Gong(ed): Chuck Barris (Charles Hirsch) Has Left the Stage

Like many people growing up in America, I recall watching many reruns of the Gong Show. Neither the contestants nor the judges drew me before the tube to watch, however. And I didn’t like seeing one act after another which was, to be sure, an absurd failure from the start. It was Chuck Barris. On the one hand – because I lived in Upstate New York and most of the fellow Jews I knew were either relatives or the few people who were Jewish in my school and tiny Jewish community – the few Jews I saw were on Television. Looking back to my childhood, I recall identifying with him. He looked like a Jew. But did he act like one? Was the world he shared with me one I wanted to share with him? Who would want to share a world that was inundated with absurd and yet entertaining odd acts and failures?

Absurdity and cheap thrills aside, what I loved most about Chuck Barris was his spontaneous kind of humor. I loved how, out of nowhere, he would hear the musical cue, and then break out into a dance with “Gene Gene the Dancing Machine.” More often than not, he would pull down his hat and, with Gene, dance up a storm.  This was the cue for everyone else to join in and dance like a fool. His Yiddishkeit, it seemed, was channeled into these sudden dance numbers. The world of rules was momentarily suspended. Dance for no reason save for that it’s now time to dance. And while you dance, you can sustain a blow or two from this or that hurling object. It didn’t matter.

But there was another, more disturbing, part of his act which, I suppose, I chose to forgot: the awkward and humiliating part. In one essay I came across today, the author claimed that Barris invented the “Reality Genre of Humiliation as TV Entertainment.” Although he doesn’t explain why this is the case, I took a look at a few videos and what I liked least came back to haunt me. The other side of his act, the one that took up the rest of the show, was his endless humiliation of contestants and judges. With the gong, of course, came humiliation. And all parties were involved. But one always knew that someone would be laughed at. Every act was another target. And when one laughs, as Henri Bergson, Charles Baudeliare, and Thomas Hobbes once argued, one has a feeling of power. But this kind of power, experienced at the expense of foolish acts and judges, was a little nauseating. I didn’t enjoy it. It felt wrong.

Here is an act which, because it is erotic and evokes rude hecklers in the audience, is awkward and, in so many ways, is wrong. The response to it, as one can expect, should be humiliation. But it’s not.  No one, in fact, is humiliated.  Chuck tells the “rude kids” to get off the stage but he does so with a wink. We can accept this, in other words, as normal fun. And this act, in that gesture moving them off the stage, is (or rather was) our world. This was good old fun, American style. But was it mine?

Now that he’s gone and as I reflect on the fact that he is gone for good, that mixture of identification and awkwardness, which I felt when I watched his show, it all comes back. And it makes me wonder. What I felt awkward about wasn’t so much what I saw, but about what I should do in response to it: should I accept this odd comical world and share it with them? This was a world unto itself, a reality if you will. But it didn’t seem to be mine. My only connection to the world of the Gong Show was Chuck Barris. It was a partial identification.

What Chuck Barris did give me is a sense of how there can be existential decisions that have to do with American entertainment. My Jewishness, at one point of my life, found a mixed identification with Chuck – that is, Charles Hirsch. And, for some reason, my view of not just what it meant to be Jewish but also my view of America as comical world was mixed into my reception of The Gong Show. In this America schlemiels – with their odd acts – were the targets. But, ultimately, every American who stepped on that stage was “gonged.” Failure was pronounced with a bang, not a whimper. But we can laugh about how rotten these acts are because we knew that when the cue came, we got to dance. And Barris could, momentarily, suspect the nausea I felt about having to decide.  But now I remember what that dance displaced.

Thanks for that memory, Chuck Hirsch. Rest in Peace.

Crossposted with Schlemiel Theory.

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