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.
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). 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.
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.
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!"
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!".
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."
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.
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.
Comedy Central debuted a new incarnation called The Gong Show with Dave Attell on July 17, 2008. 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.
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.
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.
SECRET AGENT MAN FEATURED IN A NEW FILM, `THE GONG SHOW' GOLIATH CHUCK BARRIS SETS THE RECORD STRAIGHT ON HIS DANGEROUS DOUBLE LIFE . . . SORT OF
Jan 19, 2003; NEW YORK - There are beautiful minds and dangerous minds, and former TV game-show producer Chuck Barris's mind floats fitfully...