Remembering Chuck Barris, Accidental Comedy Pioneer

When she stumbles upon me chuckling at something she finds bewildering, my wife periodically asks me, “Is this that anti-comedy you like?” She’s invariably referring to something that I enjoy but that she finds unfunny, dumb, and weird for the sake of being weird. I can’t blame my wife for being unclear on the exact definition of anti-comedy. It’s one of those strange, slippery terms denounced or disparaged by the people generally considered its greatest practitioners.

Like all labels, “anti-comedy” is by definition reductive and tough to pin down, but like many labels, it does serve a useful purpose. By this point anti-comedy has a tradition and history. It also has consistent themes and ideas even if the art form is slippery and subversive by design. I doubt Chuck Barris, the controversial host and creator of The Gong Show, among other popular, reviled, and loved trash TV institutions like The Newlywed Game and The Dating Game, who died recently at 87, would have embraced the label or concept of “anti-comedy” either.

Barris was an entertainer. He made entertainment for the masses that almost accidentally helped lay the foundation for contemporary anti-comedy. Long before a record label owner named Gregg Turkington recreated himself as intentionally terrible sad-sack jokesmith Neil Hamburger, as a way of both building a sustainable character he could develop over the decades and commenting on the desperate nature of standup as a medium, Barris made The Unknown Comic, a canny opportunist who told deliberately awful jokes while wearing a brown paper bag over his face, a star.

How successful was The Gong Show? The Unknown Comic got his own damn movie, an abysmal Police Academy knock-off called Night Patrol costarring Billy Barty, Linda Blair, and Pat Morita. Like Tim & Eric, Chuck Barris put people on television precisely because they seemingly had no business being on television, or performing in public at all.

With The Gong Show, the question was often less “Is this good?” or “Is this act better than that act?” than “What the fuck is going on, and shouldn’t some adult stop this before it goes any further?” Barris reveled in spontaneity and incompetence, in both happy and unhappy accidents. As a ringmaster and master of ceremonies, Barris took a very laissez-faire approach, drinking the insanity in from a wry, detached distance.

The acts on The Gong Show, like stagehand-turned-dancer Gene Gene The Dancing Machine and the Popsicle Twins (whose “act” consisted of eating popsicles in a manner resembling oral sex) deviated so far from the template of professional entertainers that they called the whole concept of professional entertainment into question. Like the best anti-comedy, The Gong Show implicitly inquired anew, with each wild new act, “What is comedy?”, “What makes something funny?”, “Is weirdness inherently funny?” and “Is it enough for something to be weird and provocative for the sake of pushing buttons and offending people?”

Yet unlike the more revered likes of Andy Kaufman, Albert Brooks, and Steve Martin, who were similarly deconstructing comedy and entertainment in exciting and revolutionary ways during the height of The Gong Show, Barris did not approach the show’s interrogation into the essential nature of funny business from an intellectual or Bohemian level. Barris wasn’t necessarily trying to push comedy in weird, challenging, and tricky new directions. He wasn’t trying to be a pioneer or an innovator. He was just trying to fill up airtime and sell laundry detergents and entertain housewives. Yet he brought programming that sometimes bordered on avant-garde in its wholesale disregard for accepted notions of professionalism and competence to the American airwaves all the same.

Barris was a true vulgarian but he furtively had impeccable influences. 1980’s The Gong Show Movie is a brutal, depressing slog enlivened only by the film debut of a young Phil Hartman but it’s co-written by pioneering independent experimental satirist (and Iron Man dad) Robert Downey Sr. and terrible and overwrought in an intriguingly Fellinesque fashion. Barris was trying to make 8 1/2 but with Rip Taylor and The Unknown Comic. Not surprisingly, he failed.

The game show maven had far more success with another fictionalized look at his topsy-turvy life and career. It was called Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and had one hell of a hook: in it, Barris professed to have been a prolific and deadly assassin working for the CIA while producing The Dating Game and hosting The Gong Show.

Even more intriguingly, Barris wouldn’t acknowledge that the book was a violent, intensely sexual and dark fictional fantasy and not an authentic account of his secret life. It was a good gimmick but the book didn’t need it. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind earned its cult status in part due to its uniqueness. There aren’t a lot of memoirs by important television producers that mostly involve fictional anecdotes involving murdering Communists at the behest of the CIA, bar-fighting and having bad, dispiriting sex with beautiful women. There’s pretty much only Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Wink Martindale’s controversial autobiography Fuck, Cum, Shit, Piss: A Life In Game Shows.

But Confessions of a Dangerous Mind endures as well because it is an eminently worthy addition to the grand canon of Jewish Literature involving self-hatred, sexual neuroses, and incoherent rage. It’s intensely scatological in a Bukowski/Henry Miller sort of way, a faux-autobiography of Barris’ dick and its surprising and plentiful misadventures. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is the work of a man who, despite his lazily cultivated persona as an amiable goofball meandering his way through a stoned, charmed life, read a lot of books and in a different lifetime might have written a bunch of books as well.

Confessions is obsessed with celebrity, with sex, with identity. It’s about fame and power as both an aphrodisiac and a prison, about the continual pleasuring of the body as the death of the spirit. It’s a secretly serious book predicated on an outrageous lie Barris was unusually dedicated to propagating. The book was a hot property in Hollywood for ages, and everyone from Ben Stiller to Johnny Depp to Mike Myers to Ed Norton was attached to it at one point or another before it was finally filmed as George Clooney’s directorial debut with Sam Rockwell as Barris in a Charlie Kaufman script Clooney altered fairly extensively, most notably in eliminating a third-act subplot involving Barris’ addiction to cocaine.

Though it’s far from the best film in his oeuvre, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind nevertheless fits in perfectly with Kaufman’s other cerebral, pitch-black explorations of fame, celebrity, sex, power, and desperation. As super-smart, darkly funny, neurotic Jewish men and television veterans with a flair for the post-modern, Kaufman and Barris have unmistakably simpatico sensibilities. While one is just a little more respected than the other, the mere fact that Barris and Kaufman’s lives and work overlap so profoundly and extensively (it’s worth noting that Kaufman’s scripts for Adaptation and Confessions revolve around fictionalized versions of himself and Barris, respectively, and that Barris created a wild and outrageous fictional life and history for himself long before Kaufman did) betrays how Barris was actually swimming in some fairly deep water, intellectually and comedically speaking, all while perfectly playing the stoned airhead, the quintessential lightweight.

Nathan Rabin is the author of five books, including Weird Al: The Book (with Al Yankovic) and the recently released Ebook “Short Read”, 7 Days In Ohio: Trump, The Gathering of The Juggalos And The Summer Everything Went Insane.

Remembering Chuck Barris, Accidental Comedy Pioneer