As the time spent with the screen approaches or surpasses the time spent outside it, so the parables, overt or otherwise, of men trapped in their own creations or those of others, of individuals trapped in the television pile up in increasing quantities. They pile up without our noticing and the more obvious examples of this phenomena like The Truman Show become less interesting. The Truman Show bores me because its coming at the realization that TV has impacted social relations from the tired and, at the present moment, irrelevant parable of the person seeing their life was a lie and coming to the truth. Ho hum. Very reassuring because it dodges the real issue at hand-there is no escape.
The art that best explores the horror and glee of being trapped in the reflection of the screen is not that which consciously approaches the question as such; as the question at hand is one of immersion, they evade the issue by confronting it. The greatest lens developed to explore life within what Adorno and Horkheimer called “the culture industry” is the TV game show. The greatest practitioner of the form is Chuck Barris. Its crowning masterwork is The Gong Show.
The Gong Show was a joyous, raucous, all inclusive vision of hell. Contestants would be chosen for whatever strangeness they might offer the program; Barris always seemed drunk and/or on quaaludes, stumbling around the stage, sometimes barely audible, in a marching band outfit carrying a hockey stick. The judges were no less grotesque and ridiculous, a menagerie of over the hill lounge singers and random D-list celebrities who were also usually drunk. A stagehand was brought in as recurring character Gene Gene the Dancing Machine and eventually acted as a judge on several episodes. “The Unknown Comic”, Murray Langston with a paper bag over his head, would burst in telling horrible one liners and harassing Barris until Barris would chase him off the stage. The “good” performers were less than an afterthought-you watch the show to see things go wrong.
The self-seriousness of an American Idol, claiming to be for the benefit of the performers, is in fact just the arbitrary savagery of the capitalist selection process of what constitutes “success” asserting that its real and we should all participate in its mawkish carrot dangling that any of what goes on on it is “good”. These shows seem stupid and cruel because they are, in the same way as screenwriting workshops. A perfect example of this tendency was the one season Fox game show On the Lot. In this show, a group of aspiring commercial filmmakers jockeyed for the favor of Carrie Fisher, who wrote a bunch of middle brow literature about herself during the 80s, and Garry Marshall, director of both The Princess Diaries and the sequel to The Princess Diaries. Clearly people fit to judge these things. But they’re celebrities, they’ve got a lot of money, and a $1 million development deal was dangled at the end. So people played along. They all took it seriously. Like any game show, it was a long job interview done in public. That the audience could vote on favorites was the actual vicarious thrill; they weren’t fantasizing about the possibility of “making it” but to dream the more insidious fantasy of being the power broker pulling the strings to hire or fire applicants. Apparently the cost of taking these things very seriously is the possibility of $1 million.
The Gong Show was more honest. The prize money for the winner was the SAG minimum fee for a day’s work, there was never any pretense the judges or Barris knew anything about anything. “Constructive advice” was pulled out of no one’s ass. The Gong Show was anti-aspirational. The audience at home didn’t watch in order to vicariously imagine themselves as these peoples’ potential employers. They watched to revel in the glorious multiplicity of failure. They wanted to see the various ways people could get gonged. The gong itself, the symbol of ultimate power over expression, was put in the hands of nobodies. The tyranny of the gatekeeper was reduced to its ultimate ridiculousness. The amateurishness of the performers, a grotesquery that likely mirrored the inner desires of the viewers at home if they’d had the exhibitionist instinct to go on The Gong Show was handled with neither the condescending “polite” pity of an American Idol audition episode, nor the savagery of a Simon Cowell verbal undressing. It was just a thing that was there and all the weird dreaminess of regional oddities was allowed to express itself. A carnival of the things and people that were never supposed to make it on the TV. No one was fooled that Chuck Barris or the judges were above the contestants, least of all Chuck Barris.
After the end of the Chuck Barris run of The Gong Show, the only one I’m willing to acknowledge as existing, the thematic and narrative threads of the show were explored and resolved in The Gong Show Movie. In this film, Barris comes to terms with a much more troubling question than The Truman Show was willing to consider-what if you knew you were on a TV show, your existence revolved around this TV show, bled into the reality and left a thing that was ostensibly real but looked more like an endless marathon of The Gong Show. Barris and his girlfriend go through their daily routine and are constantly bombarded by people breaking into Gong Show auditions, up to and including Barris’s therapist. Barris is a terrible actor, which, in a film dealing with the borders of what constitutes what’s “good” in performance, is an asset. His “real life” as a California based celebrity grows to seem more grotesque and off-putting than the parade of characters seemingly escaped from a Fellini film that surround him. He keeps trying to escape into “reality” but the specter of The Gong Show repeatedly ruptures any pretense to such.
At the film’s climax, Barris takes a plane to a nondescript desert half a world away, ostensibly Morrocco, sure that this is the final desperate measure he needs to take to escape and be the no one he thinks he desires to be. As Baudrillard then Zizek put it, “Welcome to the Desert of the Real!” Wandering this empty expanse, a helicopter comes out of nowhere filled with Gong Show regulars. They sing a song telling Barris they need him to come back and run The Gong Show. The genius in this ending being the irony that they charmingly offer him the chance to reconcile in terms of coming back; he was never able to leave in the first place. The Gong Show is a part of himself, not an externality. The only escape is to not be Chuck Barris.
The actual specter haunting Chuck Barris in The Gong Show Movie is the fake possibility of being respectable.