Anybody familiar with Chuck Barris’ psuedo-autobiography Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind knows the famed television producer plays fast and loose with the boundaries between fantasy and reality. But back in 1980, people didn’t know quite what to make of Chuckie Baby’s satirical experiments in scrambling fact and fiction. Composed of actual outtakes from the TV show (too risqué for broadcast by 70s standards, but hardly eyebrow raising in today’s “look at me, aren’t I shocking” era of desperate celebrities) combined with vignettes of Barris slowly suffering a nervous breakdown due to the show’s intrusion into his private life, the Gong Show Movie feels like the mutant offspring of an episode of Jackass genetically spliced together with a Robert Altman film. So it’s no surprise that The Gong Show Movie was an instant flop.
And yet, for all its self-indulgent floppiness, something still rings a bit true when Barris, finally overwhelmed by the chaotic world he’s created for himself, flees by himself to the dunes of Morocco looking for meaning. In fact, this week’s gospel portrays the people of Jesus’ time doing the exact same thing, prompting the Christ to point blank ask them, “What did you go out to the desert to see?”
The Venerable Charles de Foucauld answers the question this way: “One has to pass through the desert, spending time there, if one is to receive the grace of God. It is there that we empty ourselves, getting rid of everything that is not God, and completely emptying this little house of our souls to leave all the room to God alone. The Hebrews travelled through the desert, Moses lived there before he received his mission, Saint Paul and Saint John Chrysostom were also made ready in the desert… It is a time of grace, a period during which all souls who want to bear fruit necessarily have to pass. They need this silence, recollection and forgetfulness of all created things in the midst of which God establishes his reign and forms a spirit of interiority within them: life in intimacy with God, conversation of the soul with God in faith, hope and love.”
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the Church offers up so much desert imagery smack dab in the middle of wintery Advent. During the oft-stressful noisy build-up to Christmas, maybe we all need a reminder to withdraw (if only mentally) every now and then so we can empty ourselves and commune with God. Of course, just like in the movie, all the stuff we’ve withdrawn from will eventually show up to call us back into the chaos. Maybe not in the form of The Unknown Comic, Gene Gene The Dancing Machine, and whatever that guy with tow heads was supposed to be like it did for Chuckie Baby, but it’ll show up, you can guarantee it. Only thanks to our little desert jaunts, maybe, just maybe, we’ll be better prepared to handle it.