The Gong Show

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In 1976, Chuck Barris and NBC introduced The Gong Show. And it was good.

Nominally a Game Show and talent search, the idea was that an act was given one minute and had one rule: Don't Suck. Even that was too much to ask for most of the contestants, who would be gonged offstage if the judges found them particularly awful. The contestants all got a minimum of 30 seconds (or 20, or 45, depending on Chuck's mood) to perform no matter what; the judges would sometimes watch the clock, mallet in hand, waiting for the time to pass. Those who weren't gonged were scored by the panel from 0-10, with the highest score receiving a trophy and $516.32 ($712.05, then $716.32, on the nighttime version).

In truth, it was a parody of talent shows like Ted Mack's Amateur Hour, with its anarchic rules, wildly-varying quality level, and random-number prize check (which was supposedly based on the minimum daily pay from the Screen Actors Guild). But none of the acts seemed to notice.

Barris was simultaneously the best and worst host possible. He was the worst because he was uncomfortable in front of the camera. But, given the nature of the show, his hosting skills were often on par with the contestants' talent. Besides, he was little more than the framing device. You really watched to see the awful talent, the risqué content or both. (One recurring sketch had "Rhett Butler" replacing the word "damn" in his most famous line with even worse language. Censored, of course. Naturally, Xkcd referenced this at one point.)

The risqué stuff was all intentional; in fact, Barris often threw in acts he knew would be cut in order to get the borderline stuff past the censors. Of course it occasionally backfiredone memorable sketch featured a pair of 17-year-old girls sucking on Popsicles with no accompaniment. Phyllis Diller gave it a zero, Jamie Farr gave it a two, and Jaye P. Morgan not only gave it a ten, but physically prevented the other two from gonging it. Why? "That's how I got my start in show business!"

Almost as famous as the awful acts were the recurring characters. The most famous was the Unknown Comic (Murray Langston), who performed with a paper bag over his head. Others included the aforementioned Scarlett and Rhett, Gene Gene the Dancing Machine (always treated as a surprise cameo), and scriptwriter Larry Spencer, whom the audience was told to boo and hiss at as though he were Oil Can Harry.

The show lasted only four years before the last episode aired, but in that time became something of a cultural phenomenon, even showing up in other programs, including, most famously, an episode of The Carol Burnett Show. Given the popularity of the American Idol "losers" shows, perhaps it was ahead of its time. Barris, meanwhile, became the subject of the movie Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, whose title should tell you all you need to know about him.

Surprisingly (or perhaps not), a number of performers who would later have considerable success made their TV premieres on The Gong Show, including the performance art troupe predecessor to the New Wave band Oingo Boingo, featuring a young Danny Elfman.

The show has had several revivals, each at ten-year intervals. The first was in 1988 with Don Bleu as host, a version which lasted for only one season. Game Show Network revived it as Extreme Gong in 1998 with George Gray at the helm, and kept it going for two seasons. The most recent revival was in 2008 on Comedy Central, also lasting for only a season with Dave Attell as host.

The following Game Show tropes appear in The Gong Show:
  • All or Nothing: Only the highest-scoring act won the $516.32 prize.
  • Confetti Drop: Balloons (and later trash) were dropped when a winner was announced, while a little person ran around throwing confetti on everyone.
  • Home Game: Surprisingly, there was one. Unsurprisingly, it didn't play too well.
  • Personnel:
    • The Announcer: Johnny Jacobs on the original, Charlie O'Donnell on the 1988-89 version. Jack Clark filled-in for a time in 1977.
    • Game Show Host: Gary Owens hosted the original pilot and first syndicated season. John Barbour taped the original debut week for NBC, but was replaced by Chuck Barris. Don Bleu hosted the 1988-89 revival, George Gray hosted the GSN version, and Dave Attell emceed the 2008 revival.
    • Lovely Assistant: Various females, including Chuckie's daughter.
    • Studio Audience
  • Whammy: Unsurprisingly, the Gong. Also zero scores, to an extent.

Tropes used in The Gong Show include:
  • The Carol Burnett Show: In a "Family" sketch, Eunice appeared on the show and got Gang-Gonged by Jamie Farr, Jaye P. Morgan, and Allen Ludden.
  • Catch Phrase:
    • "From Hollywood, almost's The Gong Show!"
    • "We'll be right back with more-uh...stuff...right after this!"
    • From the Comedy Central version:

Attell: Welcome to The Gong Show, where dignity and humiliation intersect with "Who cares?" and "What else is on?".

  • Censor Decoy: The popsicle twins. Ended up airing anyway.
  • Drop the Cow: The Gong.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: Chuckie Baby made it his mission to see how much he could with this show.
  • Grand Finale: The last NBC episode had a member of Barris' staff guest-hosting as Chuckie's Fables presented "The Land Of Ferb And Fenwick Gotterer". Barris himself appeared to sing a slightly-modified "Take This Job and Shove It" — and got gonged by Jamie Farr.
  • Half-Hour Comedy
  • Hold Up Your Score
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: During the 1976-80 run, signs would occasionally hang at the back of the stage.
    • "It Takes An 'E' Ticket To Get In"
    • "Go For It"
    • "Free The Gong Show Three"
    • "Nobody's From Argentina"
    • "It's Joyce Haber Day!"
    • "Gong Power"
    • "P.U."
    • "You Can't Say That!"
    • "Westpoint Needs Humor"
    • "It's Not Lin Bolen Day!"
    • "It's Kaye Sommersby Morgan Day!"
    • "Sonny Fox Day"
    • "Funny Socks Day" (the very next episode)
    • "Evel Knievel Is A Crashing Bore!"
    • "It's Doolies Day"
    • "Onward Through The Fog"
    • "It's Marvin Gaye Day!"
    • "Kids In General Should Lighten Up"
    • "400!" (the NBC version's 400th episode)
    • "The Land Of Ferb And Fenwick Gotterer" (the NBC Grand Finale)
  • Inept Talent Show Contestant: The entire premise.
  • Media Watchdog: Attracted them like a picnic attracts wasps.
  • The Movie: The Gong Show Movie, released in 1980, offers a quasi-documentary look at Barris and the show he created.
  • Produce Pelting: People would always throw things at Gene-Gene the Dancing Machine.
  • Refuge in Audacity
  • Running Gag: Whenever Barris nervously clapped his hands, so would the audience; Gene-Gene the Dancing Machine; The Unknown Comic; the signs hanging at the back of the stage area. In the 1989 version, "ventriloquist" Oscar and Bernie performed three times and got humiliatingly gonged each time.
  • Sanford and Son: The 1976 episode "Sanford & Gong" featured the show and Barris.
  • Spin-Off: Two are notable, both produced by Chris Bearde (who also did Gong) — The $1.98 Beauty Show (1978-80) which spoofed Miss America pageants, and The Cheap Show (1978-79) which mocked No Budget games.
  • Take That:
    • The aforementioned "It's Not Lin Bolen Day!"
    • Barris sang "Take This Job and Shove It" on the NBC finale — and flipped the bird to the camera.
    • On one episode of Extreme Gong, Gray said that the losers "get to hang out with the other losers at", a then-popular game show-themed newsgroup. Said newsgroup did not take it well.
  • Talent Show: The show had one foot in this, and the other in its subversion. The line itself was very thin, and right up between the show's legs.