The Gong Show

The Gong Show

:"This article is about the show which aired in the 1970s and 1980s. For the current version of the show, see The Gong Show with Dave Attell".Infobox Television
show_name = The Gong Show

caption = The Gong Show titlecard
format = Game show
num_episodes = 500 (NBC Daytime version)
camera =
picture_format =
runtime = 30 minutes
creator = Chuck Barris
starring = Chuck Barris (1976-1980)
John Barbour (1976)
Gary Owens (1976-1977)
Don Bleu (1988-1989)
Johnny Jacobs (1976-1980)
Charlie O'Donnell (1988-1989)
country = USA
network = NBC
first_aired = 1976
last_aired = 1989

"The Gong Show" was a parody of television variety shows that broadcast on NBC's daytime schedule from June 14, 1976 through July 21, 1978, and in first-run syndication in the U.S. from 1976 to 1980, and from 1988-1989. The NBC incarnation and the later years of the syndicated version were emceed by Chuck Barris, who also produced them.

Show format

Each show presented a contest between amateur performers of often dubious talent, with a panel of three celebrity judges. The program's frequent judges included Jaye P. Morgan, Arte Johnson, Rip Taylor, Jamie Farr, and Anson Williams. Rex Reed was notorious for being the harshest critic, often giving acts a 9 when they received perfect 10s from the other judges. If any one of the judges considered an act to be particularly bad, he or she could strike a large gong, thus forcing the performer to stop. Most of the performers took the gong with sheepish good grace, but there were exceptions.

Originally, panelists had to wait 20 seconds before they could gong an act; this was later extended to 30, and finally 45. Knowing this, some contestants deliberately stopped performing just before the 45-second rule kicked in, but Barris would overrule this gambit and disqualify them. On other occasions, an act would be gonged before its minimum time was up; Barris would overrule the gong, and the hapless act would be obliged to continue with the full knowledge that their fate was already sealed.

When an act was on the verge of being gonged, the laughter and anticipation built as the judges patiently waited to deliver the coup de grace: They would stand up slowly and heft their mallets deliberately, letting everyone know what was coming. Sometimes, pantomimed disputes would erupt between judges, as one celebrity would attempt to physically obstruct another from gonging the act. The camera would cut back and forth between the performers onstage, and the mock struggle over their fate. Sometimes an act was "Gang-Gonged", meaning it was so bad that it was gonged by two or even all three judges at once.

If the act survived without being gonged, he/she/they were given a score by each of the three judges on a scale of zero to ten, for a maximum possible score of 30. On the NBC run, the contestant who achieved the highest combined score won the grand prize of what Chuck Barris referred to as the "highly unusual amount of" $516.32 (reportedly the Screen Actors Guild's minimum pay for a day's work) and a "Golden Gong" trophy. On the subsequent syndicated run, the prize was $712.05 (later upped to $716.32). [ [, Gong Show review by Billy Ingram] ] In the event of a tie, three different tiebreakers were used in at various times during the show's run; at first, the studio audience decided the winner by their applause; later, the producers chose the winner; later still, the celebrities chose the winner. When Barris announced the final score, a dwarf in formal wear (former Munchkin Jerry Maren) would run onstage, throwing confetti while balloons dropped from overhead.

Originally, the show was advertised as having each day's winning contestants come back after a few weeks (this is also mentioned in the pilot episode) to compete in a "tournament of champions", with the winner being given the chance to appear in an unspecified nightclub act. However, only one of these tournaments was ever held. The winners on the NBC version became eligible to appear on the syndicated version for a chance to earn that show's prize.

Hostesses included Siv Aberg, a Swedish-born model who appeared on Barris's syndicated "New Treasure Hunt," actress Marlena Clark, porn actress Carol Connors and Barris's then-teenaged daughter Della. Johnny Jacobs and, on occasion, Jack Clark served as announcers.

The show celebrated many holidays such as Christmas, the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving, but invariably did so by singing the Irving Berlin standard, "Easter Parade." (When Easter was feted, the cast and crew would sing Berlin's "White Christmas.") The annual Christmas episode also featured a major rule change; for one day, in honor of the holiday spirit, judges were not permitted to gong contestants. Predictably, Christmas shows were heavily loaded with the most unappealing acts available.

Among others who acted as "celebrity judges" were Pearl Bailey, Phyllis Diller, Harry James, Steve Martin, Pat McCormick, Louis Nye, Pat Paulsen, Shari Lewis, Tony Randall, Soupy Sales, Gloria Gaynor, Dionne Warwick, Dr. Joyce Brothers, The Unknown Comic, David Letterman, Scatman Crothers, Pat Harrington, Peter Lawford, Allen Ludden, Chuck Woolery, and Steve Garvey. [ [ Nostalgia Central, The Gong Show] ] [ [ Game Show Fame: The Gong Show] ]

Barris as emcee

Chuck Barris, an established game show producer ("The Dating Game", "The Newlywed Game"), was not the original host; he was an emergency replacement for John Barbour. Barbour, who later hosted "Real People" for NBC, objected to the show's satirical concept and tried to steer it towards a traditional amateur-hour format. He taped five episodes that were never aired (the very earliest episodes had the celebrity judges earnestly giving helpful advice to the amateur performers). [ [ Game Show Fame, the first host] ] An NBC executive who had watched Barris rehearse the show suggested that Barris replace Barbour. Barris accepted but resisted the requirement that he wear a tuxedo; he only caved in when the executive threatened not to take the show at all. In time, mandatory tuxedos gave way to more casual attire. Barris also began wearing a variety of silly-looking hats on stage, which were seen on a hat rack at stage right. He would frequently change hats during a show.)

Barris was actually the show's third host; Gary Owens had hosted the original pilot episode, which included four celebrity judges (Jo Anne Worley, Adrienne Barbeau, Richard Dawson, and Arte Johnson) instead of the later three. Owens also hosted the first syndicated season. [ [ Game Show Fame, Gong Show history] ]

Barris was ill at ease before the camera; he had a nervous habit of clapping his hands together and pointing to the camera while talking. He did this so often that, by the show's second year, it had become a running gag. Audience members began clapping their hands in unison with Barris whenever they saw him doing it. Barris caught on, and would sometimes "pretend" to clap, deliberately stopping short to fool the audience.

Producer Chris Bearde, formerly of "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" and  "The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour", clashed with Barris over the show's content, favoring scripted comedy over chaotic nonsense. (Bearde's "new talent" segments on "Laugh-In" had featured oddball performers, the most famous being Tiny Tim.) Bearde eventually withdrew from "The Gong Show", leaving Barris in full charge of the show. Before long, Barris was working so loosely that some viewers assumed he was drunk — or worse. He would pull his hat down over his eyes, totally obscuring them. His monologues, never exactly crisp or slick, occasionally rambled. Barris later recounted in an interview that he was never drunk, and that he would not allow drugs in his production company.

If Barris enjoyed an act, it was obvious - he would stand there beaming. For the losers, no matter how bad, Barris was unfailingly positive about their performances, often consoling them after their gongings with allegedly comforting words of encouragement like, "I don't know why they did that! I loved your act. But then again, I also like getting a tick bath." Or, "But then again, I love cramps." The celebrity who had gonged the performer was typically asked "Why'd you do that?" and was expected to provide an explanation, joke, or further insult. Typically, Barris would lead into commercial breaks with the cryptic promise, "We'll be right back, with mor-re "stuff" — right after this message!"

Bandleader Milton DeLugg

Milton DeLugg, a popular musician and bandleader during the 1940s, got the "Gong Show" job by default. As musical director for the network, he was responsible for any NBC project that required special music (like the annual telecasts of the Thanksgiving Day parade). Barris initially regarded Milton DeLugg as "an anachronism", but he soon found that DeLugg was very much attuned to the crazy tone of the show; his band, which Barris introduced as "Milton DeLugg and the Band With a Thug," included top jazz players like Bob Findley, Joe Howard and Lanny Morgan, kept the show's energy level high. The band even led into station breaks, with Barris's enthusiastic "Take me into the commercial, Milt!". DeLugg remained associated with Barris for many years after the "Gong Show" ended.

Recurring bits

The show had many running gags and characters who appeared as regular performers.
* The Unknown Comic (Murray Langston, formerly of the Sonny and Cher TV stock company) was a stand-up comedian who told intentionally corny jokes while wearing a paper bag over his head. On one occasion the Unknown Comic brought a dog on stage – with a paper bag over "its" head. "You've heard of a boxer?", asked Langston. "This is a bagger!" Eventually, Langston would beckon to "Chuckie" and tell insulting jokes at his expense ("Have you ever made love to your wife in the shower?" "No." "Well, you should, she loves it!"). Barris would then feign anger and eject Langston from the show. Langston later made appearances as a judge on the show.
* Gene Gene the Dancing Machine was Gene Patton, a heavy-set, middle-aged black man wearing a warm-up suit and flat hat. Gene-Gene's arrival would always be treated as though it were a glorious surprise to everyone on the show, especially Barris. Upon hearing the opening notes to his theme music (an arrangement of "Jumpin' at the Woodside,'" a popular Count Basie song), Barris's face would light up and he would stop the show, yielding the stage to Gene-Gene. Members of the crew would toss random objects from the wings, littering the stage while Gene-Gene danced on, seemingly unaware of the activity around him. Barris and the panelists would enthusiastically mimic Gene-Gene's dance moves, which consisted primarily of a slow-footed chug-chug motion, punctuated by an occasional, exultant fist pointed skyward. Typically, the dance break would be interrupted by a commercial or by the show's promotional announcements. In reality, Patton was an NBC stagehand whose backstage dancing caught the attention of Barris, who moved him out in front of the curtain. Occasionally, Gene-Gene filled in as one of the three mallet-wielding judges. Patton's popularity was such that his retirement from NBC made the national news wires in 1997, unique attention for a stagehand.
* Scarlett and Rhett were wardrobe master Jefferson Becker and makeup artist Peter Mims, dressed as Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler from "Gone with the Wind". Their act always began with Rhett bellowing, "I don't "give" a damn!" and the shocked Scarlett gasping, "You can't "say" that on television!" Rhett would respond by asking, "Well, can I say this, Scarlett?" and launch into a vulgar riddle along the lines of "Why are pool tables green?" Scarlett would answer, "Why, Rhett?" "Because if someone was--" and the off-color punchline would invariably be bleeped out. After two or three jokes, and the same number of shocked reactions, Barris would stop the act and close the curtain.
* Larry Spencer, played by the show's writer of the same name, wore an old-fashioned black cape and top hat; the audience was encouraged to hiss at him as if he were a villain from 19th century melodrama.
* "Larry And His Magic _____", an alleged musician (also portrayed by Spencer) whose various appearances featured a series of different instruments. His call-and-response act featured him proclaiming, "I'm gonna play my (trumpet, fiddle, xylophone, kettle drum, accordion, etc.)" and the audience shouting back, "Whatcha gonna do?" This exchange would be repeated twice, after which he would announce, "I'm gonna play my (instrument) "nowwww"!" Instead of playing, though, he would merely repeat his audience-punctuated declaration. After a few verses of this, the skit would inevitably end with Spencer failing to play his instrument. Either time would run out, the instrument would malfunction or be booby trapped, or he would manage to produce a few inept notes before being permanently interrupted by Barris.
* Chuckie's Fables, featuring "The Mighty Gong Show Players", an alleged acting troupe (in actuality, members of the production and stage crews). Barris would flop into a rocking chair and read a narrative from an oversized storybook, while the Players would pantomime the action behind him. These stories always ended with a convoluted moral. The name was a takeoff on the "Mighty Carson Art Players" from the "Tonight Show", which in turn was a copy of Fred Allen's "Mighty Allen Art Players."
* The Worm, a supposed "dance craze" consisting of three men who flung themselves to the floor and wriggled on the ground. At the end of each of their performances, Barris would come out and say, "One - More - Time!" The Worm would often be performed four or five times in succession before the commercial break interrupted the men's performance.
* The show's air of spontaneity was abetted by various comic appearances by supporting staff members.

Controversial acts

"The Gong Show" was infamous for a few acts that, by contemporary 1970s standards, were controversial. The most notorious was an act called "Have You Got a Nickel?" (also known as "The Popsicle Twins"), which consisted of two 17-year-old girls in cutoff shorts, sitting crosslegged on stage and provocatively sucking and licking Popsicles, all without musical accompaniment. The non-act divided the judges; (Phyllis Diller gave the act a zero, but Jaye P. Morgan awarded the pair a perfect 10, quipping, "You know, that that's the way I started." ("The Gong Show Movie" includes 10 seconds of footage from the Popsicle Twins; the segment is also seen in "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind".) On the July 17, 2008 premiere of the revived show, a rock/comedy band from Ft Lauderdale, Florida named Trash performed a song entitled "Lollypop" while a female dancer dressed as a little schoolgirl suggestively licked a lollipop.

Years later, Barris told an interviewer that the censors would regularly reject acts that he thought were safe enough to air. So, he made it a point to submit acts to the censors that were totally over the line, in the hope that some of the less questionable ones would slip through. The Popsicle Twins' act was, in Barris's mind, far too suggestive, and he'd submitted it as a stalking horse. Correcting the commonly-held belief that the women were merely "portraying" minors, Barrus revealed that the girls "were" just 17 years old at the time. He said that the usually diligent censors were asleep at the wheel during pre-screening and the act was allowed to go on in the Eastern and Central time zones before they realized what was going on, but the network did censor the telecast for the Mountain and Pacific time zones.

Another impromptu moment came in early 1978, when Jaye P. Morgan unbuttoned her blouse and exposed her breasts during a female contestant's performance. While this was not Morgan's first "flashing" incident, it was the last straw for NBC, who promptly dropped her from the show for the remainder of its daytime run (though she would continue to appear as a regular on the nighttime syndicated version). Morgan often inserted risque material into the programs, such as during a performance by Chuck D'Imperio, "The Shower Singer". D'Imperio sang "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" while naked in a shower, inspiring judges Morgan, Jamie Farr and Arte Johnson to do a rousing dance around the shower stall at center stage. Jaye P. poked her head inside the shower, and later commented, "I didn't care too much for his singing, but I'll give him a big "10" for what I saw in the shower!".

Legitimate talent

The two biggest "Gong Show"-related show-biz successes were Andrea McArdle and Cheryl Lynn. Twelve-year-old McArdle appeared on an early show in 1976, shortly before winning the lead role in the hit Broadway musical "Annie." Lynn was signed to a recording contract as a result of her performance, and recorded the Top 40 disco hit "Got To Be Real."

Among the other true talents that appeared on the show were singer Box Car Willie; comics Paul Reubens (best known for the Pee Wee Herman character); Joey D'Auria ("Professor Flamo", later WGN's second "Bozo the Clown"); singer/actress Louanne; comic juggler Hillary Carlip; impressionist/comic Michael Winslow; and a band called The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo which evolved into Oingo Boingo, led by future film & television score composer Danny Elfman. Mass-murdering gangster and later children's author Stanley Tookie Williams appeared on the show in 1976. Future NFL head coach Brian Billick also made an appearance, performing a routine known as the "spider monkey."


NBC decided to take the chance on Barris's talent show to fix a scheduling problem at 12:30 p.m. Eastern/11:30 a.m. Central. This was NBC's "least" important time slot, running only 25 minutes (leaving room for a five-minute newscast anchored by Edwin Newman), so the actual program content was less than 20 minutes. Many NBC affiliates in larger Eastern Time Zone markets opted not to run network programming during the noon hour at all, preferring to broadcast local news and talk shows instead. Thus "Gong" made its debut mainly on medium-market and smaller stations (or on large-market rival stations that picked up the program from the NBC affiliate that had rejected it, as occurred in Boston).

After the New Year, "Gong" found itself at 4 p.m./3 Central, succeeding the cancelled soap "Somerset". However, numerous NBC affiliates had been pre-empting the slot for years, meaning that "Gong" ran at a disadvantage against CBS's "Tattletales" and ABC's "The Edge of Night." By early December, the network decided to return "Gong" to 12:30/11:30; at the start of the year, NBC had discontinued the five-minute newscast, meaning the program could remain at a full 30 minutes.

Despite fairly respectable ratings for a non-soap-opera midday show, NBC cancelled "Gong", with its final episode to air on July 21, 1978. Much speculation occurred as to the network's true motivations for dumping the show. Barris himself has commented that the official reason he heard was that NBC acted in response to both "lower than expected ratings" and a desire by the network to "re-tailor the morning shows to fit the standard morning demographics." "America Alive," a magazine-style variety program hosted by Art Linkletter's son Jack, replaced "Gong."

Following the cancellation, many critics and industry analysts—including Gene Shalit and Rona Barrett--reported having heard comments from within NBC's programming department from "sources preferring anonymity" that the true reason behind the cancellation was Barris's refusal to tone down the racy nature of the show. According to the sources, after the "Popsicle Twins" incident and Morgan's "breast baring", Barris had been given an ultimatum by NBC's Standards and Practices department to deliver cleaner shows, with a particular eye to the potential children and youth watching the show. Barris, however, continued to deliver shows with the same amount of supposedly questionable content, apparently in an effort to call the network's bluff.

Cancellation, and the final episode

NBC allowed Barris to continue the show for the rest of the contract, and Barris made no perceptible change in preparation for the finale.

On the final episode, staff member Larry Gotterer appeared as "Fenwick Gotterer" to host the show, after Chuck started the show doing a "Chuck's Fables" sketch. The rest of the show was done in sort of a way to explain the life of the show, and its cancellation. Barris managed to have the last word on the cancellation: he appeared as a contestant himself. Playing in a country music band called "The Hollywood Cowboys" with the house band's rhythm section, Barris sang Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job and Shove It," and even gave the camera a "middle finger salute" to accentuate his point. The network censored the offending digit in the same way it handled offensive celebrity score cards: the word "OOPS!" superimposed over a still shot of the set. Barris was gonged by Jamie Farr. Gene Gene the Dancing Machine then came out after a few more skits, and did his famous dance. The rest of the cast, including staff members, people who participated, and even Jaye P. Morgan (who by then was banned from the daytime show) all joined in at the end to dance with him.

"Gong" continued in syndication for two years after NBC's daytime dismissal, often airing on weekends. Not surprisingly, with censors largely out of the picture, this evening version pushed the envelope even further, with local stations making the decision about whether the show would be suitable for local mores and taste. In all likelihood, this version was chiefly responsible for the show's cult following, since it usually reached a far larger audience than had been possible on daytime.

Later incarnations

A syndicated weekday revival of "The Gong Show", hosted by San Francisco disc jockey Don Bleu, ran during the 1988-1989 season, but lasted only one year. Each winner was paid $701.

"The Gong Show" was later revived on the Game Show Network as "Extreme Gong", in which viewers could call in and vote on whether or not the act was bad. It was hosted by George Gray.

Comedy Central debuted a new incarnation called "The Gong Show with Dave Attell" on July 17, 2008. [ [ Tv Week, New Gong show coming to Comedy Central] ] The show's format is similar to the original, but its scoring is based on a scale of 0 to 500, and winning acts receive $600 in cash on the spot, rather than being paid by check as in earlier versions). In place of a typical trophy, winners are awarded a belt in the style of boxing championship belts.

Film adaptation

In 1980, "The Gong Show Movie" was released by Universal Pictures to scathing reviews and was quickly withdrawn from theatrical release. It is considered a minor cult classic by some. Advertising proclaimed it as "The Gong Show" that Got Gonged by the Censor". It is seen periodically on cable TV but has never been officially released on DVD. [ [ Review of The Gong Show Movie at Angelfire] ] [ [ New York Times, overview of The Gong Show Movie] ] [ [ The Gong Show Movie at Yahoo Films] ] [ [ Shock Cinema, Review of The Gong Show Movie, by Steven Puchalski] ]

"Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" is a film directed by George Clooney and written by Charlie Kaufman, based on the autobiography of Chuck Barris. Part of the film chronicles the making of "The Gong Show," and features several clips from the original series.

Following the success of the print and screen versions of "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind", GSN (The Game Show Network) produced a documentary called "The Chuck Barris Story: My Life on the Edge".

Foreign versions

* An Indian show named "Sabse Badhkar Gong" (The gong's the boss) was aired on Sony TV in the mid 90's which was based on similar concept.
* Red Faces, a segment on the long running Australian variety show "Hey Hey It's Saturday" was also similar to "The Gong Show".
* Trans TV in Indonesia and Sony Pictures Television commissioned an Indian version called Gong Show.
* A one-off British version of "The Gong Show", aired on Channel 4 at Christmas 1985. The compere was Frankie Howerd. The show was deemed a failure and a series was not commissioned; this was considered surprising, as the station had recently been airing episodes of the original U.S. series and had been getting high audience ratings from them. In 2006, BBC Television aired "Let Me Entertain You", a talent show with a similar format to "The Gong Show".
* The Spanish language program "Sábado gigante" regularly airs a similar segment, "El chacal de la trompeta" ("The Jackal of the Trumpet"). During this contest, six contestants are given the chance to sing a song, with the bad performers being eliminated mid-song by "el chacal", a ghostlike character who blows an old trumpet to end such acts. Unlike "The Gong Show", "el chacal" does not have to wait a specific amount of time before eliminating someone (on many occasions, players have been eliminated almost immediately after beginning). The "surviving" performers are voted on by the audience, with the one receiving the most applause winning a prize or some cash.
* In the world of NASCAR, Roush Racing's auditions for future drivers are called "The Gong Show." The process was aired as the Discovery Channel reality series "".


At the height of the show's popularity, NBC gave Barris a prime-time variety hour, "The Chuck Barris Rah Rah Show". This was played somewhat more seriously than the zany "Gong Show", with Jaye P. Morgan singing straight pop songs as in her nightclub and recording days, and bygone headliners like Slim Gaillard reprising their old hits for an enthusiastic studio audience. Spinoffs include "The $1.98 Beauty Show" hosted by Rip Taylor and "The Gong Show Movie" (see Film adaptation above). [ [ Nostalgia Central, The Gong Show Movie] ]

Episode status

All episodes of "The Gong Show" are presumed to exist and have been seen on GSN (except the Gary Owens version). An episode of John Barbour's week has been aired by GSN, and an episode of the Owens version is on the trading circuit.


During its run, many critics excoriated "The Gong Show" as one of the worst shows in TV history. Today, however, "The Gong Show" is seen as an inspiration for much of the modern-day genre of reality television.

"The Gong Show" was part of a long continuum of nonprofessional talent shows such as the "Major Bowes Amateur Hour", a very popular radio broadcast of the 1930s and '40s. Using a boxing bell, Edward Bowes would "ring" performers off the stage who he considered to be "dying" onstage. It was the bell that inspired the gong for Barris' "Gong Show".

Although many televised talent shows had preceded it, "The Gong Show"'s sardonic outlook continues to influence many unsympathetic talent and reality shows including "American Idol", "Pants-Off Dance-Off" (where the often out-of shape stripper contestants are frequent objects of derision), and especially "America's Got Talent".

On an episode of Sanford and Son, Fred and his friends visit the show and perform, along with his son Lamont. Chuck Barris appeared in this episode.


External links

* [ "The Gong Show With Dave Attell"] on Comedy Central

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