Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Chuck Barris

For Love of the Game Show

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

January 15, 2003—The smile takes you back. Chuck Barris, 72, doesn't look much like the guy in the shabby suit and the low-slung hat clapping his hands while introducing horrible acts on The Gong Show. But the smile does. The smile is the same.

It might be tempting to ridicule poor Barris. His 1970s television show The Gong Show, which he both created and hosted, was once considered an assault on good taste. And his book, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind contained preposterous claims about working as a hitman for the CIA.

Now television has grown so much worse; sinking to depths previously unimagined by something as funny and simple as The Gong Show. And Barris' book has undergone a re-appraisal. It's now considered a blast of anguish, a real page-turner. And it has been made into a superior movie (see Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by George Clooney, which opens Friday in Bay Area theaters.

Where once Barris was pathetic, he now comes across like a survivor, a guy who tried really hard and never quite made it to the top. As a result, he now appreciates the world's simplest pleasures. Meeting him in person, you can't help but like him.

Visiting San Francisco recently for a series of book signings, Barris reveals his new great joy in life: his wife Mary, whom he met on a blind date. "I don't believe in love at first sight," he says. "Call it lust at first sight, or whatever, but that's what it was."

Barris still can't believe how well things are going right now. Going to bookstores to sign copies of his re-released book, he's surprised to find wall-to-wall fans waiting for him. And he certainly didn't expect Kaufman and Clooney's movie to be so good.

Firstly, the film took almost a decade of false starts before finally going before the cameras. Secondly, Barris wasn't particularly happy with Clooney's casting choice for the lead role: Sam Rockwell. Barris had never heard of him, and big talents like Russell Crowe, Edward Norton, Johnny Depp, Mike Myers and Kevin Spacey had all been interested in the role.

But when Rockwell (Galaxy Quest, Charlie's Angels) came to meet with him, Barris changed his tune. Rockwell spent four months watching game show tapes, recording Barris' voice and taking pictures of his movements and gestures. "It wasn't that he was going to mimic me or imitate me," Barris says. "He just wanted to get a certain background. He says he threw it away and just went on and did the part. And I thought he was incredible."

Clooney offered to let Barris change anything in the script that he objected to, but despite the fact that Kaufman invented all kinds of bizarre biographical details, Barris only wanted one change.

"Charlie had me as a druggie. I've never taken drugs, and I had a daughter who died of an overdose of drugs. So I told George that he could have me drinking or whatever else, but no drugs. And he did it. But I never asked him about anything else because I felt like I was overstaying my welcome."

The meat of the book -- Barris' dealings with the CIA -- was, of course, left in the movie. But Barris refuses to speak about this subject in any way.

What he will talk about is the state he was in when he wrote the book in the early 1980s. After fifteen years in television and getting nothing but complaints and criticisms, he was feeling "unfairly hurt, angry and bitter," he says. "It was a very bad time in my life and it says so in the book. I checked into the Windham hotel. I was going to stay for a month and get this anger out of my system. Two and a half years later I walked out with Confessions."

The new movie completes a circle in Barris' life, but it also rights another wrong. Many people overlook the fact that Barris had a previous Hollywood experience, and one that he would like to forget. In 1980, Universal Pictures greenlit a $2 million picture called The Gong Show Movie, which would be written and directed by -- as well as star -- Barris.

"The movie was so bad, I won't even let my wife watch it," he says. "I remember it so clearly. What originally started out as an Airplane!, with sight-gags and funny things, was the first third of the film. Then I must have seen a Godard movie and I decided to become serious, which was the stupidest thing in the world. I can almost draw a line across the film. Here's the good part and here's the bad part, and about the last two-thirds is the bad part. I just goes right down. People start to get up and leave the theater. And there's nothing more painful."

"This experience is far greater," he says of watching the new movie. "When I sit in the audience and I feel the people are enjoying the film, and sometimes they applaud at the end, or when they come out and they're saying good things. It's so wonderful."

This experience of people appreciating his life and work is a new one for Barris, and it's profoundly moving to see his happiness.

"I knew my shows were getting good ratings, and that millions of people were watching them. But when people stopped me on the street, they would never say, 'What a great show' or 'I love your work.' It was, 'your show is so dumb!' I thought people didn't like me, the critics didn't like me, didn't like the work I was doing. People always said, 'he's crying all the way to the bank.' But I always wanted to be liked. It seems now that I didn't do so badly."

But of all his accomplishments -- his books, his TV shows and everything else -- Barris' favorite is still the hit song he wrote in 1962, "Palisades Park," which has been recorded over the years by the likes of the Beach Boys, Frankie Avalon, Jan and Dean and the Ramones.

"Everything I did was second level," he says. "I never got any Emmys, or Oscars or Grammys, and even 'Palisades Park' went to number two. But 'Palisades' is the sweetest memory of all, because it was the first thing that I created. When I hear it today, I still get excited. I just go nuts."

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