Chuck Barris: Gonged At Last.
The Gong Show provided me with five years of the happiest times of my life, but that's
that. And to be known as the guy who gave the world The Gong Show - listen, my Uncle
George isn't known as anything. So I guess it isn't so bad in that context. – Chuck
Chuck Barris, the writer of the Freddie “Boom Boom” Cannon song “Palisades Park”
and numerous other songs, the creator of iconic game shows like The Newlywed
Game and The Dating Game, and seven books, the most famous being Confessions of a
Dangerous Mind, knew that he would mainly be remembered for the “amateur”
talent game show, The Gong Show, even if he did not want to be. He repeatedly
stated that the epitaph on his tombstone would simply read “Gonged At Last.” In
almost every interview he did, he seemed a little embarrassed by this.
Yet, The Gong Show was a cultural phenomenon the four years it was on between
1976 and 1980. Mention the show to anyone alive during that period and they
cannot help but smile. The premise was simple. Long before American Idol or
America’s Got Talent, Chuck Barris came up with the concept of a daily talent show
where the winner, picked by three celebrity judges, would get a cash prize. The
problem was, after a few days of casting acts, Barris realized that Americans were
not that talented. In fact, they were painfully devoid of that endowment. For every
one or two individuals or groups that could be entertaining, there were a dozen or
more that were like fingers on a chalkboard.
It was then that he decided that he might get a program out of showing the acts
that were cringingly bad, a talent show filled with talentless and strange people. Oh,
he would cast one or two acts every show that had real talent, but then pad the rest
of the show with this awful talent and planted acts. He would have stagehands,
writers, and others go on stage with acts conceived of by his writers.
It would be a game show in name only. Rather, it was more of a party. Unlike
Simon Cowell, Barris never demeaned the people showing off their lack of talent.
There was not an ounce of meanness in the show. Even if all three of the judges
“gonged” an act, thus ending their performance, he praised them, told them he loved
what they were doing, and with an arm around their shoulders let them know they
were part of the festivities. It was a party and everyone was there to have fun, and
that included the audience at home.
That is not to say there was not real talent on the show. A little girl named Andrea
McArdle would go on to play Annie on Broadway. Another woman named Cheryl
Lynn had a Top 40 music single. Boxcar Wille, Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman),
Joey D’Auria (Bozo the Clown), John Paragon, Danny Elfman, and the band that
would later go on to become Oingo Boingo all appeared on the show. Even a young
Dave Letterman turned up on the show as a celebrity judge. But they were not the
reason anyone turned on the show, Americans watched for all the fun Barris and his
celebrity judges were having. Some acts even became iconic.
There was Gene Gene, The Dancing Machine, an obese middle-aged African-
American gentleman, who in reality was a NBC stagehand working backstage on The
Gong Show named Gene Patton. Even though it was always planned out, Barris, in
front of the camera, would always act shocked and draw a big smile when Gene’s
Count Basie music would hit. Barris and the judges would dance along with Gene’s
trademark shuffling dance as stagehands off-stage would throw objects at him. Jaye
P. Morgan would often start unbuttoning her top until M*A*S*H’s Jamie Farr would
restrain her. (On one occasion, Farr was not there to stop her and Morgan exposed
herself to the studio audience. She was never allowed to be a judge again.) Today,
throwing objects at an African-American gentleman would probably be considered a
hate crime. In the late 1970s, it was hilarious. In the 80s, it pretty much personified
the Reagan administration. Still, for anyone who grew up in the heyday of The Gong
Show, you say the name “Gene Gene The Dancing Machine” and they will almost
start to move their shoulders to his theme music playing in their heads.
There was Ray J. Johnson, Jr., a mustached cigar-chomping, zoot suit wearing
character that looked like someone you would find in the midst of their fifth beer
after they had just licked a dirty ashtray in the back of seedy, smoke-filled bar
created by comedian Bill Saluga. Saluga's routine started off with someone off-stage
yelling the character’s last name, Johnson, which for some unknown reason
bothered the character. It was never really explained why having the last name akin
to a part of the male anatomy bothered him so much, but it did. He would then
proceed to say, “My name is Raymond J. Johnson Jr. Now you can call me Ray, or you
can call me J, or you can call me Johnny, or you can call me Sonny, or you can call me
Junie, or you can call me Junior; now you can call me Ray J, or you can call me RJ, or
you can call me RJJ, or you can call me RJJ Jr.," with the monologue always ending
with the words "but you doesn't hasta call me Johnson!" This was the height of
hilarity in the late 1970s. Saluga got a beer commercial, appeared on countless
variety shows, and made millions off this skit. He even put out a disco single. I don’t
know why this was funny, maybe it was the fact that lead was still allowed in paint
at that time or America was suffering through Vietnam War flashbacks, but it was
amazingly popular. I am sure cultural anthropologists a couple of centuries from
now will come across this routine and point to it as the beginning of the downfall of
western civilization. “You can call me Ray” lead to Reaganomics, which lead to the
Kardashians, which lead to the election of Donald Trump, pretty soon dogs were
sleeping with cats and the apes were overthrowing their masters. Don’t you see it?
They all made the same logical sense.”
Then there was The Unknown Comic, a hacky comedian in a smarmy suit coat that
wore a brown paper bag on his head with holes in it for his eyes and mouth. The
bag, like the Lone Ranger’s mask, kept his identity a secret. In reality, The Unknown
Comic was standup comedian Murray Langston who had appeared on hundreds of
television shows, but had seen better days. Strapped for cash, Langston was
embarrassed that his career was so on the skids that he had been lowered to doing
The Gong Show. Talking to the director, the idea of putting a brown paper bag on
Langston’s head to protect his dignity came up. Wait a minute, is that why my ex-
girlfriends insisted on wearing a brown paper bag on their heads? Never mind.
Langston memorized a few old hacky jokes, changed his delivery, and The Unknown
Comic was born. He appeared on 150 Gong Shows, resurrected his career, taking it
to a level of stardom previously unimaginable, did numerous other television shows,
and even made appearances in Las Vegas.
While The Unknown Comic, Ray Johnson, Jr., and Gene Gene The Dancing Machine
became cultural icons, the most infamous act to ever appear on The Gong Show,
which only half the nation witnessed, was the Popsicle Twins, aka Have You Got A
Nickel. A couple of seventeen-year-old girls, their act was perhaps one of the lowest
moments in the history of television and that is saying a lot, there were fifty-two
episodes of Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo and eight seasons of According to Jim. I am
not going to describe their act. You can YouTube it. The eastern half of the United
States about passed out as every teenage boy excused themselves to go to the
bathroom and celebrity judge Jay P. Morgan deadpanned, “That is how I began my
career.” The west coast never had a chance to witness the Popsicle Twins because
network executives could not burn the tape fast enough, or entertainment, as we
know it, might have been changed forever.
The Popsicle Twins would be in their fifties today, probably surrounded by their
children and grandchildren. I somehow doubt that they have ever shared with their
grandchildren their fifteen minutes of fame.
“Your grandma was on The Gong Show.”
“What did you do, grandma?”
“Pretty much lowered the cultural I.Q. by three or four points.”
There was a show where every act sang the incredibly popular song “Feeling,”
which Barris hated with a passion. There were holiday themed shows, another
where Barris was tied up with duct tape throughout the show, and entire shows
where he had his hat pulled so tightly over his eyes that the home audience assumed
he was drunk.
Chuck Barris had a lot of pain in his life. Divorced and a single father, he watched
his beloved teenage daughter, Della, become a drug addict, eventually going into
prostitution in Las Vegas to feed her habit, and finally dying of AIDS in 1998.
Millions of people go through the pain that Barris did, and that was the secret of The
Gong Show. For half-an-hour twice a day, no matter how bad your life was going,
you could turn on The Gong Show and join the party. You could laugh and smile until
some of your problems seemed a million miles away. It was vapid crap, but the
smiles and joy it gave were not. If all you are remembered for is The Gong Show, that
is a pretty good legacy. No, all that laughter, it is a great legacy.