CREATED THE GONG SHOW, THE DATING GAME AND THE NEWLYWED GAME. Marched, or did not march, from Selma to Montgomery in '65, as, or not as, a young CIA informant (working his way up to assassin). Wrote autobiography Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, first published in 1982, recently adapted for the screen by Charlie Kaufman, directed by George Clooney, released by Miramax Films, check local listings. Whether or not your life has been affected by Chuck Barris, whether or not you believe his confessions or care to, there's no denying that Barris was once a 73-year-old man who stood at the extreme south end of the Book Soup Annex last week and talked to almost 100 people at the same time.
He spoke well, Barris. Punctual, too 8 p.m., exactly. Seemed like a nice ex-game-show host/assassin.
I could hear but wanted to see; even after scooting a ladder into the corner and rearranging a stack of coffee-table hardbacks into a temporary stool, I still had to peek through someone's nose ring. To the rescue: A woman nearby held a camcorder way up high, and I found that if I stood back and sort of half-climbed onto a table and wedged one foot between the ladder and the bookcase, I could watch the proceedings on the camcorder's 2.5-inch LCD viewfinder. Until the woman's shoulders got tired and began to shake. But her friend reached up to offer support, and, with one working the focus and zoom and the other being a human monopod, the viewfinder became the primary monitor not only for me but for about a half-dozen of us at the back.
One was named Dan. At 8:07, with the audience fully engaged in Barris' monologue, a tall white woman squeezed in the side entrance and shouted shouted "DAN!" to this Dan standing three feet in front of me. Everyone turned to glare, first at Dan's friend, with what the fuck glares, then at Dan, with you poor fucker, you glares. Dan wasn't very happy.
Fortunately, some craggy white guy in some ancient military cap came in, waddled six feet into the crowd and then let loose with a loud and raspy "HEY! WHEN YOU GONNA BRING BACK THE GONG SHOW?"
Which brings us to 8:10, when Barris segued out of the monologue and into the questions from the audience. We liked The Gong Show. We liked The Gong Show Movie. Are there plans to syndicate The Gong Show? Are there plans to re-release The Gong Show Movie? Did you really kill people for the CIA? What about home video? Are there plans to release episodes of The Gong Show on home video? Are there plans to release The Gong Show Movie on home video? What do you say to people who say bad things about you? Are you going to write more books? Did you really kill people for the CIA? If you write another book, what will it be about? Were you stoned?
When I was a young lad watching The Gong Show, I'd always assumed that when Barris appeared to be all coked up and maybe slightly stoned or drunk, it was because he was all coked up and stoned or drunk. So when, at 8:16, he said, "I never touched drugs in my life," I was disappointed. It's always sad when an otherwise bright and promising elderly man makes such an admission. It did remind me, though, that my back, which had been killing me all day, was killing me in a new way, owing to my half-on-table-with-wedged-foot posture.
"Shall I quit now?" Barris asked at 8:25, "and start signing your books?" Yes. The audience made the hand-slapping sounds again and fell into queue.
Thirty minutes later, I'd almost reached the front of the line. I could see. Barris had removed his black jacket and, in a pale, rumpled T-shirt, become a machine. Standing to take a picture, sitting to sign a book. Stand, flash; sit, sign.
Apart from the Popsicle Twins two teenage girls who gave inspired blowjobs to Popsicles my favorite part of The Gong Show was Gene Gene the Dancing Machine. Barris would reel back, funkay cap pulled down over his eyes, and spit-shout, "GENE! GENE! THE DANCING MACHINE!!" and out came his friend Gene Patton, who'd dance around to Count Basie's "Jumpin' at the Woodside." And Barris would dance, and anyone else who felt like it would dance, and it all seemed to make sense. So, being uncomfortable with book-signing banter I didn't even know this guy; why did I want him to sign my book? I didn't even pay for the book, it's a promo copy . . . when I got to the front of the line, I decided I'd try to manipulate a little performance memento. As Barris signed, I said, as if it had just occurred to me, "Oh, hey. What was that guy's name, the guy on your old show who used to come out and dance to 'Jumpin' at the Woodside'? What was his name again?"
And, yes, Barris reeled back, just a little bit, and . . . shot me.
IN THESE DAYS OF EXTENDED COPYrights and increasingly demented litigation, it's easy to imagine that Esquire critic Tom Carson might have had the odd qualm about his new novel, Gilligan's Wake, which uses the backstories of the seven famous sitcom castaways to paint a portrait of 20th-century America. It's so easy to imagine a lawsuit, in fact, that at Carson's reading at Skylight Books last Friday night, someone raised precisely that issue. As the novelist explained why he hadn't really been worried (the rules permitting parody, etc.), a small, graying man in the second row suddenly raised his hand.
"In your book," he said genially, "you call me 'il miglior fabbro,' and I want to know if I've been insulted or not."
Eyes widening slightly in recognition, Carson stepped forward and extended his hand: "Mr. Schwartz."
"What's going on?" somebody asked from the back.
"This is Sherwood Schwartz," Carson said, "the creator of Gilligan's Island."
The audience greeted this announcement with an excited murmur, and as Carson explained that "il miglior fabbro" means "the better maker" (it was how T.S. ä Eliot referred to Ezra Pound in The Waste Land), everyone looked at Schwartz with a kind of startled reverence. And why not? The 86-year-old producer had earned his pop-culture immortality by creating two of the most fabled shows in TV history not just Gilligan's Island but also The Brady Bunch. In the process he came up with a set of characters who have entered the world's imagination as archetypes as the inevitable "Ginger or Mary Ann?" makes clear.
"Have you read the book?" someone asked Schwartz.
"I read the first chapter, and this young man" Carson is in his 40s "is a brilliant writer. Then my son stole it from me. But I'm going to get another one tonight and finish it."
Someone in the crowd noted that the book's title contained an obvious allusion to James Joyce and asked Carson which had influenced him more: Finnegans Wake or Gilligan's Island.
"For what it's worth," the writer said, "in my acknowledgments, I expressed my gratitude to Sherwood Schwartz and not Joyce."
After the Q and A, Carson sat at a table signing copies of his novel, and Schwartz stayed put in his chair, basking in the attention as people came up to shake his hand, tell him how much they loved the S.S. Minnow and its shipwrecked septet, and then asked him to sign their copies of Gilligan's Wake. He did so with such good cheer that one sensed that he would've been happy to sign books all night.
THE CALL CAME ON A MONDAY. "WOULD you be interested in coming to juvenile hall Friday to hear the real Antwone Fisher speak?" JD asked. Fisher was going to talk to inmates of Los Angeles County's juvenile detention system about his life, autobiography and the film Antwone Fisher.
JD, a.k.a. John Duvall or, endearingly, "The White Shadow," is a journalism-school graduate, a teacher at a private girls school and a volunteer at Inside Out Writer's Program, a nonprofit group that works with aspiring wordsmiths in detention.
With his patrician manners, perfect diction, thick black-frame glasses, and jeans and button-down shirts, JD does not walk into a roomful of abused and sometimes abusive teenagers of color and automatically inspire confidence. "The kids can be tough," he often says. "Their bullshit detector is always on."
In JD's view, writing transcends race or class. But Fisher's appearance was an opportunity for this white teacher with the comfortable background to observe the connection made possible when people see themselves in others. To the kids, Fisher, a black man once filled with rage who has risen through perseverance and the power of the written word, is the real deal.
After a ham-and-eggs breakfast at Nick's Café near Union Station, JD got into his Geo Metro and drove to the East Lake Juvenile Detention Hall, downtown off Mission. He parked near some railroad tracks, then took a shuttle to the facility and cleared security after leaving his driver's license at the front desk. Teenagers with shaved heads, Afros and acne sat in chairs waiting restlessly inside the concrete-walled enclave. Burly probation officers hovered. Television cameras were set up. Under a tent near the podium sat VIPs, the press and several posh, bohemian-looking women Fisher's publicists.
Fisher medium height, strong build, baseball cap, plaid shirt and jeans stepped up to the microphone. The amplifier at his feet barely cut through distant train noises. He spoke plainly and softly: "I know it's hard to imagine a better life," he told the kids. "I too have been incarcerated, angry and alone. The key is to focus on yourself, not what's going on around you. Believe that when you come out of here, you will still be standing. Consider this the first chapter of your own book."
Event coordinators adjusted the volume control of the amplifier as Fisher answered questions. The kids raised their hands tentatively, and he asked each one to stand. They glanced to see if anyone was dogging them, shuffling their feet and gesturing rapper style with their hands, their voices almost inaudible. They wanted to know how it felt, as an adult, when Fisher met his estranged mother. And was it tough talking to a psychotherapist (played in the film by Denzel Washington, who also directed Antwone Fisher)?
"I had never told anyone about the fighting and the violence I had done, so at first it was a thrill," Fisher said. "But I sat on the floor in front of the therapist's desk to avoid eye contact. It was tough trusting someone."
After the Q and A, three of Inside Out's star writers came forward and thanked Fisher for inspiring them. The first was a young African-American man who wanted to but was not allowed to call out his 'hood. The second was a heavyset Latino kid with his pants tucked in his socks. He thanked "Mr. Antwone Fisher" for setting an example that could give him hope. A slight Asian teenager spoke with confidence and a deep voice, enunciating lines of prose with passion.
As he walked to his car, JD described the challenge of earning respect from kids who had received none. He tries to pass on his passion for journalism something he probably picked up from his newspaperman father by sharing his love for "gnarly, on-the-ground reporting" (one of JD's favorite phrases) with the kids in his class. He shows them stories by foreign correspondent Jon Lee Anderson and post-9/11 reports from New York by William Langewiesche.
But breakthroughs are hard won and unexpected. Recently, JD's sister died of a drug overdose. That loss has allowed him to connect with his students in a personal way. "They see me as a real person," he said, "with a kind of pain they've experienced in their own lives."
JD stopped in front of the Geo Metro and rolled a cigarette before opening the door. "But it's not about me at all," he said. "I just try to get them to express themselves."
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"There isn't much violence in the gay community itself . . . Most of the violence comes from the fringes around the gay community, from people who prey on the vulnerability of gay people, particularly those who can't openly admit their homosexuality . . . Someone . . . who must keep his sexual activities secret and finds it easier to pay for sex . . . There's a frightening thing about . . . the world of street hustlers and anonymous sex. Picking up strangers . . . makes for a volatile situation. Eventually, it's no longer the sex that is important, it's the danger involved in it, the chance of random violence that's exciting."
Laurel Delp interviewing writer and gay activist Arthur Bell about the murder of Knight-Ridder newspaper heir John Knight, December 28, 1978