As commentators note the passing of Chuck Barris, the legendary creator of hit television shows The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, and commemorate his career, they have overlooked the sex and sexism at the heart of his enterprise. Part of Barris’s legacy is his packaging and selling of sexual conflict, sexual titillation and public humiliation to millions of Americans in game show form.
Nowhere was this dynamic more apparent than Barris’s short-lived 1979 game show, Three’s a Crowd. This show, which played up sexual tensions between husbands, housewives and secretaries, also captured the sexual turmoil that engulfed families in the 1970s. Three’s a Crowd had an inflammatory premise: husbands would appear on the show with their wives and their secretaries and answer questions to see “who knew the husband best.”
In the mid-1960s, Barris’s game shows, The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, titillated audiences by asking couples questions that invited sexual confessions, awkward responses, and outright fights. Barris showcased the dynamics of dating and marriage and his game shows prodded hostilities between men and women. Although television critics hated his shows (six television critics once voted “Anything by Chuck Barris” as the worst show on television), “the war of the sexes” sold well for Barris and his shows were syndicated across the country.
In 1972, Barris tried to get networks to push the envelope further with a game show whose premise was adultery, Three’s a Crowd. “I took the idea to the network,” Barris explained to a reporter, “and the reaction was such an instant uproar that I have thought every programming executive in New York was having an affair with his secretary.” Seven years later, Chuck Barris’s own production company created Three’s a Crowd and stations across the country picked it up.
Viewers watched as host Jim Peck asked male executives questions such as: “What’s the longest your wife has made you go without sex?” “What was the sexiest outfit your secretary ever wore?” “If you and your secretary were planning on having an affair, where would you tell your wife you were going / what excuse would you give her in order to get out of the house?” “Is your secretary too sexy or not sexy enough?” and “Complete this sentence for us: my secretary always puts her bust too close to my ___.” The secretaries and wives would then be called out on stage to answer the same questions. The woman whose answers best matched the man’s would get a cash prize. These questions, unsurprisingly, provoked verbal and physical fights between the contestants.
Television critics panned the show as a theater of cruelty. A writer for the LA Times called Three’s a Crowd “the absolute latest in mental atrophy.” Feminists and conservative women, meanwhile launched protests seeking to get the show pulled from local television stations. These groups detested the show for very different reasons and their debates reveal a great deal about a nascent culture war that divided women on issues having to do with gender roles and sexuality.
Conservative women resented the show and objected to “scenes of adultery” and “sexual perversion.” Across the country, evangelical Christian groups mobilized half a million people to sign pledge cards threatening to boycott the show. Three’s a Crowd’s presentation of sexual secretaries tapped into looming fears that working women would steal away husbands. A decade earlier, Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Office (1964), as historian Julie Berebitsky notes, affirmed secretaries’ pursuit of “professional success and sexual pleasure” in the office. “A girl may not feel too guilty about charming a married man,” Gurley Brown wrote, “because if she works for him, she can’t help observing what a spoiled, demanding creature his wife is.” By the 1970s, the image of the sexual secretary had become a staple of television shows like “Three’s Company” and “WKRP in Cincinnati.” These images also became the boogeyman of conservative literature.
“All day long [your husband is] surrounded at the office by dazzling secretaries who emit clouds of perfume,” warned bestselling author Marabel Morgan in The Total Woman. Conservative stalwart Beverly LaHaye likewise worried about secretaries, whom she described as “desperately lonely and will pay any price for a period of tenderness,” and would have sex with their boss even though they knew there was “no chance of marriage.” For these religious housewives, working women threatened the home as much as sexual images on their television sets. They were less upset about men’s sexual exploitation of women than they were about sexual secretaries and representations of sex on television.
Meanwhile, women’s rights groups viewed Three’s A Crowd as promoting sexual harassment at the office and presenting degrading images of women. The National Organization for Women (NOW) called the show “sexist and demeaning,” and charged that it threatened workingwomen by promoting sexual harassment at the office. The Los Angeles branch of NOW mounted license renewal challenges to influence local broadcasters to change their programming. And an organization of office employees, the Los Angeles chapter of Working Women, organized a letter writing campaign that resulted in a thousand protest letters being sent to Chuck Barris’ office.
A similar scene unfolded in Michigan where a homemaker in suburban Detroit organized a coalition made up of Homemakers Equal Rights Association, the National Organization for Women, the National Secretaries Association, and the PTA. For two months, these groups protested the show for denigrating wives and secretaries and encouraging sexual harassment. In the face of this pressure, Barris offered to tone down his show even as local program managers began canceling it.
By Christmas of 1979, stations across Michigan and in Los Angeles had ended their run of Three’s a Crowd. By the end of 1979, the ratings for most of Barris’s shows were slumping and local stations were replacing them with other fare. As one television critic noted, Barris “has poured on the titillation like fertilizer, with the appropriate redolent results. He had a brief bumper crop, but it has proved largely unrenewable.” By early 1980, Barris announced that he was temporarily shutting down production of all of his game shows.
While Chuck Barris’s Three’s a Crowd was a brief blip on the cultural radar, the broader cultural response to this show from conservative and feminist women alike revealed a deepening cultural divide over sexuality and women’s roles in American culture. If nothing else, Barris’ shows confirmed that for women of all political stripes, depictions of sex on television were hardly a game.
Gillian Frank is a Managing Editor of NOTCHES: (re)marks on the History of Sexuality. He is also a Visiting Fellow at Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. Frank’s research focuses on the intersections of sexuality, race and religion in the twentieth-century United States. He is currently working on a book manuscript entitled Making Choice Sacred: Liberal Religion and Reproductive Politics in the United States Before Roe v. Wade. Gillian tweets from @1gillianfrank1.