Forget Pet Rocks and bell bottoms. If you want evidence the seventies were the strangest decade in American history, feast your eyes on The Gong Show, the brief-but-oh-so-memorable game show that aired from 1976 through 1980, in a daytime version on NBC and nighttime version in syndication. Even taking account Community, Conan, and all the other “off-beat” shows currently on TV, it still stands as among the strangest television programs of all time. And I would argue, among the funniest.
The Gong Show was initially dreamed up by mega-successful game show producer Chuck Barris (The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game) as a straightforward talent competition. But, the story goes, the first auditions didn’t unearth many good performers. It was then that Barris was struck by the epiphany that, three decades later, fueled the success of American Idol: Watching a person flop can be almost as entertaining as watching them soar. Watching someone act bizarre, even better. So the Gong Show not only featured a parade of bizarre and mediocre talent, it actively cultivated it (its promos called for “good or unusual acts”) — with the eponymous gong used to cut short acts so bad no one could take it anymore.
Like that other great 70s game show, Match Game, The Gong Show really wasn’t about the game, more the madness that surrounded it. By the end of the show, one or two acts stood heads and shoulders above the others, if only for sheer competence. They took home the unimpressive sum of $516.32, which according to one source, was the then-Guild minimum.
The Gong Show did draw “legitimate” acts, including Cheryl Lynn, Oingo Boingo, and Pee Wee Herman. But perhaps the ultimate Gong Show act — both good and unusual — was the Bait Brothers, two beefy hippie-types squeezed into one set of clothing, creating such a bizarre visual effect it barely mattered that they sang competently. (All of which later became a gag on The Simpsons.)
As an impressionable youth, one thing that drew me to The Gong Show was its view of adults behaving badly. It wasn’t just the performers. The studio audience was the rowdiest lot this side of pro-wrestling, booing acts they didn’t like so energetically you were worried the poor guys would be lynched. Then there was the “celebrity panel,” who, when they weren’t theatrically staring mouth agape at the acts, were cracking jokes, dancing, or popping up from their seats like hyperactive five year olds. The most popular panelist was former fifties pop star Jaye P. Morgan, whose trademark was emitting a never-ending string of double-entendres; she was eventually bounced from the show after flashing her boobs. And then there was the host.
Barris may have been the show’s producer and a veteran TV “suit.” But, once he got on stage, he acted like he didn’t have a care in the world, radiating the manic energy of a punk rock frontman. In an era of slick game show emcees, “Chuckie Baby” was twitchy and disheveled, frequently bumbling his lines. He barely seemed like he belonged on TV — making him perfect for a show full of people who didn’t belong there either. And in fact, he only stepped into the role after the first host angrily quit, under the impression that he was hosting a legitimate talent show.
The Gong Show was a huge hit when it first premiered, and soon became a 1970s pop-cultural touchstone; many sitcoms featured Gong-inspired plots, including Carol Burnett, What’s Happenin’, and Sanford and Son. As the show grew more popular, it also grew stranger, and funnier. Each act was preceded by a semi-sarcastic introduction. (Sample: “I really like this next act, but then again, I like botulism.”) Barris’ nervousness led him to frequently clap; this turned into one of his trademarks, and the audience would clap along with him. He would also wear goofy hats, pulled over his eyes, and usher acts off stage with a hockey stick.
Soon, a significant amount of each episode was devoted to comedy segments that didn’t impact the competition, but which the audience adored. There was the Unknown Comic — basically your everyday lounge-act jokester firing decades-old wisecracks, except for one thing: He wore a bag on his head. This extraordinarily thin gimmick made him more famous than he had any right to be, with his own best-selling poster. (About a decade ago, I saw the Unknown Comic in Vegas, for the whopping sum of seven bucks. I remember two things: First, after about 15 minutes, he took the bag off, which disappointed me greatly. Secondly, he downed two drinks while on stage.)
There was Larry and His Magic Instruments, another segment built on a ridiculously simple premise that nevertheless went over like gang-busters. Show writer Larry Spencer would half-heartedly warble a silly call-and-response song about how he was gonna play an instrument (“Gonna play this xylophone.” “What you gonna do?”) And then he would fail to play it. That was it. That was the whole bit. But it’s not surprising why as a kid I loved it: It had repetition. Singing. Sight gags. Adults acting goofy. What’s not to love?
But the best was “Gene, Gene, the Dancing Machine.” For two or so minutes, stagehand Gene Patton would do the world’s simplest dance while junk was thrown at him. And everyone would go nuts. I remember watching and marveling: Look how much fun they’re having. Blogger Mark Evanier recalls being on the Gong Show set one time when Gene, Gene began boogying:
The minute they started playing his music — “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” I think the tune’s called — the studio positively erupted. Barris started dancing and the panelists jumped up and started dancing…and you could feel how much Gene Gene enjoyed what he was doing. Okay, fine, they’re performers. It’s part of the act. But the crew also started dancing — people not on screen. The guy operating Camera 1 was operating Camera 1 and dancing at the same time. Grips were dancing, lighting guys were dancing, the members of the band were dancing as much as they could and still play their instruments. And of course, the audience — an odd mix of younger Gong Show fans intermingled with old ladies who couldn’t get in to the Hollywood Squares taping down the hall — simply had to leap up and boogie. Some of the show’s performers and staffers were a little (shall we say) under the influence of something…but the crew wasn’t and the audience wasn’t. It was just an honest “high” of excitement.I’ve been on many TV stages in my life. I’ve seen big stars, huge stars — Johnny, Frank, Sammy, Dino, Bob, you name ‘em. I’ve seen great acts and great joy, and if you asked me to name the most thrilling moment I’ve witnessed in person, I might just opt for the Gong Show electrifying Stage 3 for all of 120 seconds.
I always thought the Craig Ferguson’s “Secretariat” bit, which is also basically designed to get everyone in the studio dancing, owed a bit of debt to Gene, Gene.
Perhaps the most famous “real” act was the Popsicle Twins, (a.k.a. “Have you got a nickel”): two innocent looking girls doing not-so-innocent-seeming things to popsicles, while the audience hooted. (Morgan gave them the highest score after proclaiming, “Do you know that’s the way I started?”) Barris has said that he didn’t think the act would get past the censors. But it did — until it aired, and a horrified network deleted it from its West Coast feed. Watching today, it’s still pretty striking this was broadcast on network TV in the 1970s. I’m not sure it could get on today. And it marked the beginning of the end.
After two years of increasingly manic behavior, Barris seemed to finish the series on a seriously self-destructive jag. Large portions of the show would be bleeped, and acting like a lunatic every day apparently caught up to him. He writes in his autobiography that he realized he was having a “nervous breakdown on nationwide television.” His vanity project-slash-feature, the Robert Downey Sr.-directed “Gong Show Movie,” released in 1980 and featuring uncensored show highlights, moved that nervous breakdown to the movie house. Barris ends the film pouting in a desert, with a motley crew that includes The Unknown Comic, Rip Taylor, and the Bait Brothers, beseeching him to cheer up.
In 1978, NBC pulled the plug on the daytime version of The Gong Show. The nighttime version was axed two years later. And Barris took his millions and moved to France for some permanent chill-time. In 2002, a movie was made of his alleged autobiography, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, where he claims that he moonlighted as a CIA assassin while Gong host.
There have been attempts to revive The Gong Show over the years but it’s hard to believe anything beating the original for sheer kamikaze craziness. I couldn’t find any info on the last original Gong Show, but here’s a clip from the final episode of its NBC daytime run, with Barris performing that classic anthem-of-the-disgruntled, “Take This Job and Shove It.” After two years flipping the network the bird metaphorically, he did it for real this time (though it was bleeped.) And he was gonged.
Rob Bates has contributed to Weekend Update, Jibjab, Mcsweeneys, comedycentral.com, New York Newsday, and a bunch of New York sketch shows. His Twitter feed is @Misterrobbates.