“My name is Charles Hirsch Barris. I have written pop songs, I have been a television producer. I am responsible for polluting the airwaves with mind-numbing puerile entertainment. In addition, I have murdered thirty-three human beings.”
—Chuck Barris, “Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind”
There’s a lot happening in the world right now, so let’s get the most pressing stuff out of the way and sorted: was the recently departed Gong Show creator/host Chuck Barris really an assassin for the CIA?
Barris claimed in his 1982 memoir Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind to have been secretly working for the intelligence organization during the sixties and seventies—around the same time he was developing kitschy and iconic television shows like The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show. Is it possible that the unassuming and at-times goofy Barris could be telling the truth here—or was this all an attention-seeking hoax by a master showman?
I. THE MOVIE
Let’s back up for a moment. The 2002 movie based on the book, directed by George Clooney and starring Sam Rockwell as Barris, is one of my favorite all-time films. It is the cinematic version of Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind that has really solidified in the mass consciousness Barris’s claims—as his memoir itself wasn’t all that successful when it came out.
Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind pretty much leaves it up to the viewer to decide if Barris was really an assassin, but there’s enough there in the way the movie is written and shot to chalk it all up to one man’s delusion. Dream/hallucination sequences (such as the famous “If I Had A Hammer” scene) sort of insinuate that perhaps Barris was making things up to feel better about his life and vocation at best, entering Mr. Robot territory at worst.
One particular scene of note in the film is when Barris is at the CIA training facility The Farm (which apparently actually existed), next to two recruits named “Lee” and “Jack.” Lee keeps getting his rifle jammed. Those two chaps seem familiar?
That scene is significant to me not so much for the outward-facing “joke” of it—Barris was training with Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby—but the idea of those assassins being “created.” Contrast with the way the TV shows that Barris developed were created and developed.
On one side, we have pop-culture for the masses, and on the other, wacky governmental shenanigans. Combine, mix, and stir.
Chuck Barris wasn’t just a television series creator—indeed, one could say he was the “grandfather” of reality TV (and more on that later)—but penned the successful Freddy Cannon song “Palisades Park” in 1962.
Which is to say: Barris was a really talented guy, something his goofy persona as Gong Show Host sort of obscured. Indeed, it almost seemed as if there were “two” Barrises—the genius, and the goofball. In Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind the movie, Barris is referred to as “fitting the profile” the CIA looks for in recruits, Now, that could possibly refer to him being someone of a sociopath…and/or the type of person who could grok well to having a double life.
But now I’m extrapolating partially from the movie, which is not going to really help us get to the bottom of things.
I think it would not be completely out of the realm of possibility that Barris worked for the CIA in some capacity (not necessarily as a killer), and I’ll tell you why.
Barris’s first wife, Lyn Levy, was the niece of powerful CBS head William S. Paley. This was in the 1950s and 60s, when Paley was working with the CIA. As former Washington Post journalist Carl Bernstein has written regarding the intelligence agency’s relationship with the media during that time period:
Among the executives who lent their cooperation to the Agency were William Paley of the Columbia Broadcasting System, Henry Luce of Time Inc., Arthur Hays Sulzberger of the New York Times, Barry Bingham Sr. of the LouisviIle Courier‑Journal, and James Copley of the Copley News Service. Other organizations which cooperated with the CIA include the American Broadcasting Company, the National Broadcasting Company, the Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters, Hearst Newspapers, Scripps‑Howard, Newsweek magazine, the Mutual Broadcasting System, the Miami Herald and the old Saturday Evening Post and New York Herald‑Tribune.
By far the most valuable of these associations, according to CIA officials, have been with the New York Times, CBS and Time Inc.
Why would the CIA bother to court so many media organizations? Bernstein continues:
The Agency’s special relationships with the so‑called “majors” in publishing and broadcasting enabled the CIA to post some of its most valuable operatives abroad without exposure for more than two decades. In most instances, Agency files show, officials at the highest levels of the CIA usually director or deputy director) dealt personally with a single designated individual in the top management of the cooperating news organization. The aid furnished often took two forms: providing jobs and credentials “journalistic cover” in Agency parlance) for CIA operatives about to be posted in foreign capitals; and lending the Agency the undercover services of reporters already on staff, including some of the best‑known correspondents in the business.
So if I want to apply Occam’s Razor to this question—and not merely hope and pray for my deepest conspiracy fantasies to be vindicated—it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility that Barris might have received some sort of job from the CIA during his lean years, and through his connection with Levy/Paley. He was smart, hard-working, and a go-getter. And he might have fit the “profile.”
But that does not mean he worked as an assassin—more likely, if he was employed by the Agency in some way, it was for something significantly less “glamorous” and indeed perhaps even a little bit boring.
Far more interesting to me is the intersection between the media and intelligence communities, as laid out by Bernstein. Now take that one step further, past news outlets, and focusing on entertainment for the masses.
III. DANGEROUS MINDS
The citizens of the United States are currently living in a country whose government has been co-opted by the Reality TV ethos. It has been a long road, but we have finally seen the fruits of such efforts. And, as said before, Barris seems to have been one of the originators of a particular brand of reality television.
There is an excellent podcast that goes into the movie Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, “The CIA And Hollywood.” If you seek further insights into the Barris matter, it would be a good one to listen to.
One of the points of the podcast is that even if Barris wasn’t an assassin for the CIA, based on the type of “reality”-based entertainment he popularized he might as well have been working for some sort of propaganda agency. He may not have killed people, but he inflicted a very particular type of programming on the American people—programming that distracted them from the horrors that were going on overseas in Vietnam and other countries.
And here is where we get back to the “If I Had A Hammer” scene in the movie, in which Barris starts to hallucinate murdering everyone in his studio audience:
To me, this is the “tell” in the movie to indicate that if anything, Barris’s “confessions” should be read more metaphorically.
IV. …AND BACK TO THE MOVIE
But…isn’t the movie Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, in a way, a sort of propaganda piece? At first blush, it seems like an eye-opening account of the labyrinthine and morally ambiguous actions of a secretive agency. But in the end…the CIA seems kinda “cool.” As with The Men Who Stare At Goats and Argo—both films produced by Confessions director George Clooney—in the end we are presented with a sort of quirky version of the Agency…and it don’t seem so bad.
How could a revelation about Barris being one of their assassins possibly hurt the CIA at this stage of the game? They put out press releases linking themselves to the TV show The X-Files. They have a full library of their “secret psychic stuff” freely available to view. All this kooky-kitschy stuff, I would argue, actually helps the CIA’s public relations at this point.
And it’s no secret that Hollywood itself literally works with the CIA and U.S. military to make their big blockbuster films. That’s not a crazy conspiracy theory. That’s how the Transformers movies got made.
V. STANDING TOO CLOSE TO THE GONG
So was Chuck Barris an assassin for the CIA? When asked about the question about ten years ago, he demurred:
It’s something I’ll never confirm or deny. The wonderful part of being George, is that he can say those things [about my life] and [now] I can’t. Basically it’s for a reason that I can’t and it’s not always an acceptable reason. I really feel that it’s not really important whether I did or not participate in the CIA.
The CIA flatly denied Barris’s claims:
It sounds like he has been standing too close to the gong all those years…
Of course…how many of us in our lives have stood too close to the gong?