Series / The Gong Show

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

Nominally a Game Show and talent search, the show gave amateur performers of all types a chance to show off their stuff and had one basic rule: Don't Suck. Even that was too much to ask of some contestants. If any of the three celebrity judges found an act to be particularly awful, they could hit a large gong hanging behind them and force the act to leave the stage. The contestants all got a minimum of 45 seconds (originally 15, then 20, then 30) 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 received a 0-10 score from each judge, with the highest total (out of a possible 30) receiving a trophy and a check for $516.32 ($712.05, then $716.32, on the concurrent 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 the minimum daily pay that a member of the Screen Actors Guild could receive). But none of the acts seemed to notice.

Barris was simultaneously the best and worst host possible. He was the worst because he had no comfort 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 references 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 backfired one memorable sketch featured a pair of 17-year-old girls sucking on Popsicles with no accompaniment. Phyllis Diller gave it a 0, Jamie Farr gave it a 2, and Jaye P. Morgan not only gave it a 10 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; by the end), and scriptwriter Larry Spencer, whom the audience was told to boo and hiss at as though he were Oil Can Harry.

The show lasted two years on NBC and a further two in syndication, 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. Meanwhile, Barris wrote a dubious autobiography called Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, whose title should tell you all you need to know about him. The book, in which Barris claimed to have been a CIA agent, was adapted into a movie with Sam Rockwell starring as Barris.

Surprisingly (or perhaps not), a number of performers who would later have considerable success made their TV premieres on The Gong Show, including an early incarnation of the band Oingo Boingo and future Bozo the Clown Joey D'Auria.

The show has had several revivals, each in 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. Since 2012, a Sony-approved live stage version has been running in the New York City area. More recently, ABC announced they'll be reviving the show with Will Arnett at the helm, follwoing in the footsteps of ABC's multiple summer game shows (Celebrity Family Feud, To Tell the Truth, Match Game, and fellow Sony property The $100,000 Pyramid).

Game Show Tropes in use:

  • All or Nothing: Only the highest-scoring act won the day's prize.
    • On the NBC version, the "Worst Act of the Week" award (later changed to "Most Outrageous Act of the Week") was presented each Friday to the bad act that stood out the most. The prize was a check for $516.32 and a dirty tube sock.
  • 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.
  • Losing Horns: The four-note stinger that came right after The Gong.
  • Personnel:
  • Whammy: Unsurprisingly, the Gong. Also zero scores, to an extent.

This show contains examples of:

  • 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", which presented an alternate take on Gong's creation. Barris himself appeared to sing a slightly-modified "Take This Job and Shove It" and got gonged by Jamie Farr.
    • At the end of the show, Gene-Gene appeared as Fenwick years later. After the moral, Chuck called for Gene-Gene to come out, and who should (in his clothes, no less) but Jaye P. Morgan! note 
  • Half Hour Comedy
  • Hold Up Your Score
  • Hostile Show Takeover: One episode had the judges tying up Chuck and taking over as co-hosts after he kept messing up the contestant intros.
  • 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"
    • "The "Feelings" Episode" (not on a sign, but a 1976 daytime show where all the acts sang "Feelings")
    • "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!"
    • "STUFF" (the one most frequently used in lieu of any silly title)
    • "Della: A Chuck Barris Production" (not seen on-camera, but rather on a blown-up photo of Chuck and his daughter that had it on the sign)
    • "It's Doolies Day"
    • "Onward Through The Fog"
    • "It's Marvin Gaye Day!"
    • "Why Not?"
    • "Dontcha Just Love It?"
    • "Ain't That A Bugger"
    • "Kids In General Should Lighten Up"
    • "It's Chino State Day"
    • "Play Your Hunch -Quasimoto"
    • "400!" (the 400th daytime episode)
    • "The Land Of Ferb And Fenwick Gotterer" (the NBC Grand Finale)
  • Incessant Music Madness: In a famous (or perhaps infamous) episode, every single act that came out on stage sang Morris Albert's "Feelings", Hilarity Ensued leading two of the judges to walk out on one act and actually attack another act with their chairs.
  • Inept Talent Show Contestant: The entire premise.
  • Killer Gorilla: On occasion, a completely inept performer almost always a drop-dead beautiful woman would perform, and a giant gorilla hand would come on stage and yank her away. (These were comedy relief acts that were non-scoring.) Alternated with a giant cane that yanked other performers off-stage, with said performer sometimes also getting pelted by rotten vegetables.
  • Leave Behind a Pistol: On very rare occasions, the judges found an act to be so awful that they would go onstage, give the performer a mallet, and lead them back to the table to gong themselves out.
  • Media Watchdog: Attracted them like a picnic attracts ants.
  • The Movie: The Gong Show Movie, released in 1980, offers a quasi-documentary look at Barris and the show he created.
  • Off the Rails: As if it was even on rails to begin with.
  • Opening Narration:
    • First week or so of the 1976-80 version: "From Hollywood, it's The Gong Show! Yes, it's The Gong Show! And here's the star of The Gong Show, [John Barbour/Chuck Barris]!"
    • Remainder of 1976-80 version: "From Hollywood, almost live, it's The Gong Show!" [A female assistant then introduced either Chuck Barris or Gary Owens.]
  • Produce Pelting: Crew members would always throw things at Gene-Gene the Dancing Machine from backstage.
  • Running Gag: Whenever Barris nervously clapped his hands, so would the audience. Sometimes he made as if to clap, but stopped short just to fake them out.
    • Different messages on the sign that hung from the back of the stage (see above).
    • Many recurring characters and skits, such as the Unknown Comic, Gene-Gene the Dancing Machine, and Chuckie's Fables.
    • On the 1988-89 version, "ventriloquist" Oscar and Bernie performed three times and got humiliatingly gonged each time.
    • The show celebrated nearly every major holiday by gathering all the day's acts and judges onstage to sing the Irving Berlin standard "Easter Parade." At Easter, they sang Berlin's "White Christmas" instead.
  • 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.
  • Stylistic Suck: One gets the feeling that many of the worse acts were booked on purpose, for the sake of comedy.
    • This was intentionally done for each year's Christmas episode, in which the judges were forbidden to gong anyone.
  • 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.
    • Extreme Gong took several pot-shots at (ATGS), a then-popular game show newsgroup that had been criticizing it for being inferior in pretty much every aspect to the original 1976-80 series and 1988-89 revival. See the YMMV tab for more.
  • 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.
  • Timed Mission: Initially, acts had a minimum of 15 seconds before they could be gonged. This was upped for the first Barris week to 20 seconds, then 30 by the third week and 45 a few months in. Since Gong was a legit competition, these times were strictly enforced. Any performers who deliberately ended their acts before the minimum time had elapsed were immediately disqualified. Once in a while, the judges would gong an act too early and Chuck would overrule them, allowing the act to run out the rest of its minimum time even though it was a guaranteed DQ.
    • Averted for the Christmas episodes, when the judges weren't allowed to gong anyone.

Alternative Title(s): Extreme Gong