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, stagehand Eugene Patton (known as "Gene Gene the Dancing Machine", who was 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, mostly 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 next 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. In 2017, right on schedule, ABC revived the show with Will Arnett at the helm, following 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). This particular revival was hosted by British TV personality Tommy Maitland; if that name doesn't ring a bell to anyone on either side of the Pond, it's probably because he's a fictional character played by Mike Myers (who also served as executive producer in season two). Unlike other remakes, the 2017 version adopted a lot of the motifs of the original version; a second season aired in 2018 before being given the gong itself by ABC.
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.
- At least one time on the NBC version (featured Steve Martin, Arte Johnson, and Jaye P. Morgan), every scoring act got gonged, so Barris declared there was no winner, and the confetti rained on him instead because he got to save on paying out. BUT...it was a Friday show, so the Worst Act of the Week still got paid out...to one of the acts on that very show.
- 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: When a contestant gets gonged, the band immediately transitions to this. Older versions used the famous four-note wah-wah; modern variants have their own takes. The 2017 band was even willing to play the trope when the gong wasn't being hit officially but when it still made sense (see Take That below for an example of this happening).
- 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 Extreme, and Dave Attell emceed the 2008 revival. "Tommy Maitland" (read: Mike Myers in disguise) hosted the ABC revival.
- Lovely Assistant: Various females, including Chuckie's daughter.
- Studio Audience
- Whammy: Unsurprisingly, the Gong. Also zero scores, to an extent.
This show contains examples of:
- Antagonist Title: The dreaded gong is every act's worst nightmare.
- Arc Number: The cash prize payouts were of a non-standard amount, from the original version's $516.32 to the 2017 revival's $2,000.17.
- Audience Participation: Early in the original series' run, any ties for highest score were broken by who the audience applauded the loudest to. This was brought back in the 2017 revival's second season.
- Bilingual Bonus: On the August 3, 2017, show, Maya Rudolph speaks to The Asian Elvis act in actual Japanese.Maya, discussing her score: ...Shi arimasu (It is to be a 4).Asian Elvis: I don't even know what she said.
- Cap: The highest combined score possible is 30.
- "From Hollywood, almost live... it's The Gong Show!" Used in the original and in the 2017 remake.
- "We'll be right back with more, uh... stuff... right after this!"
- From the 1988 version, announced by Charlie O'Donnell:Just when you thought it was safe, it's back!
- From the Comedy Central version:Attell: Welcome to The Gong Show, where dignity and humiliation intersect with "Who cares?" and "What else is on?"
- And from the 2017 ABC revival:
Maitland: Who's a cheeky monkey?!
- Tommy's introduction to the show.
Audience: You are!
Maitland: No, you are! And that's why I love you! [...] Turn on your telly, turn off your brain... we're just here for funsies!
(Once the judges are introduced)
Maitland: It's time to let the dogs see the rabbit. Let's start the show!
Maitland: Mitzi, please get this [X] a nice cup of tea and a [non-sequitur].
- As each act is sent off-stage:
- Censor Decoy: The popsicle twins. Ended up airing anyway.
- Curtain Call: Usually, all the acts get called on stage one more time when it's time to announce the winner. The 2017 version makes it a formal procedure with a specific theme from the band and a Catchphrase:Maitland: Well, friends, that was our final performance: which means the moment of truth has arrived. Let's bring out all of tonight's performers so we can announce a winner!
- Creepy Ballet: One act was entitled "Zombie Ballet". The dancers wore zombie makeup and danced to Profokiev's "Dance of the Knights".note
- Dancing Royalty: "Gene Gene The Dancing Machine!" Gene Patton started as a stagehand on the show and entertained the audience between acts. He proved such a hit with the crowd that the producers brought him on the air, where his infectious dance moves promptly stole the show. In later seasons the show would regularly stop everything for Gene to lead a dance break to Count Basie's "One O'Clock Jump."
- Drop the Cow: The Gong. Sometimes, if an act is really bad, the judges will hit the gong in some silly way, such as kicking it, throwing things (including the mallet) at it, or "Gang-Gonging" (two or even all three judges gonging the act at once). Every once in a great while, a judge would even go onstage, hand the performer a mallet, and lead them back to the table so they could gong themselves out.
- Erotic Eating: The infamous Popsicle Twins act.
- Exactly What It Says on the Tin: You wouldn't expect this show to be titled The Gong Show without a gong as the show's key feature, would you?
- Giant Novelty Check: The cash prize is presented in this manner to each episode's winner. Tommy Maitland in 2018 explicitly calls out an "oversized check" as one of the prizes. Incidentally, if you pay attention, the 2017-18 version of the check bears a nonsense datenote on it.
- Grand Finale: The last NBC episode had a member of Barris' staff guest-hosting as Chuckie's Fables presented "The Land of Ferb & 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, stagehand Gene Patton appeared as Fenwick years later. After the moral, Chuck called for Gene to come out, and who should (in his clothes, no less) but Jaye P. Morgan! note
- Half Hour Comedy: Though the 2017 revival stretches it out to a full hour.
- Hold Up Your Score: Provided the act didn't receive the dreaded gong, of course.
- 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")
- "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!"
- "What the Hell" (oddly enough, although the mild profanity was seen uncensored in its original airing and syndicated/USA Network reruns, it was obscured during a late 90s airing on Game Show Network)
- "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. -Quasimodo"
- "400!" (the 400th daytime episode)
- "Bye Y'all" (Chuck's frequent sign-off line, typically shown during the closing credits of the syndicated version)
- "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.
- Inflation Negation: The 2017 version's top prize $2,000.17 fits this trope well.
- In the second season, aired in 2018, the prize was upped to $2,000.18.
- Kayfabe: A rare non-wrestling version—for the 2017 revival, everyone acts as though Tommy Maitland is just that, when he's really Mike Myers with a Scottish accent and a bit of makeup; articles about him hosting have either gone with it (including a whole fake backstory) or have openly stated it's Myers. By now, Tommy Maitland is considered part of the show's "here for funsies" humor: it's not really fooling anyone anymore, but the Tommy Maitland act is still funny.
- 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 Comic 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.
- Last-Second Showoff: In the 2017 episode featuring a painter spends her act painting what looks like nonsense. Jack Black is about to go gong her (with Will Arnett resisting) when the painter suddenly spins the easel, revealing she'd been painting upside-down. Jennifer Aniston calls this out, saving the act, and Jack even compliments Will, "That was a good stop."PS.
- Last-Second Word Swap:
- As mentioned above, on the original version, Chuck would say there'd be more "stuff" to come after a commercial break.
- The weekly "Shaving Cream" sing-along from the 2017 revival:I have a sad story to tell you,
It may hurt your feelings a bit.
Last night when I walked in the bathroom,
I stepped in a big pile of-
Shaving cream, be nice and clean!
Shave every day and you'll always look keen!
- 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.
- Mad Libs Dialogue: Tommy Maitland's spiel as each act is sent off stage.
- 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.
- Once per Episode: The "Shaving Cream" sing-along on the 2017 version. Until it was removed in the second season, that is.
- 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.]note
- Panty Shot: A group of young ladies in very short Catholic school dresses did a cheerleader-like routine to Barry Manilow's "Miracle." Light blue and light yellow panties were abundant.
- Precision F-Strike: From the Gong Show Movie:Unknown Comic: Chuckie! Chuckie! Chuckie! Do you like sex?
Unknown Comic: Do you like running?
Unknown Comic: Then take a fucking hike!!
- Produce Pelting: Crew members would always throw things at Gene Gene the Dancing Machine from backstage.
- Pungeon Master: Tommy Maitland always seems to find a pun for every act that appears on the 2017 revival.
- Real Song Theme Tune: Gene Gene the Dancing Machine's theme is a seamless combination of two Count Basie songs, "Jumpin' at the Woodside" and "One O'Clock Jump".
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Whenever a contestant gets gonged, the gonging party usually has to explain him/herself to the DQ'd contestant with a brief version of this trope.
- Retraux: The 2017 set is a definite nod to the show's roots, including using 70's style decor and the original logo design.
- 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.
- Self-Deprecation: Part of Tommy Maitland's brand of humor.
- 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 like, 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 alt.tv.game-shows (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.
- On an episode from the 2017 version, judge Ed Helms gonged a contestant who dropped three folding chairs that were to be juggled. In suggesting that he could do better, Ed took three standard juggling pins... and immediately fumbled. Will Arnett, a judge on the same episode, immediately gonged Ed's failure to show up the performer, and the band went ahead and played Losing Horns on Helms.
- 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, then ultimately 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.
- The judges, themselves, have to gong an act before the act ends. If they gonged too late, then they would still have to give a score even if they thought an act didn't deserve one. Also, they have to actually hit the gong for it to count. Sometimes, disgusted judges would try to throw things at the gong...and miss. Other times, one judge would try to stop another from doing it, but the rules only state the gong must be hit, not necessarily with the striker.
- Averted for the Christmas episodes, when the judges weren't allowed to gong anyone.