Chuck Barris: Lying to Tell the Truth

  • There are a lot of ways to tell the truth, and Chuck Barris has avoided most of them. His 1984 book Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was subtitled An Unauthorized Autobiography, and it claimed that while he was creating game shows like The Newlywed Game and The Dating Game and hosting The Gong Show, he was a contract CIA assassin — a claim he still refuses to say was untrue. The movie version, directed by George Clooney and written by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), which opens nationwide on Jan. 24, has tales the book never even imagined. "He wrote stuff out of nowhere," Barris says. "My mother never dressed me like a girl. I was never on drugs. The part about my father being a serial killer? That's Charlie. He writes such good stuff."

    Barris, 73, wrote the book partly because he's a huckster: he faked a resume for NBC, peddled game shows even though he didn't like them, and God knows what he has told his three wives. But he also fabricated his life because it might have been the best way of getting at the truth. The truth was that back when he was the Jerry Springer of his day, he couldn't stomach being attacked for doing something he considered harmless. So Barris wrote a book in which his first assignment purportedly was to collect intel on Martin Luther King Jr. "People forget the point of the book," he says. "Here I was, getting crucified by critics for entertaining people and getting medals for killing them. That just didn't seem logical."

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    Jan. 17, 2004

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    Perhaps the most truthful way to express that moral confusion is with a lie, a notion Kaufman explores not only in this script, which he wrote in 1997, but also in Adaptation. Kaufman has never met Barris and says he doesn't know if the CIA stories are true. "The first thing everybody asked me was, 'Is this true?'" Kaufman says. "That question interests me, whether in fiction or nonfiction." For the CIA's part, the only comment spokesman Paul Nowack would make was, "It's ridiculous. It's absolutely not true."

    Barris is still manic, running around his Upper East Side apartment trying to document the truth of his life, displayed in the photos of him with celebrities that hang everywhere. In one picture, taken during the period when, in the book and movie, he lived in a hotel as a hermit, he lies in a well-decorated party room watching a basketball game with John Cassavetes. "Peter Falk was in the bathroom," he explains.

    Barris plays the '50s pop hit he wrote and recently recorded on a CD with his band, Chuck Barris and the Hollywood Cowboys, a reunited Gong Show orchestra. "I thought with the movie coming out maybe I could sell a CD," he explains, before ruing that the Web wasn't around in 1980, when he could have sold GONG SHOW REJECT T shirts. When I tell him it's not too late, he nods. Half an hour later he says, "The website is a good idea. Maybe I'll give that a shot." Along with Hollywood mementos, the apartment is strewn with piles of books, which he reads three at a time. "I don't read nonfiction," he says. "Never liked it."

    But he does read the paper, in particular the articles that are once again being written about him, and he still cringes at the phrase "king of schlock." He is only slightly bothered that the cultural hand-wringing over his shows has been made moot by the Gong Show-izing of television. "The moral is, Hang in there because things are going to change," he says. Then he rethinks. "I tried to write an epilogue, and I came up empty. The only moral I came up with is, There is no moral."

    So he keeps going, an actor in his own life, living with the significantly younger wife he married three years ago after meeting her on a blind date. And he goes to the Friars Club, where a door has his name and a star on it, even though it's the door to the manager's closet. In the movie, he appears for the last few seconds, talking directly to the camera: "I came up with a new game-show idea recently. It's called The Old Game. You got three old guys with loaded guns onstage. They look back at their lives, see who they were, what they accomplished, how close they came to realizing their dreams. The winner is the one who doesn't blow his brains out. He gets a refrigerator."

    "I was just so happy that people might think I wrote that line," Barris says. When asked if he feels that way — that his life was ultimately one of wasted opportunity, of empty hucksterism signifying nothing — he doesn't pause: "Are you kidding? The Gong Show was the four best years of my life."