Goodbye, Chuck Barris

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I knew who Chuck Barris was even before I saw him.

I was the kind of kid who watched shows right through to the end credits, and I noticed the Chuck Barris Productions logo was very similar to ABC’s and Dick Clark’s. That made sense, since both Clark (who employed Barris in the late ’50s) and Barris had relationships with ABC. (It’s hard to beat a Paul Rand logo.)

Game show geek that I was, I did watch “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game,” though I didn’t understand any of the snickering double-entendres both shows wallowed in. But somehow I knew they were related to Barris, and that his shows were low-brow fun. (He also did “The New Treasure Hunt.”)

Then came “The Gong Show” and Chuck the smarmy host.

Oh, man, did I watch “The Gong Show.” I loved how they gave out $516.32 for the big prize. I loved the Unknown Comic. I had no idea who Jaye P. Morgan was, but I knew Jamie Farr from “M*A*S*H” and Gary Owens had that wonderful voice.

And then there was Barris, clapping his hands, making crude jokes, taking off his bow tie within five minutes of the show’s opening. Stupid? Absolutely. Fun? Of course.

Of course, “The Gong Show” quickly got mannered — what started out as something between a real talent show and vaudeville became a planned freak parade — and “The Gong Show Movie” was even worse. (Yes, I paid to watch it in the theater.) And “The $1.98 Beauty Show” never did it for me.

But Barris was always a fascinating figure. He liked us to think so, anyway. Who else would claim he was both a TV producer and a CIA agent?

Chuck Barris shuffled off the stage Tuesday. Much to his credit, he wasn’t gonged.

We’ll leave you with Gene, Gene, the Dancing Machine.


RIP, man who changed my life

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One day when I was a teenager, I stumbled on the October 1, 1973, issue of New York magazine. Somehow this particular issue, released at the height of Watergate, knew the roots of the person I was to become a few years later because in it there were articles about two satirical creations that had a profound impact on me: Mad magazine and Wacky Packages.

The latter was perhaps my first knowing experience with satire. It was sometimes blunt-force satire, easy jokes for pre-adolescents, but for a 9-year-old kid trying to find an attitude to approach the world, it led to everything else. As I wrote in 2008 upon the release of a “Wacky Packages” book:

From there, it was a short trip to Mad magazine, “Saturday Night Live,” National Lampoon, punk rock, trolling used-book stores and record stores, and indulging in other mind-rotting activities (memorizing trivia, creating puns) until I became the skeptical, disillusioned writer you have before you.

(Incidentally, except for this blog, I don’t usually write in the first person — sorry, Jan and Mira, who always wanted more of me in my pieces — but I made an exception here, because, well, Wackies were so essential to my being.)

I write all this because Jay Lynch is dead. He died Sunday at 72.

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A tip of the turban to an old master

Image from Wikipedia.

Jon Stewart returned to old friend Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show” Tuesday night wearing an extra-long red tie and a small animal on his head — a nod, he said, to the fashion sense of our 45th president.

But there was another nod I detected, one that likely went over the heads of most of Colbert’s audience.

You’ll notice that, at about the 6:10 mark, Stewart and Colbert crack jokes about the folder Colbert holds being “the last executive order.” The way he says it is a reference to the great Carnac the Magnificent, one of Johnny Carson’s characters from his 30-year run as “Tonight Show” host.

Which got me thinking: Does anybody under 40 even remember Johnny Carson?

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Mary Tyler Moore, 1936-2017

Image from Getty Images via Parade.

I always hated the scenes in “The Dick Van Dyke Show” in which Mary Tyler Moore, as Van Dyke’s wife Laura, would moan, “Oh, Rob!” and be on the verge of tears at some presumed failing.

Hated it because, even if it was part of the character, it didn’t seem fair to Moore. It was the one bit of the ’60s show that seemed part of a ’50s TV cliche. No, Moore was smart. Cool. Hell, Laura Petrie was often more sensible than her screen husband, who was once convinced they’d brought the wrong baby home.

To his credit, “Dick Van Dyke” creator Carl Reiner knew this. He and his writers showed Moore to be more than just a pretty face, which is one reason that show still seems fresh more than 50 years later.

And Moore (and her own husband, producer Grant Tinker) knew this, too. That’s why “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” which went on the air in 1970, worked so well. Mary Richards was smart. Tough. She had heart. She had spunk. (Lou Grant originally hated spunk, but he grew to love it.)

Oh, she could get rattled, but what TV producer didn’t? She also had a terrific sense of humor. You had to, in a newsroom with Ted Baxter and Sue Ann Nivens.

About the only real failing Moore’s character Mary Richards had was she couldn’t host a dinner party to save her life. Not even when Johnny Carson was coming by.

Mary Tyler Moore — great actress, terrific talent spotter, brave and funny soul — died Wednesday. She was 80.

And though I hated “Oh, Rob!”, I’m left sad and speechless myself.

Oh, Mary. RIP.

Review: ‘The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History’ by Chris Smith

The Daily Show: An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and GuestsThe Daily Show: An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests by Chris Smith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The inevitable success often seems inevitable only in retrospect.

The Beatles were this provincial guitar band until they weren’t. “All in the Family” had been rejected by ABC before it became, in almost the same form, the dominant show of the 1970s for CBS.

And Jon Stewart was a standup comic taking over a marginal fake-news cable show until he became JON STEWART and the show became, of course, “The Daily Show” we know today.

“The Daily Show (The Book)” is an oral history, ably compiled by Chris Smith, chronicling the groundbreaking satirical broadcast.

When the show debuted it was just this sometimes-clever, sometimes-smarmy comedy program with Craig Kilborn – one that had its moments, but wasn’t going to make many people forget “Not Necessarily the News” or the best “Weekend Update” segments of “Saturday Night Live.” What Stewart did, upon his arrival in 1999, was gradually turn “The Daily Show” into a satirical machine – pitting George W. Bush against himself, taking on the absurdities of cable news, and every so often removing his host persona to flat-out editorialize, particularly on tragic occasions.

There had never been anything quite like it. Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and David Letterman had had their moments, and such shows as “That Was the Week That Was” took clever potshots, but nobody had ever put it together the way that Stewart (and producers such as creators Madeleine Smithberg and former Onion leader Ben Karlin) did. This was often satire of a high order, the kind that TV was often afraid to do.

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Sunday read: The election that killed satire

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Years ago, a creative writing professor told me a story about novelist Robert Coover.

Coover had spent years working on “The Public Burning,” his dark and humorous novel about the Rosenbergs that featured a foul-mouthed Uncle Sam and a conniving Richard Nixon. According to my professor, Coover had started writing the book before Watergate, only to have Nixon far outdo any portrayal of venality Coover could come up with.

I’ve never been able to confirm the story — feel free to correct me, Mr. Coover, and I’m sorry I never finished my senior thesis on you — but certainly by the time the book came out in 1977 there was little about Nixon that Nixon hadn’t already surpassed.

Which brings up this election year. What do you do when real life is more outrageous than any joke you can think of?

The Onion is not laughing, and neither is “The Thick of It” and “Veep” creator Armando Ianucci. They’re the subject of my Sunday reads.

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Review: ‘Three Men in a Boat’ by Jerome K. Jerome

Three Men in a Boat (Three Men, #1)Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some things never change.

In Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat,” the author rails against travelers who pack for a brief voyage with a month’s worth of clothes and belongings. He talks about how he’d love to get up early for a refreshing dip, only to wake up in the dark and decide it’s better to stay asleep. He fights with a tent. He receives a series of ever-more-unlikely fish stories from a series of locals, only to find out they’re ALL lying.

This book was published in 1889, but there are passages you could have sworn were written yesterday. And, despite the passage of more than a century, it’s still laugh-out-loud funny.

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Thanks, Canada. You’re pretty great, too.

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It’s been a tough year for America.

Prince died. The alt-right is on the rise. We still haven’t gone more than a few months without a mass shooting, in what’s become a sadly regular occurrence.

And, of course, here in the land of endless political campaigns we’ve had one for the books — full of declarations of genitalia size, fat shaming, questioning science, mockery of the disabled and insults about women. And that’s just one candidate.

Canada feels bad for us.

So bad, in fact, that the country wags have termed “America’s Hat” (that’s OK; to them, we’re “Canada’s shorts,” and you can imagine how Florida is identified) has made a video telling the U.S. and A. how wonderful it is.

(OK, so it’s a Toronto branding agency. Close enough.)

This is why Canada is the nicest country in the world. Other countries would dance on our Dakotas and kick our Maine; Canada celebrates what’s Made America Great. (It’s not the first time, either.)

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Sunday read: ‘Would you please sing something?’ ‘No, we need money first’

This weekend brought the opening of Ron Howard’s Beatles documentary, “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years.”

Though it’s rather shallow in places — skipping over meeting Bob Dylan, offering no stories about hangers-on and little sense of what life was really like in the bubble (though the idea that the group had to take refuge in a bathroom at New York’s Plaza Hotel gives you an idea) — it’s hard to resist the siren song of the Fabs.

That’s especially true in the early months of American Beatlemania. John Lennon once commented how disappointed he was to see the actual U.S. of A. — “When we got here you were all walking around in fucking Bermuda shorts with Boston crewcuts and stuff on your teeth. … The chicks looked like fuckin’ 1940s horses. … I mean we just thought, ‘What an ugly race.’ ” And you look at “Eight Days a Week,” and you see what he means — and you also see how quickly fashion changed to catch up with the Beatles’ brash, cool youth. They simply radiated something different.

You also see what joy there was in their presence.

It was right there at the press conference at New York’s Kennedy Airport. The Beatles were undaunted by the American press — after all, they’d already faced Fleet Street — and they fearlessly joked in the face of questions about their hair and their music and their hair. It’s hard not to be won over with their cheek.

For today’s Sunday read, a sense of their humor: The transcript of the JFK press conference.

One of the glories of the film is it features a chunk of the press conference in glorious color, instead of the grainy black-and-white that’s all over YouTube (and to which I linked up top).

Incidentally, the great lines that have been repeated since then — “How did you find America?” “Turn left at Greenland” or “What would call that hairstyle you’re wearing?” “Arthur” — are actually creations of Alun Owen and his “A Hard Day’s Night” script. He obviously got it immediately. The rest of us may have taken some time to figure it out, but fortunately the Beatles are forever.

I miss George Carlin

Image from Salon.

George Carlin has a new special out, eight years after he died.

It’s an formerly unreleased live show he did on September 10, 2001. The capstone routine was titled “I Kinda Like It When a Lot of People Die.” The next day was 9/11, a lot of people did die, and Carlin decided to shelve the work. It’s out on CD and vinyl Friday.

It would be tough stuff under any circumstances — but then again, Carlin was not one to pull punches.

“You the best thing I can hear on television? ‘We interrupt this program.’ You know the worst thing I can hear? ‘No one was hurt,’ ” he says in the show.

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