coffee with dead people: chuck barris

Chuck Barris died Tuesday in, of all places, Palisades, NY. The songwriter, author, television producer/emcee and cultural lightning rod was 87.

Most may not know that he wrote the post-Golden Age of Radio single “Palisades Park”, or that he worked behind the scenes on American Bandstand and was in no small part influential in the rise of what we know as reality television. Most know him in one of two ways: One, as the central character in the 2002 film adaptation of his self-professed unauthorized autobiography Confessions of a Dangerous Mind; or two, not entirely removed from the first, as the cracked-out host of the cracked-out late 1970s *ahem* talent program The Gong Show. 

He gave us any number of pop cultural icons and curiosities, launching the immortal Bob Eubanks from radio disc jockey to near-ubiquitous television presence for the better part of twenty years, to early exposure for a very youthful Paul Reubens, to giving David Letterman some of his earliest appearances as a celebrity judge on The Gong Show. He might not have been a kingmaker per se, but his work shaped a lot of American television culture to the present day.

Barris showed the world what an introvert looked like when faced with success, a national audience and a multi-camera studio. Or, perhaps, he really was cracking under the pressure of being an international man of mystery and assassin. Or, perhaps, drugs (a claim Barris vehemently denied to his death.)

The Gong Show was an early part of the lineup back in the days when USA Network ran blocks of old game shows every weekday afternoon. We lived in the suburban Twin Cities before cable became commonplace; my father got one of those enormous satellite dishes so that he could watch the Packers out of market. So, my brother and I were exposed to far more of the 1970s than I probably should have been.

And yet there we would be, in that ebullience known only to the young, dancing along to Gene Gene the Dancing Machine. Those memories are some of a scant few I have when my brother and I were both children. That joy still welled up when Central Wisconsin finally got Game Show Network and Gong was on every night at 10pm. That joy came back when I found Gene Gene compilations on YouTube last week.

Barris was also an accomplished author. Confessions is one of my favorite books (certainly not for the faint of heart), and The Game Show King is one of the better memoirs I’ve read. After Gong went off the air in 1980, he largely disappeared from public life, moving to France before returning to the States in his latter years. He never fully recovered from the loss of his daughter to a drug overdose, and four years of consistent on-screen delirium will suck the life out of anyone, much less someone who never wanted to be on that end of a television camera.

He might not have been a saint, he might not have been responsible for the downfall of Western Civilization (at least not entirely), but he gave me some of my earliest and most favorite memories, and now the coffin of my childhood is fast running out of space for the added nails.

The end of both the film and book is an uncomfortably apropos way to conclude:

I came up with a new game show idea recently. It’s called the old game. You got three old guys with loaded guns on stage. They look back at their lives, see who they were, what they accomplished, how close they came to realizing their dreams. The winner is the one who doesn’t blow his brains out. He gets a refrigerator.

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coffee with dead people: dietrich bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, courtesy Dover Beach

‘Coffee with Dead People’ is a recurring series on figures, historical and otherwise, I find to be fascinating, reflections on their lives and works mashed up with mine. And they’re dead.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the most brilliant theological and philosophical minds of the 20th century, a textbook example of what might have been…

…had he not been executed by the Germans with Allied artillery virtually within earshot?

…had he decided to stay in the United States under asylum, as his friend Reinhold Niebuhr pleaded with him to do?

…had he not maintained his moral compass and theological integrity in the face of a tyrannical cultural movement?

My first encounter with Bonhoeffer was in college, where fervent and zealous fundamentalists gravitated to The Cost of Discpleship merely on the name of the work alone. In all likelihood, none of them probably read and understood the book, talking hyperbolic about laying everything down for Jesus in that inimitable way fervent, zealous fundamentalists can talk.

My first interaction with Bonhoeffer came a little later, finding his Ethics at a book liquidator for next to nothing. What I found was not a blustering, glib firebrand who would draw fundamentalists with his populist ramblings. Quite the opposite; I found a nuanced, skilled thinker–very German, very Lutheran–whose commitment to Christ and the doctrine of hypostatic union–the full God-ness and humanity of Jesus–led him to extrapolate a brilliant, almost mystic ethic based on the economy of union versus disunion, with God and with one another. His clarity was almost disconcerting, unlike colleagues such as Niebuhr or Tillich, Bonhoeffer took a simple idea and built an entire universe around it. Postman once said ‘Clarity is courage,’ and indeed, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was courageous.

It is what people have done with him that seems cowardly in comparison.

Eric Metaxas, heir to the late Chuck Colson as the socio-political voice of Evangelicalism, wrote a biography of Bonhoeffer that might as well have been any number of modern American Evangelicals. It was a puzzling work that was on one hand very readable and enjoyable, but also intellectually harrowing and anachronistic. Indeed, one pre-release reviewer of the then-manuscript found it so fraught with mistakes, grammatical, historical and otherwise, and so deviant from other, more socially-proximate bios on the subject that he insisted HarperCollins not publish it. (Nashville’s Thomas Nelson, an Evangelical publishing house, ended up releasing it to Evangelical acclaim. (The former is a subsidiary of the latter. Metaxas, as Jeff Tweedy. YHF, my friend. YHF.)

The political and religious left have claimed Bonhoeffer as their own as well, using his ‘religionless Christianity’ as the basis for everything from universalism to a theological grounding for primarily-political recognition of same-sex marriage. We’ve already covered how fundamentalists love a good title. I think, with what I believe to be good reason, both miss the point (as tedious distinctions like left and right are wont to do since they ultimately represent nothing but idolatrous self-interest.)

This is not to say that it is inappropriate for one to, ahem, appropriate ideas into one’s thinking on a particular subject (lest I be rendered a hypocrite for having a series called ‘Coffee with Dead People’.) It’s just that when we deal with our own thinking on subjects, we need to do so with an understanding that the mere appearance of concurrence is not concurrence itself. We are inexorably at the mercy of context, and granted that matters of context and intent are not entirely knowable, this is not the same as saying they are not knowable at all. Tillich’s approach toward panentheism and process leaves me wanting, but that doesn’t mean I can’t agree with him when he says that faith is the object of one’s ultimate concern. Bonhoeffer’s unwavering resistance to the Nazi corruption of the German church is a false equivalent to both fundamentalist self-immolation and ‘progressive’ self-glorification. It is culturally and temporally located and what we derive from that has to be appreciated within that framework. Hating the Cubs doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the careers of Ron Santo and Ernie Banks.

Beyond all of this linguistic nonsense, though, lies a creeping, disconcerting thought, the one that plagues each of us periodically in our lives: what might have been? Then, I look at a person like Bonhoeffer, lionized after his time, and wonder how he must have felt in Flossenburg or Buchenwald, the final days of his life playing out toward an undeniable end. Had he not asked himself the same questions, his life would not have the same lasting resonance, for he would not have been a man at all. Then I consider Jesus in the same way, carrying the weight of dread in Gethsemane, then the beatings and the execution. Who thinks for a moment that Jesus didn’t consider doubt when the Romans were doing what they did best?

Then I hate myself for my compromise, and place my trust in divine grace to cover the deficit. What more could be done?