TV TRANSFUSION Presents:
THE GONG SHOW
Television Review by L.L. Soares
When I was a kid in the 1970s, the NBC game show THE GONG SHOW (1976 – 1980) was one of my favorite things on television. A talent show that specialized in the twisted and bizarre, the kinds of acts you’d see included everything from a guy in a Groucho Marx nose and glasses lip-synching to opera, a guy in a gorilla suite riding a unicycle, or even a couple of girls eating popsicles suggestively. There were three “celebrity judges” who sat along a wall with a giant gong behind them, and if an act was considered just plain dismal, one (or all) of them would bang the gong and end the performance. America’s Got Talent this wasn’t. Thankfully so. And yet, even though it was nominally called a talent show or a game show, that’s not why I loved it so much. The Gong Show, more than anything else, was a comedy show.
Its host was a silly guy named Chuck Barris, who also happened to be the producer of the show. He had created other popular game shows that bordered on the “naughty,” like The Dating Game, where three men would take questions from a woman (or you could switch that around) and then she would decide which one she wanted to go on a date with. Or the Newlywed Game, where newly married couples answered questions about each other, to see who knew their spouses better. In the 70s, Chuck Barris was a game show-making machine, and his name was a brand. But The Gong Show was the first time he got in front of the camera, and who knew it?— the producer was also a natural entertainer.
Barris would dance along to the band, clap his hands and jump around, make faces, and have exaggerated reactions to things. If someone got gonged, he would say stuff like “I don’t know why they did that, I loved your act. But then again I like herpes.” He had a slouch hat that he pulled down over his eyes, and he seemed like the kind of guy you’d want to hang out with. An “aw shucks” kind of goofball.
The judges were also pretty funny, since most of them were comedians. Regular judges included Jamie Farr (Klinger from the TV series MAS*H, 1972 – 1983), comedian Rip Taylor (who went on to host his own Chuck Barris talent show, THE $1.98 BEAUTY SHOW, 1978 – 1980), and of course Jaye P. Morgan. A lounge singer who I had never heard of before her stint on the Gong Show, Morgan had a tendency to make dirty jokes whenever it was her turn to talk. In fact, on one show, during the end of The Gong Show’s run, she popped open her shirt and flashed the audience, something that got her banned from the show. She was terrific, and she had perfect chemistry with Barris.
The show started out strictly as a showcase for the strange “acts,” but as time went on, there were recurring bits that would show up every episode that weren’t amateur acts. Like The Unknown Comic (Murray Langdon), who would come out with a paper bag over his head (with eye holes cut out) and tell awful jokes, then start insulting Barris mercilessly. There were Rhett and Scarlett, two men dressed like the main characters from the movie GONE WITH THE WIND, who came onstage. First, Rhett would say, “I don’t give a damn,” and then they would start insulting one another. The comedy got so dirty that the network would censor them, bleeping the audio and putting a big sign that said things like “OOPS!” on the screen. Barris also had bits where he would stop the show and pull up a chair and read a book called “Chuckie’s Fables” to actors dressed like kids, who sat around him and he told stupid stories. Toward the end of the show’s run, every episode had chunks that were “censored” due to some recurring bit. I always wished someone would air the entire series uncut. But I doubt they ever will.
The most famous running gag was Gene Gene the Dancing Machine. The show would suddenly stop and Gene Gene (actually stage hand Gene Patton) would come out, wearing a warm-up suit and a hat, and do a dance. Every time he did the same dance moves. Chuck Barris would get all excited and start jumping around and dancing along with him, as the house band (Milton Delugg “and the Band With a Thug”) played his theme music.
At the end of each show, a dwarf in a tuxedo ran out and threw confetti, balloons fell from the ceiling, and Barris would present the winner with a giant check for $516.32 and a trophy (a smaller version of the gong).
The show as so popular that there was a Saturday edition in prime time (hosted by Gary Owens, previously the announcer from ROWAN AND MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN 1967 – 1973); at the height of the show’s popularity, Chuck Barris hosted a weekly prime-time variety show of people’s favorite acts from THE GONG SHOW called THE CHUCK BARRIS RAH-RAH SHOW (1977-1978); and there was even a GONG SHOW MOVIE (1980), which showed some of the censored bits from the show, along with a story about a day in the life of producer/host Barris.
Even some famous people performed on the show before they were famous, including Paul “Pee Wee Herman” Reubens, the bands Oingo Boingo and Green Jelly, and impressionist Michael Winslow from the POLICE ACADEMY movies (starting in 1984).
THE GONG SHOW had a huge cult audience, and you can see why.
Now we jump ahead to 2017, and ABC is bringing back classic game shows and giving them a new spin. From THE $100,000 PYRAMID to MATCH GAME. It was only a matter of time before they revived THE GONG SHOW.
This time it’s an hour-long show (as opposed to 30 minutes), features bigger name stars as judges (like Will Arnett—who also produces the new show—Will Forte, Elizabeth Banks, and Zach Galifinakas) and the host is comedian Mike Myers (of AUSTIN POWERS fame), but with special makeup to look completely different. Myers pretends to be an old-time British comedian named Tommy Maitland, and doesn’t break character on the show, which sounds funnier than it is. Maitland isn’t an especially interesting or hilarious character, and his artificiality is the exact opposite quality that Chuck Barris brought to the original show, where he seemed genuine and completely mischievous.
THE GONG SHOW still specializes in weird and unusual amateur acts, and “Maitland” mugs for the camera and makes dirty wise-cracks. I’ve seen a few episodes of the new GONG SHOW. It’s entertaining and fun. But it can’t hold a candle to Chuck Barris’ original. The prize money has been increased a lot, though. Now it’s a gong trophy and a check for $2,000.17.
The new GONG SHOW is okay, but I’m not sure how today’s audience will react to it, with an overwhelming amount of talent shows on the air these days. The strangeness of the acts should be a draw (at least they’re not as boring as the usual prime-time fare), but this might actually push some viewers away. Despite how the new show does in the ratings, I would much rather watch the original show any day of the week.
Of ABC’s reboots of classic shows, my favorite is MATCH GAME with host Alec Baldwin (replacing Gene Rayburn from the original version who hosted from 1973 – 1982) asking celebrities to fill in the blank to (often dirty) questions. It captures the spirit of the original show really well, and Baldwin doesn’t have such large shoes to fill.
© Copyright 2017 by L.L. Soares