Was there anyone like Chuck Barris? Ever? The man of a dozen masks: Failed TelePrompTer salesman, creator of three surreally bad game shows (and elfin, manic host of one of them), best-selling author, self-proclaimed clandestine assassin for the CIA.
(But then aren’t all CIA assassins, self-confessed or otherwise, “clandestine?”)
To answer our own question, there was never anyone ever like Chuck Barris, who died Tuesday at 87, and -- with all due respect -- we’re lucky there wasn’t. The world couldn’t have handled another one.
In fact, Barris was his own greatest creation, and to read his words and examine his past, he was forced to re-create himself, over and over again. He got no respect from critics, and (frankly) didn’t deserve much. You create “The Newlywed Game,” you suffer the consequences.
But Barris was smarter than his critics. He knew posterity would be unkind, then he set out to understand why, and whether he could do something about that. He did.
Later, after all his success -- notably as one of the godfathers of the sort of television that filled the blighted landscape of what then-Federal Communications Chairman Newton Minow called “the vast wasteland” -- he became an author. His 1984 memoir, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” was a sensation, and also a scandal. In the opening pages, he recalled accidentally killing his housekeeper, by drop-kicking a flowerpot onto her head. (It was just a nightmare, he added helpfully).
He later explained that after getting fired from NBC, he was recruited by the CIA, and went on to become a stone-cold killer, and personally dispatched 30 targets. His cover were the TV shows. Victims assumed he was the fun-loving guy in the tux, who winced when Jamie Farr hit the gong to end some execrable act.
Indeed. Maybe they should have watched the show, when he was always introduced as “your host, the delectably dangerous Mister Chuck Barris...”
Many readers believed Barris. Many did not. Nevertheless, the CIA still had to endlessly respond to the same question, with the same answer: “No one named Chuck Barris ever worked for the CIA...”
(But then, don’t all CIA assassins go by assumed names?)
Not everyone was fooled. David Bianculli -- one of the sharpest critics of television in the long history of television -- instantly understood what was going on. As he explained in a story on Barris -- who corroborated the observation – the assassin business was just a metaphor.
As Bianculli wrote, “The major theme of the book, (Barris) says, is that ‘you can be crucified for making people laugh, yet, extending that idea to extremes, can get a presidential citation for killing them.’”
The joke’s on you, critics: There are actually worse things than making bad TV shows.
The joke got better. George Clooney eventually made a movie based on the book.
As a uniquely American character who self-invented, self-recreated, self-embroidered and self-embellished, Barris did have a precedent: Walter Mitty.
Mitty, the alter-ego of James Thurber, was once asked about his own fanciful self-inventions -- World War I fighter pilot ace, world-famous surgeon.
Why, Mitty, WHY?
Facing the firing squad, having his last smoke, the hero of his own imagined life said: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, to draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.”
Chuck couldn’t have said it better. He certainly lived by that credo.