Little did I know the usefulness of watching Chuck Barris when I was 10.

Chuck Barris hosted The Gong Show from 1974 to 1976.  The daytime talent show featured a variety of acts of dubious talent vying for the coveted “big fake check for $516.32”.  If any of the judges deemed an act unworthy they struck a large gong positioned behind their panel.    This abruptly ended the performance and the act went away rejected.  I watched this unfold on a 26 inch Magnavox.  If you watched the show back then you remember those tv’s.  They were big, clunky, imposing pieces of equipment, with dials and tubes and rabbit ears (Google it millennials).  I watched all of this nonsense unfold in not-so-impressive Technicolor.  It was my baptism into irreverence.

Growing up on the farm in the 70’s I was taught independence, not irreverence.  I was taught, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”  I was taught to think and act for myself.  I was given responsibility for getting things done (the right way, which was ironically not always my way) and on time, in the most efficient way possible.  Even though I agreed with the axiom my dad handed down from his dad, “Efficiency will kill the American farmer.” I dared not treat efficiency or what I did, with any disrespect.  Chuck showed me a different way.

He laughed at what he did and at himself.  Whether it was his hat pulled down over his eyes, the single clap he gave each act or the tagline “We’ll be back; with more stuff!” exclaimed before the show went to commercial, Chuck was clear; the whole thing was a goof.  We had fun on the farm but it wasn’t often during or in our work.  Nope, fun waited until after our work was done.  To be fair we weren’t standing on a stage running our yapper we were working with and around machinery that could kill you so a sense of seriousness was grounded in self-preservation.  I’d had the tractor safety class.  I’d seen the slideshow that you wouldn’t dare show kids today and probably wouldn’t have shown kids from the city back then who hadn’t seen a bit of blood once in a while.  I knew jacking around wasn’t just looked down upon, it was dangerous.  That’s what made Chuck Barris’s approach so intriguing.

I wondered how in the world I could ever get to a place where I had that much fun in my work.  Commitment was preached on the farm too.  I knew the goal was to find something you loved so you never had to work another day in your life.  I just didn’t know, until the Gong Show, that the thing you loved could absolutely crack you up on a daily basis.  Through the years I’ve looked for that Chuck Barris-esque gig, perhaps to my detriment.

I had no doubt that Mr. Barris was acting and if I knew half of what he was doing mentally or behind the scenes, those “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” would have disabused me of much of the romanticism with which I viewed his show.  It would be exactly ten years afterwards that I would call on that approach to work, even life, to try and make sense of what it held.  When the farm crisis struck in the early 80’s I got the call at college that my plans for the future had been dashed by an unseen, unsolvable and unfightable foe.  When the shock wore off, with time, I had to laugh.  They say that if you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.  At that point in 1984, laughing at the situation was my only and best option.  I don’t know if I was laughing along with God but it was all I could do in response to the resounding gong ringing in my ears.

I don’t know what happened to the “gongees” from the show.  I’ve never heard of any of them that went on to greatness despite being gonged off the stage.  True, there were performers who appeared and went on to enjoy some measure of success (Paul Reubens, Boxcar Willie, Mare Winningham, OIngo Boingo and Green Jelly to name an eclectic few) but no stories exist to my knowledge of anyone whose true talent was missed by the judges.  No one rose above the rejection to make a name in show business.  Not that I’m some shining example nor famous in any way but I’d like to think the sense of humor about my circumstances back then and yet today has served me well.  Chuck’s lessons haven’t been lost on me.

Over the years I’ve been part of some pretty big goofs pertaining to work.  Not that these jobs weren’t honorable, they were.  They bought diapers, paid bills and put food on the table.  It’s just that they didn’t really move the needle in the right direction professionally.  Oftentimes that irreverence had to be trotted out on a daily basis.  I had to laugh to keep things in perspective.  These weren’t the “right” jobs for me they were the “right now” jobs for me.  Many times I felt like I and my fellow co-workers were like those performers in the episode where everyone sang the same song (“Feelings”).  We were just trying to do something, anything, to stand out from the crowd; if not amongst our fellow performers.  Over the years I’ve bounced (or banged) from job to job, sometimes with satisfying results and sometimes with horrific ones.  I’ve always tried to keep a smile on my face.

Perhaps I’m not serious enough, or dedicated enough or invested enough.  Maybe I’ve missed opportunities because I wasn’t driven or willing to go the extra mile.  I know a part of that approach comes from knowing that job, that circumstance, that plan and this life is fleeting.  We’re part of a larger picture and our futures are often impacted by unseen, unsolvable and unavoidable forces.  I’ve been called a fatalist and I imagine to an extent I am.  But I also know that along with accepting and making the best of my situation and having a sense of humor about how it unfolds I have to maintain an irreverence for not only my plans but for everyone else’s.  We’re all players on a larger stage.  Gonged or not we have to keep going.  We have to respond by coming back with more stuff.

Chuck Barris passed away in March of this year.  He not only hosted The Gong Show but created The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game.  As multi-talented as he was (he also wrote “Palisade Park”) I don’t think “teacher of life lessons” is inscribed anywhere on his tombstone.  Just more evidence though that instruction can come from the most unlikely places.

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