BOOTLEG FILES 360: “The Gong Show” (the zany game show that ran in daytime on NBC from 1976-78 and in evening syndication from 1976-80).
LAST SEEN: Clips from the show are available on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The cost of clearing music and performance rights is too high to entertain.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Unlikely.
Maya Angelou once wrote, “I believe that every person is born with talent.” However, the celebrated poet may have offered that observation without having been exposed to “The Gong Show.”
When “The Gong Show” debuted on NBC in 1976, it immediately created a deep split among audiences. On one side of the argument was the claim that “The Gong Show” was irrefutable evidence that good taste had slipped into permanent decline. On the other side, however, were devoted cult followers that believed the show was the funniest thing ever put on the small screen. The truth, of course, was somewhere in between. “The Gong Show” inadvertently opened the door to the comedy of cruelty that has become a staple of contemporary television entertainment – but none of the programs that followed in its path could ever match the ebullient absurdity of “The Gong Show.”
The cleverness of “The Gong Show” was its simple premise: the hackneyed concept of an amateur talent show was reversed in order to highlight the more peculiar and bizarre offerings of the nonprofessional singers, dancers, magicians and performance artists that turned up on its stage. While genuinely gifted performers occasionally found their way on camera, the audiences turned up to enjoy the pure weirdos who were eager to be in the spotlight.
But “The Gong Show” did not exist to celebrate mediocrity or worse. Zany acts that imaginatively pushed the boundary of sanity – most notably Miss Peggy Guy, a would-be chanteuse who became violently entangled in a folding chair while her dentures and wig fell loose – were rewarded for their daring and originality. Actually, the first prize was a silly trophy and the fairly meager sum of $516.32 for the daytime version and $712.05 for the syndicated evening version of the show.
As the show’s title suggested, celebrity judges that were eager to get the talent-challenged acts off the stage would bang a giant gong. However – and this is where the laid-back personality of the 1970s differs from the caffeinated vibe of today – there was no deliberate viciousness in “The Gong Show” proceedings. The show floated on good-natured silliness. “The Gong Show” contestants knew the proceedings were all in fun and everyone was there to have a grand time. It was quite different from the vituperative putdowns of Simon Cowell and other latter-day talent judges who sneer at dream-dashed would-be stars.
The true magic of “The Gong Show” resulted from multiple sources, beginning with its creator and accidental host. Chuck Barris, a one-time songwriter who enjoyed a successful career as a game show producer (“The Dating Game,” “The Newlywed Game”), conceived “The Gong Show” but never intended to be its on-camera star. The original host for the NBC daytime edition was comic actor John Barbour, but Barris claimed that Barbour never understood that the parody elements of the program. Barbour was fired as the show was being ready to launch, and Barris took the hosting duties when an adequate substitute could not be found. Gary Owens, who was famous as the fast-talking announcer on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” was tapped to host the evening syndicated version of the program – it is not clear why Barris didn’t have Owens host the daytime edition as well.
In any event, Barris was both the world’s worst host and the world’s best. His clumsiness in reading cue cards and his nervous habit of hand clapping to accentuate a joke made him stand out from the smooth game show hosts of the Alex Trebek and Chuck Woolery school. Some folks actually assumed Barris went on the air while stoned. Yet Barris’ lack of polish fit the loose-limbed charm of the program and defined its anything goes energy – he clearly thrived in the barely-controlled insanity. In comparison, Owens’ hosting was much too assured, and he often seemed at odds with the ramshackle nature of the proceedings. Barris realized this and took over Owens’ duties after the first season of the syndicated version.
Getting the right celebrity panelists to fit into “The Gong Show” groove was a trial-and-error procedure. Some stars were baffled by the proceedings (a young David Letterman turned up on the panel and appeared visibly ill-at-ease with the format), while others were politely bemused. After a while, a number of B-listers understood the ebb and flow of the concept and became just as outlandish and foolish as the performers: Arte Johnson, Jamie Farr, Rip Taylor, Anson Williams and Jaye P. Morgan enjoyed regular status as the masters of the gong.
To supplement the show’s questionable aspirants, Barris brought in recurring acts to liven up the show. The most outlandish was Murray Langston’s persona as the Unknown Comic – wearing a paper bag over his head, he would reel off a skein of crass jokes (“What do you call a Mexican with a vasectomy? A dry Martinez!”) before being booted off. The arrival of Gene-Gene the Dancing Machine – an NBC stagehand who performed a happy shuffle to Count Basie’s “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” – would bring Barris and the panelists to their feet while weird props would be tossed around the stage.
Although it was never intended as a genuine talent platform, “The Gong Show” did serve as a launch for several acts. The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Bongo, a forerunner of the new wave band Oingo Bongo, turned up in a raucous musical number. A then-unknown Mare Winnigham sang “Here, There and Everywhere” on a 1976 episode. A pre-Pee Wee Herman Paul Reubens appeared a few times on the show, and disco singer Cheryl Lynn scored a record deal based on her turn on “The Gong Show.”
Perhaps the saddest guest turn belonged to Danny Lockin, an actor/dancer who played Barnaby in the 1969 film “Hello, Dolly!” By 1977, Lockin’s performing career had evaporated and he was working as a teacher at his mother’s dance studio. He performed with a female partner on “The Gong Show” and tied for first place – although he was not identified as being one of the “Hello, Dolly!” stars. After the taping of the show, Lockin went to a bar to celebrate. He was last seen leaving the bar with Charles Leslie Hopkins, a former medical clerk. Lockin and Hopkins went to the latter’s apartment, where Lockin was brutally stabbed to death.
As with any explosion of spontaneous combustion, “The Gong Show” was short-lived. NBC cancelled the daytime show after two years, primarily due to the program’s too-frequent lapses into bad taste: incidents with Jaye P. Morgan baring her breasts on camera and the inclusion of an act where two young ladies performed f******o-worthy lip action on phallic shaped popsicles frayed the patience of the network’s censors. The syndicated version lasted until 1980. Barris tried to milk the franchise in a feature film called “The Gong Show Movie,” but audiences avoided it. Over the years, a few attempts were made to revive “The Gong Show,” but the original magic could not be recaptured.
Reruns of most of “The Gong Show” episodes have been aired on Game Show Network, but the program has never been released in any official home entertainment format. Problems in clearing music rights and performance rights are clearly too much to address, although some enterprising bootleggers have ignored that difficulty and issued their own unauthorized anthologies. Individual clips of memorable moments are found all over YouTube.
Chuck Barris was once quoted as saying, “All I want to do is make the bread, put it in the bank and live happily ever after.” Well, he did – and thanks to the beauty of bootlegged videos, the fans of “The Gong Show” can live happily ever after, too!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!