Chuck Barris, the “dangerous mind” behind “The Gong Show,” a grotesque burlesque masquerading as a performance competition, possessed his own unique talent: turning cheap laughs into gold.
The oddball showman of the game-show set, who died Tuesday at age 87, gleefully created programs that wrung entertainment out of embarrassment. His gong, which presaged cries of "You’re fired!," resounds as loudly and crassly as ever.
While game shows were his forte, Barris' twisted DNA lurks throughout Reality TV. In the mid-1960s, he concocted "The Dating Game," which matched couples based on answers to double-entendre-laden questions – making it a funnier forerunner of "The Bachelor."
He soon after launched "The Newlywed Game," in which young couples learned, through their separate answers to personal questions, how much (or little) they knew about one another. That chagrin machine heralded the later likes of "Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica," in which "Chicken of the Sea" took on a new meaning.
"The Gong Show" foreshadowed all the William Hungs who populated the early rounds of "American Idol." But the show's clearest echoes extend to "The Apprentice," where instead of hearing a gong, losers were brusquely informed, "You're fired!" by future President Donald Trump.
Barris, who presided over the 1976 to 1980 run of "The Gong Show," offered up himself as an anti-host. His ants-in-his-pants shuffling and nervous arm-swinging lent an apt lack of polish to the shambolic proceedings.
His sneering grin suggested his own embarrassment at serving as the ringmaster for a pre-Letterman assemblage of stupid human tricks. It also connoted that Barris – like judges Jamie Farr, Jaye P. Morgan and other assorted gong-stick-wielders – were in on the sick joke.
Whether you regarded the spectacle as cruel, funny or a cynical combination of both, "The Gong Show" could make viewers feel as if they should have been the ones wearing the Unknown Comic’s paper-bag disguise, even when watching at home alone.
Barris largely traveled undercover post-"Gong Show," though his 1984 book "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," a (presumable) fantasy about his supposed secret life as an assassin for the CIA, became a critically hailed film in 2002.
The offbeat comedy offered a strangely fitting final act for a deceivingly influential show business character who dealt in pop culture oddities and delusions of grandeur that ring on, for better or worse, far past the final gong.