Talk about the unknown comic: If you believe Chuck Barris, he had a secret life as a CIA assassin.
Barris is certainly guilty of many offenses. He was a pioneer of reality TV, bringing to life The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game and other unscripted programs designed to allow participants to humiliate themselves before a national audience. He then stepped in front of the camera with his most infamous creation, The Gong Show.
But while Barris was destroying American culture, was he also executing enemy spies? In Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, a 1980 autobiography, the TV legend offers this self-assessment:
"My name is Charles Hirsch Barris. I have written pop songs, I have been a television producer. I am responsible for polluting the airwaves with mind-numbing puerile entertainment. In addition, I have murdered 33 human beings."
Now, George Clooney, in his directorial debut, is bringing the Barris story to the big screen — depicting the funny man as a hit man. The movie opens nationally Jan. 17, starring Clooney, Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore and Sam Rockwell as a gong-and-gun-wielding Barris.
Clooney isn't sure whether the spy games are all in Barris' head. "I made it a point never to ask Chuck," he says. "I thought if I was going to tell the story, I thought I should do it without knowing the answer. It's a fascinating story either way."
Sure, Barris may have created the CIA gimmick to create interest in the book. Not a bad idea. It's hard to check. The CIA doesn't comment on questions about its personnel. Maybe I'm a special agent, too. Prove I'm not.
However, Barris offers a disturbingly detailed account in the book. Detailing one mission, he writes:
"I jammed my automatic into his mouth. The front of the silencer broke teeth as it went in … I pulled the trigger three times. The man's eyes remained surprised while the back of his head splattered against the wall of the church."
It's also a little disturbing that winners on The Dating Game received free trips to "Swingin' West Berlin" and "Beautiful Helsinki." Why not Miami? Barris purportedly chose the vacation destinations and traveled as a chaperon to create a cover for his cloak-and-dagger games.
Would a man really talk about concealing microfilm in his rectum just to sell books? Just remember who we're talking about. When dog acts were on The Gong Show Barris claimed he'd rub Alpo on his suit, because an unscripted snout-in-the-crotch was good for a laugh, every time.
Barris, now 73, won't elaborate on his supposed spy past, even as he promotes the movie. All he says is, "I can't."
He can't? Why not? Is it too painful? Is the government putting a gag on him? He leaves that to our imagination. That's Chuckie Baby, as the world once knew him, selling the show. Truth or fiction, you decide.
Chuck might not be a spy, but he has made some lasting contributions — and he has done some good in the world. Let's take a look. Frisky Dating Game Dialogue
The Dating Game brought the swingin' sexual revolution to TV. Back in 1965, TV shows didn't even acknowledge that husbands and wives slept in the same bed. Suddenly, men and women were engaging in this sort of frisky over-the-top dialogue:
Bachelorette: Bachelor No 3, make up a poem for me. Bachelor No. 3: Dollar for dollar, and ounce for ounce, I'll give you pleasure cause I'm big where it counts. The Newlywed Game, started a year later, allowed TV to acknowledge that, indeed, there was sex after marriage.
Host: What household chore will your wife say you do exactly the way you make whoopee? Husband: Wash the dishes. Host: Your wife said, "Take out the garbage."
From the very start, the contestants needed no prodding to talk dirty. "The second week's shows were more horrendous than the first," he said. "Angelic little girls and seemingly benign gentlemen were metamorphosing into garbage pails."
An Unusual Place for Whoopee
The most salacious Newlywed Game moment has long been considered an Urban Legend, appropriately titled, "Where's the most unusual place you've made whoopee?"
As the story goes, in 1977, host Bob Eubanks put that question to a couple named Olga and Hank. One might anticipate that she would says something like, "The back seat of a Buick Skylark."
To put it politely, Olga thought "unusual spot" meant a part of her body where she had sexually experimented. And she answered with slang, referring to her posterior.
"No, no," Eubanks said. "What I'm talking about is the weirdest location."
For many years, TV researchers claimed that this story was untrue. Even Eubanks had his doubts. But Clooney unearthed the tape of that controversial broadcast.
Tom Selleck Can’t Score
In 1968, a United Airlines trainee, Tom Selleck, failed twice as a bachelor contestant on The Dating Game. But don't feel too bad. A casting agent saw him and Twentieth Century Fox signed him to a $35-a-week contract. He grew that Magnum P.I. mustache, and the rest is history.
Other future stars who tried to score on TV: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Farrah Fawcett, Steve Martin (before his hair grayed) and Andy Kaufman, who pretended to be a confused foreigner and refused to answer any questions.
Gong Show Rejects The Gong Show was originally supposed to be a real talent show, with one or two offbeat acts to spice things up.
"All the acts — the winner and losers — would love the show because they would be getting what they wanted more than money," he says. "Exposure."
But Barris quickly changed plans, finding that TV viewers preferred had an endless appetite for kooks who sang dreadful versions of "Feelings."
Here are some Gong Show legends:
• Count Banjula — a banjo-playing vampire, who would wear a black cape and fangs, hang upside down, and strum down-home folks songs. • A 300-pound lady in a bikini singing, "Your Cheating Heart." • A pair of boys dressed as a vagina and umbilical cord singing, "You're Having My Baby." • A woman standing on her head while singing "Life Is a Dream." • The stripping accountant.
The panel of B-list celebrity judges disposed of each act accordingly, and Barris would come on stage, top hat pulled over his squinty eyes with an obnoxious introduction: "Our next act says he's only semi-professional. That's OK, because we're only quasi-interested." And if things ever got slow Barris had regulars: Gene Patton, a fat stagehand with two left feet, better known as "Gene Gene the Dancing Machine," and Murray Langston, a.k.a. "The Unknown Comic."
The Popsicle Twins
The most infamous of all Gong Show acts was The Popsicle Twins — a pair of young women in skimpy outfits who sucked on orange Popsicles in a suggestive manner, to the tune of "I'm in the Mood for Love."
Amazingly, the judges didn't break out the gong. Phyllis Diller gave them a "0" and Jamie Farr gave them a "2." But Jaye P. Morgan gave them a perfect "10," adding, "That's the way I started."
Morgan would later get booted for flashing her breasts on the show. Pee-Wee’s Big Embarrassment
Before Paul Reubens became a national sensation as Pee-Wee Herman, he won first prize on The Gong Show as part of a duo that did an impression of a dripping water faucet. He later would describe the incident as his most embarrassing moment in show business. Of course, that was before he was busted at an X-rated theater by Florida authorities for indecent exposure.
Ironically, when Reubens won his Gong Show trophy, along with a check for $512.32, judge Artie Johnson remarked that we'd be "seeing a lot more" of this kid. Perhaps, too much.
Reubens, 50, is currently fighting charges in California for allegedly possessing child pornography.
Another famous clown who got his start on the Gong Show: Joey D'Auria, better known as Bozo the Clown. D'Auria portrayed Bozo on local TV in Chicago, and used to keep his Gong Show trophy sandwiched between his two Emmys. He faced the gong as "Dr. Flameo," who held his hand in a fire while singing a frenetic version of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."
If some of The Gong Show acts seem a lot like David Letterman's Stupid Human Tricks, just guess who was one of the celebrity judges in the show's final days.
Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.