Chuck Barris and the Art of Not Giving a F…

The Gong Show was a thing when I was in high school, for the brief, shining moment that it lasted. I thought it was hysterical, and weird, and subversive insofar as it seemed to upset a lot of nominal adults. Strange people with little or no talent, behaving oddly and in some cases outright badly. No one seemed to get that the whole reason it was funny was because it wasn’t funny, and the more intensely the so-called sensible people hated it, the harder some of us would love it.

It scratches the same itch for me, takes me to the same altered state of consciousness, as Ed Wood movies, a certain portion of Roger Corman’s work, and the Church of the Subgenius. I know that objectively, according to normal criteria, it’s not good. Yet by it’s own subjective internal criteria, it’s brilliant. You can judge these things on the same scale, but the same standards, as great art. It doesn’t care. It’s about cutting loose and having fun and not really giving a flying F what people think. The crew, at least, didn’t have to wait tables or hawk life insurance for a while.

When Confessions of a Dangerous Mind came out in hardcover in 1984, I bought it, read it, and then read it again about a dozen times. To this day I’m amazed that people took it at all seriously, and believed that Chuck Barris was a killer for the CIA. He was definitely screwing with people, as he always did, but I think he knew that a straight-up autobiography about creating TV game shows would be painfully boring. Not just a dull thing for us to read, but for him to write.

Now Chuck is dead, at the ripe old age of 87, but let’s be honest: he’s been dead in the public eye for a long time. Yeah, maybe there was a little resurgence of interest when the movie version of Confessions came out, but that had more to do with the film’s stars than it did with Chuck. There have been attempts to reboot The Gong Show without Chuck, and they’ve all bombed worse than some of the contestants on the original show.

To some of us, though, Chuck is an immortal. He is up there in my personal firmament, as the Patron Saint of Not Giving a F… He knew what he wanted to do, and how he wanted to do it, and he stuck to his guns. He was successful when he shouldn’t have been, and while he was eventually taken down by The Man, it was after he’d made his fortune being intensely and unapologetically weird.