×

Paul Reubens Remembers Chuck Barris, Appearing on ‘The Gong Show,’ ‘The Dating Game’

In the late 1970s, Chuck Barris was a patron of the arts to starving artists like Paul Reubens, aka Pee-wee Herman.

Reubens expressed his affection for the producer, who died on Tuesday at 87, as he recalled his 14 appearances on Barris’ late 1970s hit “The Gong Show.” Before that, he appeared three times as a contestant — in his nerdy Herman persona — on Barris’ “The Dating Game.”

Reubens received AFTRA scale payments, $500 in prize money if he won on “Gong Show,” and even residuals for reruns. The money helped him focus on his craft as an actor and comedian with the Groundlings improv group.

“I’ve told people for years that Chuck Barris supported a lot of struggling artists,” Reubens told Variety. “I didn’t have to have a second job because of ‘The Gong Show’ for a couple of years.”

In truth, contestants weren’t supposed to make repeat visits to “Gong Show.” Reubens had to disguise himself in his various acts lest the show run afoul of the FCC rules that govern game shows following the quiz show scandals of the early 1960s. But a number of actors, comedians, and fellow Groundlings members were semi-regulars on “Gong Show,” because Barris knew they would deliver, even if they didn’t win.

Reubens didn’t spend much time with Barris behind the scenes because FCC rules bar off-camera fraternization between producers and contestants. “You couldn’t talk to the judges and you had to be escorted if you had to go to the bathroom,” Reubens recalled.

But over time he became acquainted with Barris, and the two saw each other occasionally after Reubens’ career took off in the 1980s.

“He was always friendly and funny with me,” Reubens said.

In addition to the cash prizes from “Gong Show,” the “booby prizes” for losing were also memorable. One was a shrimp burger cooker, which came with a gift certificate to buy shrimp burgers. Another was a set of bowling balls. Reubens also received multiple cans of green paint, which were used to paint the green room at the Groundlings’ Melrose Avenue theater.

“Gong Show” taped at the NBC studio complex in Burbank. The show would plow through five episodes in a day. Reubens still remembers the chaotic atmosphere backstage.

“You were there with five shows’ worth of contestants — it was like a zoo,” Reubens said. “You’d be there with all these insane people who had driven across the country or taken a bus across the country for their shot at fame.”

For his first “Gong Show” outing in 1977, Reubens delivered a comedy routine about radio show sound effects with another actor-comedian, Charlotte McGinnis, a friend from his days studying theater at Boston University. They billed themselves as Betty and Eddie. After they won, Reubens and McGinnis took out a full-page ad in Variety.

“I sat by the phone and waited for it to ring. I fully expected my life was going to change and my career would take off,” Reubens said. “I think we got one phone call and we had a meeting with a manager.”

Having “Gong Show” on his resume didn’t land him much in the way of paying gigs. But the “Dating Game” appearances (Reubens thinks it was 1976) helped him hone the Herman character that would be his springboard to fame. He knew from his first “Dating Game” audition that Herman was destined for greatness.

“It helped me in terms of understanding the power of the character and how the outside world reacted to it,” Reubens said. “It made me realize that I was really going to be this person on stage.”

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith. Jada

    Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith's Westbrook Inks Development Pact With Telepool (EXCLUSIVE)

    Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s new media venture, Westbrook Inc., has signed a co-development agreement for feature films, television shows and digital entertainment formats with German-based film and TV company Telepool. The move follows the acquisition of Telepool last year by Smith and Elysian Fields, a Zurich-based investment company. Westbrook, launched this year by [...]

  • Shane Gillis SNL Controversy

    Shane Gillis Makes First Stand-Up Appearance Since 'SNL' Firing

    Comedian Shane Gillis made his first public appearance Wednesday night since he was hired by “Saturday Night Live,” then fired from the show days later amid controversy over his use of racist slurs. Appearing on stage at comedy club the Stand in New York City, Gillis performed an 11-minute set that pulled no punches when [...]

  • AMERICAN HORROR STORY: 1984 -- Pictured:

    'American Horror Story' Recap: Welcome to 'Camp Redwood'

    SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the season premiere of “American Horror Story: 1984” entitled “Camp Redwood.” Welcome back to “American Horror Story,” which in its ninth season travels back in time to the 1970s and 1980s to play in the slasher genre. Only one episode into the season, it already [...]

  • Connie Britton BlogHer Summit

    Connie Britton on ‘Friday Night Lights’ Remake: ‘You Need to Let it Go’

    Connie Britton opened up at a fireside chat Wednesday at the #BlogHer19 Creators Summit in Brooklyn by talking about one of her most beloved roles — Tami Taylor in the fan favorite series “Friday Night Lights.” When asked if a remake of the sports cult film and Emmy-winning TV show is in the works she [...]

  • Bob IgerSimon Weisenthal Gala honoring Bob

    Bob Iger Would Have Combined Disney With Apple if Steve Jobs Were Still Alive

    Disney and Apple are both launching their own streaming services come November, but Disney CEO Bob Iger says the two companies weren’t always on competing paths. In an excerpt from his autobiography published Wednesday in “Vanity Fair,” Iger revealed that Disney and Apple likely would have merged if Steve Jobs hadn’t died in 2011. “I [...]

  • The Mentalist

    #NotWorthLess: 'I Was Great and Deserve to Be Paid the Same'

    Women writers, producers and assistants across Twitter turned the hashtag #NotWorthLess into a trend Wednesday, shining a light on issues of pay inequality in the entertainment business. Sparked by screenwriter Adele Lim’s recent decision to walk away from the “Crazy Rich Asians” sequel in protest of being paid less than her male co-writer, dozens of [...]

  • does self-described "family brands" business Hasbro

    With Hasbro Acquisition, Is eOne Planning to Offload Family-Unfriendly Properties?

    Hasbro’s $4 billion acquisition of eOne in August instantly put the Canadian toy giant in the league of major entertainment and content companies thanks to eOne’s arsenal of IP assets in music, television and film. But does the self-described “family brands” business that’s home to The Game of Life and My Little Pony align with [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content