Features & Columns

A Tribute to Chuck Barris and
a Band of Merry Pranksters

The former host of 'The Gong Show,' Chuck Barris, passed away
last month at the ripe old age of 87
Chuck Barris was a television genius responsible for a slew of pre-reality shows.

The former host of The Gong Show, Chuck Barris, passed away last month at the ripe old age of 87. His show pioneered the implementation of bad-on-purpose talent judged by drunk celebrities who gonged contestants they didn't like.

In addition to The Gong Show, Barris can also be blamed for The Newlywed Game and The Dating Game, going back to the '60s, helping to invent what's now called reality TV decades before the term surfaced.

Barris used game-show entertainment to embarrass his entire industry, illuminating the crass idiocy of American pop culture in the process. In that sense, he was the greatest genius in television history.

In the late '80s, Barris sold his empire to Sony, making enough to live happily ever after, so he wrote a biography claiming he was secretly a CIA hitman. The story was made into a film with the same name, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

My connection to Barris dates to January 2003, when he came to San Francisco on a book tour, appearing at the Park Branch Library on Page Street. A jampacked capacity crowd filled the room, including one dude who'd won The Gong Show a quarter-century earlier and even brought the trophy with him for Barris to sign.

At the time, I was regularly hanging out with the remains of the San Francisco Cacophony Society, an intentionally disorganized network of individuals united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society through subversion, pranks or any meaningless crap involving silly costumes. Collectively, about 10 of us decided to prank the Chuck Barris event by dressing up with paper bags over our heads and wearing bad '70s suits, ala the Unknown Comic, a regular from The Gong Show.

But there was more. That morning, we spent $50 to rent a gong from Lemmon Percussion, which was then located at Willow and Bird in San Jose. A designated driver and I loaded the gong into his car and drove to San Francisco, where we secretly met the other Cacophonists upstairs at Hobson's Choice, a rum bar on Haight Street, around the corner from the Park Branch Library. After getting solidly drunk, we situated ourselves out in front of the library, put the paper bags over our heads, and then quietly carried the gong into the event, setting it up behind the audience, just as Barris began to talk. Upon our entry, everyone in the crowd turned around to look at at us, wondering what on earth we were up to. Even Barris, from the podium, asked us what was going on. But we just stood there, quiet and motionless next to the gong.

The plan from the beginning was to stand behind the crowd and not hit the gong. In this way, as the event unfolded, the entire audience would sit there, expecting us to hit the gong and ruin Chuck's talk, waiting in anticipation of when it might happen, and then we wouldn't do it. The prank was on the audience, not Chuck Barris per se. And it worked like a charm.

Throughout the event, people in the crowd kept nervously turning their heads around to see when we were going to hit the gong. And we never did. The prank came across as classy and simple, a subtle masterpiece if I should say so myself. Afterward, Barris even stood next to us for a photo, while we still had the bags on our heads. In pure Cacophony fashion, no one remembers who took the photo or what happened to it.

The next morning, back in San Jose and completely hungover, we returned the gong to Lemmon Percussion. I didn't have the ambition to explain how we'd used it.

I'm recounting this idiotic adventure not only to celebrate the life of Chuck Barris, but to encourage every reader to attend the monthly Go! Go! Gong Show! at Cafe Stritch, hosted by San Jose living legend Mighty Mike McGee. Each month, people sign up to do stupid shit on stage and the winner gets $50—exactly what we shelled out for that blasted gong at Lemmon Percussion.