Chuck Barris reacts during a taping session of The Gong Show.
If Hollywood ever gets around to creating a Reality-TV Hall of Fame, Chuck Barris most surely deserves to be one of the first nominees. Long before Mike Fleiss and his producers perfected the soap-opera dramatics of The Bachelor, it was Barris who made dating and relationships a televised sport with The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game. And while talent and variety shows had been TV staples for decades by the time Barris created The Gong Show in 1976, Barris understood lowbrow, bawdy, and even downright bad entertainers could make for just as much (if not more) fun as legitimately “good” acts, a concept advanced decades later by Simon Cowell with Britain’s Got Talent and NBC’s Americanized spinoff. Critics of his time derided Barris as a “schlockmeister,” a vulgarian piling on more garbage to TV’s vast wasteland. In fact, Barris, who died Tuesday at the age of 87, turned out to be nothing less than a visionary.
Barris doesn’t always get mentioned in discussions about the rise of modern reality TV, in part because he stopped making new TV shows around the time Ronald Reagan was inaugurated, becoming something of a recluse (or was he really just back at work spying for the CIA?). But the connection between Barris and reality TV also isn’t as direct and obvious as some other forefathers and mothers of the genre. Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jon Murray’s use of omnipresent, fly-on-the-wall cameras and drama-heightening editing-room skills make their MTV staple The Real World the clear ancestor to Big Brother, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, or even The Bachelor. But while Fleiss’s Bachelor surely owes a stylistic debt to Real World, Barris’s Dating Game is where his ABC franchise got its soul. In case you’ve never seen it, The Dating Game featured an attractive bachelorette (yes, it used that term on air) grilling three anonymous bachelors about their personal lives and interests. She’d then select one of the trio for a date; only then would the prospective couple get to see what each other looked like. Instead of handing out roses at the end, the contestants would blow kisses to the audience.
All of this may sound pretty chaste compared to The Bachelor, but The Dating Game (which first ran on ABC from 1965 until 1973) was pretty revolutionary for its time, and provided a template for Fleiss’s creation. As the concurrent sexual and women’s revolutions were heating up, Barris understood that mid-1960s audiences had moved beyond the almost-virginal approach TV had taken to relationships and would be okay with a half-hour in which male-female interactions were treated as, quite literally, a game. There were no hot tubs or make-out sessions on The Dating Game, and contestants used all sorts of euphemisms to discuss their various romantic proclivities. But Barris bet, successfully, that American audiences would eat up a show where private lives were made public (a concept he evolved further, and more explicitly, with The Newlywed Game). He didn’t have confessional cameras, but he did have real people talking relatively honestly about themselves and their love lives.
Sometimes, what these people said was embarrassing. TV producers of the 1950s and 1960s might have edited out such segments, or worked hard to avoid putting contestants in situations that might lead to embarrassment. (Take a look at an early TV dating show Blind Date and see the difference.) Barris encouraged it, not because he was trying to be mean, but because he understood the human condition isn’t as picture-perfect and sanitized as the one TV tried to present in its first decades. Fleiss and other 21st-century reality producers took things much further; some have argued too far. And yet it was Barris who perhaps first understood that so-called “lowbrow” entertainment had value, particularly for an audience of 20-something baby-boomers ready to shed the formalities of their Mad Men–generation parents. (Fleiss seems to agree with this assessment: Tuesday night, he tweeted out an appreciation for Barris, noting he “started it all.”)
Barris’s third (and final) big TV hit, 1976’s The Gong Show, similarly moved TV further toward the modern reality era. Its format was familiar to anyone who’s watched a recent TV talent competition series, particularly AGT. Aspiring stars performed for a panel of three celebrity judges, with Barris serving as a Ryan Seacrest–like emcee (if Seacrest had a dark sense of humor and quirky personality). The twist: At any moment during a performance, any one of the judges could crush the wannabe’s hopes by gonging them, ending the act and kicking them out of the competition. Long before Simon and Paula fought over an Idol performer’s value, Gong Show would have judges physically restraining each other to prevent one of them from gonging an act. It was captivating, it was hilarious — and it was even sometimes cruel. But what it wasn’t was The Ed Sullivan Show. It was a new kind of talent competition, one in which some acts were actually really good, most acts were just for laughs — and we, the audience, were told it was okay to laugh at the performers. There would be no William Hung without The Gong Show first coming along to pop the bubble of formality and “classiness” in which so much of unscripted TV lived in at the time.
Even behind the scenes, Barris was ahead of his time. Before he found success as producer, Barris ran the part of ABC’s daytime division in charge of making game shows. He didn’t last long, in part because he believed his own ideas were better than the ones being pitched to him, and in part, most likely, because ABC brass were nervous about the way he thought about TV. Three decades later, network TV — or, at least, a then-upstart Fox network — was ready for a slightly unhinged suit fearless in his thinking about what TV could be. That executive would be Mike Darnell, the infamous gonzo reality-TV exec who’s brought the world everything from When Animals Attack and Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire to Steve Harvey’s Little Big Shots. Darnell, like Fleiss and Cowell, would evolve TV well beyond the place Barris left it when he signed off from the business in the early 1980s. They didn’t just repackage his old ideas; to borrow a line from Darnell’s biggest hit, American Idol, they made Barris’s melodies their own. Now that Barris has left us, let’s remember that he wrote some of the first notes in the Great American Reality-TV Songbook. He’s finally been gonged, but he won’t soon be forgotten.