game. After Barris goes to a bar and gets kicked out for fighting, he is approached by CIA agent Jim Byrd, who recruits him as an assassin and flies him out on his first assignment to Mexico After he returned home, ABC greenlighted the show, and Barris kicked off a crazy double life when he found a crafty way to bridge the two. In the book he explains that he went with the winning couple as a chaperone, taking them to random places where he had assignments for the CIA like Helsinki, Finland, in the dead of winter.
Like any great Barris production, it’s entirely too much—yet you can’t look away. You find yourself more than willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of a great story. But more than this, the book got Barris hooked on the craft of writing, inspiring him to pen several other titles in the following decades.
The New York Times recounts a marvelous exchange that took place at Book Passage bookstore in Corte Madera, CA, in 2007 while Barris was promoting one of his books. An attendee asked if, upon his death, he would prefer to be remembered as an author or a game show producer.
The Times quoted Barris as saying, “That’s the easiest question of all. I would love to be known as an author, but I don’t think it’s written that that’s the way it’s going to be. I think on my tombstone it’s just going to say, ‘Gonged at last,’ and I’m stuck with that.”
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.