Baby boomers today are anywhere from 53 to 71, so maybe everyone doesn’t remember some of the silly shows that featured our generation on television. But of those that most might remember, none was much sillier than The Dating Game. (And we’ll do an embarrassing act of full disclosure right here: BoomerCafé co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs was on the show in 1966 and wants you to know … he was chosen for the date!). Glendale, California writer and professor Bill Cushing mercifully doesn’t remember Dobbs, but he does remember the show, and the brilliant television producer who created it.
It doesn’t seem too great a stretch to say that Chuck Barris’s death in March 2017 was the true “passing of an era.”
He was perhaps best known for The Gong Show — the granddaddy of American Idol, other spin-offs. He was also the brains behind two popular daytime shows, The Newlywed Game and The Dating Game. As a regular viewer of The Gong Show because of its circus madness, I always relied on the closing with “Gene-Gene, the Dancing Machine” or hoped “The Unknown Comic” would show up. I am sure most boomers have a favorite act or episode.
You might argue in fact that Chuck Barris invented “reality tv.”
Still it was one particular segment of The Dating Game (the precursor to all the current “bachelor”/”bachelorette” reality shows) that stuck with me.
For those unfamiliar with its format, a panel of three “contestants” would vie for the chance to go out with a particular single of the opposite sex, winning that prize by answering a series of silly questions on the other side of a screen from the single— usually with flirty and risqué responses. So the single couldn’t see the contestants. Like other Barris shows, the fun was in the innuendo, overt or not.
The episode that stuck with me aired in the summer of 1969 as I lay trapped on a hospital bed following an appendectomy. Although usually the single was a woman, in this case, it was pro football idol Joe Namath, then at the height of his fame after winning the Super Bowl and still considered one of the major sex symbols of sports. He was introduced to much applause and happy shock on the faces of the three women on the other side of the screen who would now compete for a chance to go out with “Broadway Joe.”
Well, at least two of the three reacted that way.
One of the contestants was an exchange student from China, so she had no idea what all the ruckus was about when Namath was introduced. And for the next ten minutes or so, she kept looking back and forth in wonder as the two women on either side of her all but guaranteed that they would do anything— and I do mean a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g — for the chance to win that round. She almost looked disgusted at times, clearly demonstrating that she had no idea who this guy was and couldn’t understand why these two were behaving in such a forward and flirtatious manner.
She didn’t win the date. The carnal promises of the other two trumped her answers, which were no doubt as puzzling to Namath as everyone else’s reaction to Namath was to her. Still, in my mind, she definitely won the entertainment factor that day on the show.
As usual, Barris found a way to make television as entertaining as one possibly could.