I had a friend in West Hollywood whose only public achievement was that he could put 20 cigarettes in his mouth at one time and still manage to whistle "Yankee Doodle." He did this while performing a kind of silly little jig and sometimes, for added impact, he would roll up his trousers.
After several rounds of what the better people used to call spirits, someone at a party would always say, "Hey, Fred, do your act!" Fred, who was a shoe salesman, would promptly pull out a fresh pack of cigarettes, light each one separately to build suspense, and do his shtick. Then he would bask in the acclaim.
It was, without question, Fred's shining moment. And though he almost overdosed once trying the "Star Spangled Banner" with a dozen panatelas, Fred went on performing at parties for years and may still be whistle-smoking wherever he is on the seasonal shoe-selling circuit, assuming all those cigarettes haven't finally done him in.
The clapping and laughing were music to his ears. You don't get that kind of glory selling shoes. Which brings me to Chuck Barris.
Barris, you might recall, was the creator and host of "The Gong Show," a network television program that celebrated, to put it kindly, "street talent." I don't mean popping or breaking, but the kind of talent the average person possesses if he or she is shamelessly uninhibited and willing to do almost anything to gather a crowd.
One of "The Gong Show's" more memorable acts, for example, was a woman who whistled "I'm Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover" through her nose. Fred would have liked that.
Same old circus, different clowns.
I mention this only because Barris is back on television with programs that feature clips from "The Gong Show." They have developed, he says without shame, a cult following.
I met with Barris in his Beverly Hills office. He is, as someone has said, a furry little creature with a quick, secret smile who lives in a fantasy forest. He is also 56, rich, determined to be happy and still smarting over the volleys fired by outraged critics when "Gong" was still on the air live.
They wrote that he demeaned the human spirit by humiliating the individual, that he exploited our baser instincts and generally produced shows that played to the lowest common denominator. Sleazy and sloppy were among the milder adjectives applied to Barris' productions, which, in addition to "Gong," included "The Newlywed Game" and "The Dating Game," among other Free World classics.
"I don't even know what the lowest common denominator is," Barris said, fidgeting with a piece of paper. "No one was hurt by 'Gong.' Everybody had fun. A lot of the contestants still keep in touch and say it was the most exciting time of their lives. People without talent are an extroverted, happy, kooky bunch.
"And, hey, let me ask you something: Which does the most harm, a 'Gong Show' or the killings, pistol whippings and flying blood you see on evening 'drama'? And the critics blame me for cracking culture?" He shook his head.
People in show biz can justify just about any form of questionable entertainment: They say that hard-core porn keeps the rapists off the streets, that graphic violence satisfies murderous tendencies, that society needs acceptable outlets for its maniacal rhythms. That kind of classic non-think has been going on since the Romans threw their first Christian to the lions, and I needn't tell you how successful that psychology of substitution has been.
But Barris may have a point about everyone needing some way of being noticed. Punkers dye their hair pink, women prance about half-naked at the beach, drunks burst into sudden song at Irish bars and God knows what a man will do or wear to attract a camera at a football game.
Flashers, underwater wedding couples, fat women in tennis outfits at the supermarket . . . the list goes on.
One must assume that a guy in drag who orders a banana daiquiri at a saloon frequented by the Hell's Angels wants a little attention and, further, that he knows exactly what he's doing, may his foolish soul find peace.
The "Gong Show" provided what Barris sees as an unforgettable moment for tap-dancing sisters in monkey costumes. So what was the harm? It wasn't one of the programs I watched with determined consistency, but I can understand his lingering pique at being logged in the same category as the Marquis de Sade. "Gong" moved humanity neither backward nor forward, but allowed it to dance a little on the brink of the abyss.
Harmless exhibitionism provides people like my friend, the whistling shoe salesman, the spotlight we all crave and the audience we all need to move us, if only for a moment, from the loneliness of the shadows to center stage. You get damned few strokes selling shoes or vacuuming the living room, but maybe, just maybe, there's a kind of small glory in the notion that someone out there is watching you , only you.
So come on, Fred, do your act. Just one more time.