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This week's column was
inspired by Thursday night's appearance of legendary
Game Show Guru-slash-Company Man, Chuck Barris on the LATE SHOW.
CONFESSIONS OF A DORKY MIND
For so long, I have been harboring a deep, dark secret about myself. And I think fans of this column may have stumbled upon my secret shame. Yes, dear readers, with the exception of David Letterman, I have absolutely the worst taste in the world. I know it's difficult to make such a blanket statement. Alas, I have plenty of proof.
There will always be a part of me who wished I had a working knowledge of Kultur, of great opera and great works of art. But I know I've always been a little too white trashy in my personal enthusiasms and a little too prole friendly for my own good. If you ever wondered who in their right minds watches JACKASS, um, that would be me. If you ever wondered what type of individual would ever consider buying a stripper pole for his living room simply because (as seen on MTV CRIBS) Big Boi from OUTKAST has one, yup, I've been there too. By the way, IKEA doesn't sell 'em, I checked.
They say a person acquires much of his intelligence during the first five years of life. If this is true, I think I can pinpoint, to the date, when I bungee jumped off the ocean liner GOOD TASTE.
FADE IN: SUMMER 1977
EST. SHOT: TYPICAL MIDDLE CLASS, MIDDLE AMERICAN SUBURBAN HOME-NIGHT.
INT. HUMBLE LIVING ROOM/TV ROOM. NUMEROUS KNICK KNACKS AND BRICK-A-BRAC SURROUND A TWENTY FIVE INCH COLOR TELEVISION SET. A SUBTLE SCORCESE-LIKE TRACKING SHOT (THINK CASINO) SLOWLY REVEALS AN IMPRESSIONABLE CHILD PARKED DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF SAID MAGNAVOX, HIS MOUTH AGAPED AND HIS EYES AGOGGED.
So, here I am, a five year old Xander, catching my first glimpse who would alter my life forever more. Yes, I am talking about GONG SHOW fixture, Gene-Gene the Dancing Machine.
From his stiff legged Cab Calloway inspired gyrations to his Rerun from WHAT'S HAPPENIN' wiggy break dance moves and to his proto-Michael Jackson moonwalk, the immortal, self proclaimed Dancing Machine truly touched my prepubescent soul. Adding to the mix: Jaye P. "I'm High on Life/Ludes" Morgan (for a short while, my ideal woman. Right after Sam from BEWITCHED and Morticia Addams but before Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees) and scores of talent free amateurs (of the sort that would give Joe Franklin wet dreams). I thought I was in heaven but it was only a fool's paradise.
I needed more. With a monkey on my back, I soon graduated to the harder stuff, the dark side of the Chuck Barris canon: Rip Taylor and the $1.98 BEAUTY CONTEST and TREASURE HUNT with the diabolical limey assistant, Emile Arturi the Third.
So I guess it is perhaps understandable why I greet the release of the movie CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND and the sudden, unexpected renaissance of Chuck Barris with both paralyzing terror and a smile on my face.
Be that as it may, the artist formally known as 'Chuckie Baby' was actually a pretty good guest for Letterman. As a television personality, he was always a trifle bit squirrelly. In his heyday, there was a slightly abashed, deer in the headlights quality about Chuck that made his humor more self deprecating and served to shield his natural intelligence. Thankfully, over the years, he has retained his self deprecating wit but now feels no need to mask the smarts.
Anyone who's read his memoirs knows that Chuck was quite the huckster extraordinaire and that his programs played (knowingly) to the lowest common denominator. They were wholeheartedly, the product of a very singular television maverick who, yes, had a very dangerous mind. Here was a producer whose output was extremely limited but whose influence upon the television landscape is greater today than it's ever been.
It seemed to me that Chuck enjoyed playing the part of the wacky, carny minded id to the rest of broadcast television's superego. Chuck Barris may have retired (with his millions) twenty years ago but network TV has been trying to play catch up ever since.
If you look at television today, you can see the essence of Chuck all over the place. From the reality dating shows to the jacked-up talent competitions, they all owe their allegiance to the old Barris oeuvre.
But I think the chief difference is one of innocence. When Chuck ran into trouble with the censors, I don't think he was consciously trying to push the envelope. He was just trying to pull a fast one over the networks. When network programmers run shows like JOE MILLIONAIRE or THE BACHELORETTE, they're not trying to push the envelope either. They're just trying to pull a fast one over the viewing public. That's a huge difference.
On the LATE SHOW, Dave addressed some of these issues. In fact, he was extraordinarily gracious and articulate. Perhaps, and I know this may sound strange, Dave felt in Chuck Barris a kindred spirit: both men definitely marched to their own drummers and each had a personal vision of what they wanted out of television and, despite numerous obstacles, refused to compromise on that vision.
Plus, Dave obviously relished the idea that this guy may (or may not have) been a CIA operative and that he may (or may not have) assassinated 33 men. Gotta admit it does make one helluva story. All in all, a very good effort.