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‘Tapping into the comedy of couples’: How Chuck Barris made TV that was ahead of its time


First, he had The Dating Game. Then came The Newlywed Game. And he followed it all up with the madcap mayhem that was The Gong Show.

Sure, many have written off the game shows as mindless and low-brow. But the trio of game shows put out by Chuck Barris, who died Tuesday at age 87, have had a lasting legacy.

Robert Thompson, a pop culture and television professor at Syracuse University, said Barris’s “fingerprints” are all over more current shows like The Bachelor, Joe Millionaire and the Idol franchise.

“He had come up with that idea way earlier and it took a while for the rest of these other people to realize what he had.”

The Dating Game

The show launched in 1965 to great success. It wasn’t the first game to try and get people together without them seeing each other (the U.S. version of Blind Date started in 1949) but Thompson said Barris brought the concept into the “hip new era of the 1960s.”

He says The Dating Game “took one of those ideas that had been floating around since the 1940s, established it in a big hit show and that virus then spread all over the place.”

Thompson thinks the show was Barris’s “most enduring legacy.”

A fair point considering similar shows that sprung up abroad, including Britain’s Blind Date and Australia’s Perfect Match.

The Newlywed Game

Soon after, in 1966, Barris launched a show pitting married couples against each other with pretty funny results. It’s where host Bob Eubanks coined the phrase “making whoopie,” a slang term for having sex which let the show skirt the censors.

John Brunton of Insight Productions, a producer who helmed reality shows like The Amazing Race Canada, Canadian Idol and Canada’s Got Talent, said The Newlywed Game proved that Barris had a knack for mining people for entertainment.

“I think that it was tapping into the comedy of couples,” he said.

“He turned the cameras back on real people.”

The Gong Show

Barris took a turn with this 1976 daytime game show, which saw him hosting bizarre amateur performers who were trying to avoid the gong of the celebrity judges. The show specialized in bad acts.

In this format, Brunton said Barris was one of the original people to create “really compelling television and comedy out of bad talent.”

It’s become a staple of reality television today — from the nightmare performances that get the X on the Got Talent franchise to the terrible singers who show up in the early audition stage of the Idol series.

“He changed the definition of comedy in a way, and it wasn’t written comedy,” Brunton said. “It was found comedy.” 

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Tila Tequila parties with the cast of her series A Shot at Love on New Year’s Eve 2007. Barris’ shows like The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game served as a precursor to ones like hers. (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)

Barris would go on to produce and oversee other shows, including flops like The $ 1.98 Beauty Show and 3’s A Crowd. But he had already cemented his influence.

“I think Chuck Barris was way ahead of his time. He was making these dating shows long before everybody else figured out what a great genre this could be,” Thompson, the university professor said.

“If we want to realize what a brilliant artist Chuck Barris was, we have to totally rethink the criteria we use in evaluating what exactly is art.”

CBC | Arts News

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