First, a confession of my own; my much younger self vastly admired Chuck Barris. I delighted in “The Dating Game,” never missed the “$1.98 Beauty Pageant” and even saw “The Gong Show Movie” during its almost nonexistent theatrical release. When the house band at the hotel my family and I were visiting broke into a rousing rendition of “Palisades Park,” much to my surprise, they attributed the ditty to none other than Barris. “He writes songs too!” I marveled.
He also wrote books, the first of which, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” has just been republished to coincide with its George Clooney-directed, Charlie Kaufman-scripted movie adaptation.
The book has been the stuff of legend for decades. Though widely unread, its central conceit, that Barris served as a CIA hit man whilst cranking out top rated TV shows, was well known even before the Miramax publicity department got hold of it. Having just read it, I must admit that a bit of my old admiration for Barris has returned.
Subtitled “An Unauthorized Autobiography,” the book boils down to an almost passable spy novel wrapped around an embellished Hollywood memoir. Barris has co-opted the literary gamesmanship of top post-modern writers like Martin Amis, blurring the line between murder and TV development. The spy story Barris weaves is surprisingly more interesting than his experiences as the godfather of reality television. This inequality is due more to the brilliance of the book’s concept than to his ability as a suspense writer. No small accomplishment for a guy who “by 1969 (was) producing more network television shows than any other production company in the world.”
There are, as expected, many funny moments from his shows (“Newlywed Game” question: How long is your husband’s inseam? Wife’s answer: Seven inches). Barris also recounts some memorable dealings with network censors, who will run a commercial for feminine hygiene products on the world’s first prime time game show (“The Dating Game”), but who will not “let us say ‘God’ or ‘bellybutton’ on the air.” He also works humor into the spy tale, including a clandestine CIA meeting held at the Friars’ Club.
Self-deprecation and loathing run rampant in the book. The first page alone is filled with details of physical maladies and unpleasantness literally from head to toe, and points in between. This unblinking look at human frailty, combined with the story’s fiction-meets-reality vortex, make it a perfect fit for Kaufman, who pulls off for Barris what he could not for Susan Orlean in “Adaptation”: a clear movie structure from a chronology challenged book.
He also invents an odd, Norman Bates-like back-story that feels as if his fictional brother Donald Kaufman, the Robert McKee acolyte, wrote it. Clooney’s clever, Coen Bros.-inspired direction moves the film at a far brisker pace than Barris manages in print, and the amazing Sam Rockwell is far more sympathetic than the real Chuck. As for the $64,000 question (not a Barris game show), is the book better than the movie? In the old joke a mule eats a reel of film from a studio Dumpster and complains that he liked the book better. In this case he would probably prefer the celluloid, but wouldn’t mind snacking on the paper.