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

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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.

6 thoughts on “Gong(ed): Chuck Barris (Charles Hirsch) Has Left the Stage

  1. Unfortunately, I did not grow up here and thus am not familiar with the show. The clips you have provided with your post helped somewhat, not as much to relate in a dualistic way that you are describing, but to understand yet another aspect of American Jewish mentality. Having been here almost 40 years, I am still struggling to understand.

    • Where are you from originally?

      As for what you are saying, I can refer you to other essays that do that. The duality make reference to has a lot to do with being an American Jew. My great grandparents were immigrants to America and I am a part of a different, post-assimilation group. Even so, I always had an acute sense of difference. I didn’t grow up amongst many Jews, as you can see. The dualism I experienced – because I lived in the country – was different. That aside, there is much to discuss. I want on to do graduate studies and research into Jewishness. And I have been publishing and speaking on it ever since.

      • I am from communist Russia, expelled as “the enemy of the people” in 1978, came here as a political refugee, not as an emigrant. With my background, fighting for Jewishness under those circumstances, it was and still is, to a very large extent, to understand American Jewish mentality. Your essays go a long way towards this understanding, and so does your “shlemiel”theory. I do not accept the image of a Jew created by Woody Allen because I don’t understand it. I don’t understand the self-deprecating humor of Jewish comedians because I don’t see how Jews could degrade themselves in front of goyim. Certainly, there is much to discuss, and again, I wish we could sit around the Shabbos table with a nice glass of wine.

      • Thanks for sharing your history and journey. I’m glad my blog is helping. Yes,indeed, the schlemiel is an American icon. I can understand why you might find the “self-deprecating humor of Jewish comedians” odd. But the tradition of Jewish self-deprecation and self-mockery goes back – perhaps even to the prophets, like Ezekiel and Job. I hope to write more about this in my book. Even so, the American variety is different. But, in exile, perhaps the best way to channel the prophetic is through comedy? The most important aspect of the schlemiel is its simplicity, its smallness, and its humility. Instead of seeing the schlemiel as a shameful, debased character, I look to show its better side. I want to escape the dichotomies created by Philip Roth, Woody Allen, and others (re: the “sexual schlemiel”). There is a way. Trust me. Its in this blog 🙂 Yes, we will continue this conversation – perhaps I’ll meet you some day. I have family in Florida. I even used to live there (for a few years, when I was a little guy) in Cocoanut Grove.

      • I’ve read some of your essays, and I can see how you are drawing the line from the prophets to Woody Allen and Philip Roth. Incidentally, Portnoy’s Complaint does not bother me as much as Woody Allen’s characters; perhaps because Alex Portnoy is unloading himself on a therapist’s couch, rather than on a screen. Perhaps it is a matter a different medium, I don’t know. I understand your concept of a schlemiel (i.e. Sholom-Aleichem’s Menachem Mendel), and I am from Odessa, the birthplace of the original self-deprecating Jewish jokes ( I have yet to hear a joke In America that I hadn’t heard in my childhood, and even then it was old!). However, Ezekiel and Job, as well as Sholom-Aleichem’s characters or the personages in Jewish jokes, were not paraded in front of the Gentiles. The prevailing mentality was: we have the right to laugh at ourselves – they don’t have the right to laugh at us. Certainly, the American Jewish mentality, affected by assimilation, is different, and it is that

      • I’ve read some of your essays, and I can see how you are drawing the line from the prophets to Woody Allen and Philip Roth. Incidentally, Portnoy’s Complaint does not bother me as much as Woody Allen’s characters; perhaps because Alex Portnoy is unloading himself on a therapist’s couch, rather than on a screen. Perhaps it is a matter a different medium, I don’t know. I understand your concept of a schlemiel (i.e. Sholom-Aleichem’s Menachem Mendel), and I am from Odessa, the birthplace of the original self-deprecating Jewish jokes ( I have yet to hear a joke In America that I hadn’t heard in my childhood, and even then it was old!). However, Ezekiel and Job, as well as Sholom-Aleichem’s characters or the personages in Jewish jokes, were not paraded in front of the Gentiles. The prevailing mentality was: we have the right to laugh at ourselves – they don’t have the right to laugh at us. Certainly, the American Jewish mentality, affected by assimilation, is different, and it is that difference, the roots of it, if you will, and the impact of assimilation that made it possible for Jews to present themselves as laughingstocks in front of Gentiles, that I am striving to understand. If you are addressing this issue in your blog, I haven’t found it yet, and I’d love to see your analysis of it.
        P.S. Every Jew has family in Florida!

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