Monday, February 6, 2012

The Gong Show

by Amy K. Bredemeyer

With The Voice back on NBC, I thought we could take a look at one of the network's much older talent-type shows. While the winners of The Gong Show didn't tend to go off and have successful careers stemming from their appearances, there were quite a few now-famous performers who began there. In 1976, one of the contestants went on to win the lead role in Annie. Pee Wee Herman and Bozo the Clown also appeared, long before they were best known by those pseudonyms. The show has now been off the air for quite some time (not counting the 2008 failed revival), but it sure made a go of it. Even an R-rated film, The Gong Show Movie, was made to show a week in the life of The Gong Show's host. You've likely never seen it, however, as it was never released in any watch-at-home format. Luckily, we're giving you a run-down of what the show was like. 

courtesy of
Brief history: The Gong Show was a daytime show from the summer of 1976 to the summer of 1978, plus in first-run syndication 1976-1980 and 1988-1989. Johnny Jacobs, Jack Clark, Chuck Barris, and Charlie O'Donnell were all announcers for the show.  Chuck Barris often tried to get inappropriate things past the censors, which resulted in a few acts that many people still talk about, such as the girls who devoured their popsicles in a suggestive manner and a French maid showing her panties on television. After NBC's daytime version was cancelled, the show was more risque, though it did develop a cult following of sorts. Years later, USA and the Game Show Network both aired reruns, but many of the episodes couldn't air due to "performance clearance issues." In 1998, a short-lived version called Extreme Gong allowed viewers to call in and vote on the various acts. The WB thought about reviving the show in the early 2000s, but it never happened. In 2008, a revival with Dave Attell (produced by Adam Sandler's company) was attempted on Comedy Central, but it was cancelled after eight episodes. The show never got tons of international pick-ups, though India and Indonesia in particular gave it a try. The show notably failed in Britain.

The game:
Three celebrity judges watch some amateur performers.Jamie Farr, Rip Taylor, and Phyllis Diller were among the most common judges, though others included Pearl Baily, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Eva Gabor, David Letterman, Shari Lewis, Steve Martin, Charlotte Rae, Joan Rivers, Suzanne Somers, Dionne Warwick, Chuck Woolery, and Soupy Sales. The name of the game comes from the fact that any judge could strike a large gong if they thought that a performance was really bad. At that point, the contender could not continue. The judges could originally use the gong after twenty seconds of being subjected to a horrific act, but that was eventually extended to forty-five. Each judge who "gonged" an act (sometimes more than one judge would strike the gong at the same time) would have to explain what made it so bad. If no gong sounded, the judges then each announced a score from 0-10, for a maximum total of 30 points. The prize wasn't anything too special - a trophy and $516.32 (later $716.32 as the SAG minimum increased). If there was a tie, the contestant who received the most audience applause won. When a final score was announced, Jerry Maren (at this point the only male munchkin from The Wizard of Oz still alive) ran onstage and threw confetti. At the end of each week, a "Worst Act Award" or "Most Outrageous Act Award" won a performer the same $516.32, plus a tube sock rather than a trophy. Below you'll see an act that was gonged to give you an idea of some of the wild stuff that people did.

Notable changes to the way the game is played:
As already noted, the time before a judge could sound the gong increased over time, as did the prize. But, the tiebreaker also went from audience applause deciding to the producers picking, and eventually the judges ruled a tie. Originally, "tournaments of champions" were planned, with the winner of those to be given a chance to perform in a nightclub. However, only one tournament was ever held. In the 2008 revival, judges could score the contestants on a scale from 0-500 rather than 0-10. Even then, the prize was only $600 and a trophy. Andy Dick, Steve Schirripa, and Kate Walsh were among the celebrity judges.

Special contestants:
There were several "contestants" who appeared multiple times. One was a comic who would tell jokes with a paper bag over his head. Another was Gene Gene the Dancing Machine, who was a stage hand with some notable dance moves. A third was having Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler tell dirty jokes (with punchlines bleeped out). They did have holiday-themed episodes, though. These were among the most memorably because the cast and crew would sing a song not related to the holiday at hand (i.e. "Easter Parade" for Christmas and "White Christmas" for Easter). Plus, there was no gonging allowed for Christmas episodes.

Favorite Rounds:
As a child, I liked the idea that a judge would ring a gong if someone was a horrible performer. I'm not really all that into performance-based shows, though, so I don't know that I have any sort of favorite anything about The Gong Show.

My take:
Let me start by saying that, in the last talent show I entered, I recited the alphabet backwards in 3.5 seconds. This was my senior year of college, and I received an honorable mention of sorts. (The girl who won was a contortionist.) I have no idea what I'd do if I were on the show, unless maybe I'd play the violin for the judges. I can't really sing worth a darn, and I have exactly two jokes that I tell well - neither of them are mine, and one is a Christmas joke so it can't even be pulled out year-round. Bottom line - I'll pass on this show.

Did you ever watch The Gong Show? Did you see watch the gone-in-a-flash revival a few years ago? Would you want to be on it, and what would you do?
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