Chuck Barris has always been a fascinating character to me. As a kid growing up I LOVED The Gong Show! It was (and still is) some of the wildest television yet to be experienced. Of course Barris was also responsible for The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, but The Gong Show will always be his masterpiece. But there’s a lot more to this guy that The Gong Show would suggest. In particular he’s written some very cool novels (which masquerade as autobiographies) in the form of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Bad Grass Never Dies, and The Big Question . . . and a real biography called The Game Show King which is also pretty cool. But perhaps my favorite bit of Barris genius is the 1980 film The Gong Show Movie. It was almost universally dismissed by critics, and audiences didn’t flock to it either. Part of that was due to the fact that it arrived after the peak of the television show’s popularity, but more likely it was a result of the unusual nature of the film. Instead of a feature-length/R-rated version of the show, the film was more of an exploration of Barris’s life and near nervous breakdown. Yeah Gene Gene the Dancing Machine and The Unknown Comic makes appearances, but this is somewhat of a dark ride.
The plot of The Gong Show Movie is almost non-existent. Essentially it is a week in the life of Chuck Barris. The film starts out with Barris watching some truly insane auditions (in part where the film gets its R-rating), and then proceeds to follow him doing everything from waking up in the morning to having dinner with his girlfriend. But what we get to see is how Barris is constantly bombarded by people trying to get on the show, to the point that it truly does become maddening. It’s hard to appreciate now just how popular the show was, but Barris was somewhat of a rock star in his day. But unlike being a member of The Beatles who just had people hurling praise and adoration, Barris would have some very loony folks coming at him from all directions performing impromptu auditions. According to his book The Game Show King it wreaked havoc on his personal life, until he eventually left the business and retreated to France.
While the film doesn’t follow Barris to his final destination, it does portray a mental breakdown he has in the desert near the end of the film. Eventually he does flee Los Angeles, but in a middle-of-nowhere diner he is still accosted. So he drives out into the desert to be alone where he is confronted by all the zany characters that have become a part of his life – on and off screen. The point is that the line between the two has become indistinguishable, and that he has to find some sort of acceptance of that fact . . . or he truly will go nuts. It’s not played as heavy as it sounds, but there is a dark energy to the film that suggests the material is not as “wacky” or lighthearted as the comedic surface elements make it appear. In fact, the juxtaposition of the familiar trappings of the show with the darker thematic elements makes for a pretty uncomfortable viewing experience at times. This leaves the viewer wondering whether or not art is really imitating the life of Barris.
I’m not saying that The Gong Show Movie is some sort of existential masterpiece, nor does it play like a David Fincher film. But there is far more here than what should have been. How easy would it have been for Barris to simply make a 90-minute, R-rated version of the show? It would have been money in the bank. Instead he deliberately chose to make an experimental film that defies categorization. This is further supported by the fact that original director Robert Downey Sr. gracefully bowed out so Barris could steer the project. Would that have really been necessary for such a lowbrow commercial product? While Barris claimed at the time he made the film to play to the lowest common denominator, the structure of the movie simply doesn’t support such an assertion. Particularly when taken in context with Barris’s literary works, The Gong Show Movie is almost like a trial run before the crown jewel which is Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. And while the book is arguably more successful, I’m still partial to the film. Writing a great book is certainly a noteworthy accomplishment, but the financial/career risks associated with a film are far more significant. Certainly that proved true with The Gong Show Movie, which was more or less the small/big screen swan song for Barris . . . and it couldn’t have been more perfect.
Actually, while Confessions of a Dangerous Mind may be considered the best of Barris by some, The Gong Show Movie will always be my personal favorite. It’s just such a bizarre, wonderful film that manages to capture a bit of the essence from that period, while also doing something unique in exploring the personality of an entertainment figure in a most unusual way. It’s a testament to the genius and artistic courage of Barris that he chose to take the road less traveled, elevating an outrageous game show to a cinematic treatise on the nature of celebrity. Now if only Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek would follow suit!