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‘Gong Show’ creator is no joke

New movie is based on Barris’ many escapades

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"Gong Show" host Chuck Barris would kill for a little respect — and says he has.

The new film "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," based on his 1982 autobiography, depicts his alleged work as a CIA hitman while he was creating such shows as "The Dating Game" and "The Newlywed Game."

Is he imagining things, telling an outrageous truth . . . or just toying with the public that once mocked him?

"I'll never say for sure whether it is true or isn't true. I'm taking that to my grave," the 73-year-old Barris says with a laugh.

Speaking by phone from his home in New York, Barris says he enjoys the speculation about whether he truly was assassinating enemies of the United States at the same time he was creating a public stir in the '60s and '70s with his lowbrow game shows, forerunners to today's "reality TV."

The movie is the directorial debut of George Clooney, who also co-stars as Barris' CIA recruiter. Actor Sam Rockwell stars as Barris, and Julia Roberts is a seductive secret contact.

Apart from the gonzo murder claims, "Confessions" also focuses on a fictionalized relationship with a character named Penny Pacino, played by Drew Barrymore, and ignores Barris' real-life marriages.

Clooney has said he doesn't know which elements of the story are true but was fascinated that someone of Barris' "wealth and fame" would want to say such things about himself.

Born in Philadelphia, Barris was a management trainee at NBC before working at ABC as a network spy monitoring Dick Clark's "American Bandstand." Barris also wrote the hit song "Palisades Park," recorded by Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon.

"We've been friends for 40-some odd years and I've seen him through moments of great joy and exhilaration and happiness to plumbing the depths," Clark says.

"He's basically a very bright, well-read guy who was very good at turning out shows for the masses that were sometimes not of the highest intellectual status. I presume he would have rather created masterpieces."

During the 1960s, Barris began selling ideas to the networks and quickly became reviled as the "King of Schlock Television" because his programs featured regular people gambling against humiliation for household appliances, cash or a night on the town.

"I knew I was not creating the greatest works of art," Barris says. "Still, I thought, 'I'm just trying to entertain you.' "

On "The Dating Game," singles would flirt with unseen suitors through suggestive question-and-answer sessions. "The Newlywed Game" tested a couple's knowledge of each other with intimate queries — usually about "making whoopee."

"The Gong Show," which took Barris from behind-the-scenes producer to on-stage host, featured a parade of wannabe singers, comics and dancers whose meager talents could be halted by a panel of celebrity judges when the performance became insufferable.

"The criticism actually ruined me. The headlines said, 'TV hits an all-time low,' " Barris says.

"I remember once I was waiting at a light and a car pulled up next to me and the passenger winds down her window, so I wound down my window, and she said: 'You're the dumbest thing that ever walked. Your show stinks.' That kind of thing would lay me out for days."

By 1980, he was burned out. "The Gong Show" was canceled along with his short-lived "$1.98 Beauty Show," in which pageant contestants would do stunts for a prize valued at less than $2.

He poured his despair and self-loathing into writing. "I was bummed out about everything and everybody," he says. "I thought, for a month, I'll go and write all this stuff down. I stayed for two years."

When he finished, he had "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind: An Unauthorized Autobiography," a story that he says is at least part satire: A person could do far crueler things than create a bad TV show.

Adding to his personal woes have been two divorces, the last in 1999, while he was combatting lung cancer, and the death of his daughter, Della, who used to appear on "The Gong Show" as a child.

Now married a third time, Barris says he's the happiest he's ever been. People generally remember his shows with nostalgia instead of disgust, and he's writing a sequel to "Confessions" titled "Bad Grass Never Dies."

He remains his own harshest critic, often lamenting his TV legacy.

The goofy appearances on "The Gong Show" led to the bug-munching of "Fear Factor" and the shallow pop celebrity of "American Idol." The hot-tubbing waifs and studs of "The Bachelor" recall "The Dating Game." And before couples appeared on the browbeating "Dr. Phil" or succumbed to the brawling depravity of "The Jerry Springer Show," they swatted each other playfully on "The Newlywed Game."

"What we see now is so awful that people look back at me with sweet reverence," Barris says. "Now I'm not such a nut and crazy maniac. But I'm the pioneer of reality shows, for good or bad."

"'Fear Factor,' the Springers of the world with the screaming and yelling and slapping . . . if that's what I pioneered, geez, I'm not sure that's the best thing in the world."