1 9 7 6 – 1 9 7 8 (USA)
For real ‘scraping the bottom-of-the-barrel’ entertainment, you couldn’t go past The Gong Show.
Debuting in 1976, Chuck Barris introduced The Unknown Comic, the flounder dance, and (in the process) greatly influenced modern-day performance art with this cool spoof of the amateur talent show.
Celebrities would judge contestants, and – after pretending to restrain themselves – would give a really bad act ‘the Gong’.
After an initial pilot with Gary Owens as host and Arte Johnson, Joanne Worley, Richard Dawson and Adrienne Barbeau as judges, Barris managed to sell both a daytime and a nighttime version.
The show premiered on NBC’s daytime schedule in June 1976 and the syndicated evening version showed up in the fall. Barris hosted in the daytime, replacing Owens as host of the evening show after its first year.
Contestants whistled through their noses, fat ballerinas danced in tutus, dogs sang, sopranos wailed, elderly people danced, and inept magicians bungles.
All were given a chance to compete with one another for the show’s prize money, $516.32 on the weekday show, and $712.05 on the evening show.
The show would always throw in one or two people who actually were talented – someone had to win a prize, after all. The top scorer of the day won the cash. But generally, it was the epitome of bad TV.
Some contestants were so popular with the studio audience that they returned as regulars on the show. One such contestant was Gene Gene The Dancing Machine, a middle-aged black man who tap-danced softly on the spot but barely moved.
The show’s staff, the celebrity panellists, and even the studio audience would throw all kinds of objects at him as he danced, but he remained oblivious.
Another contestant-turned-regular was the Unknown Comic, who, after his appearance on the show, often appeared as a panellist.
The Unknown Comic, who wore a paper bag over his head, told jokes and never revealed his real identity on the show. Sometime later he was revealed to be one Murray Langston.
Regular panellists included Jaye P. Morgan (whose sexy comments made her an audience favourite), film critic Rex Reed, Arte Johnson, Michele Lee, Jamie Farr, Rip Taylor, Phyllis Diller, and Steve Garvey.
As a result of the popularity of the show, lots of schools and camps (and Australian ‘variety’ shows – not naming any names, Daryl) pinched the idea and held their own gong-style talent shows. Spin-offs included The $1.98 Beauty Contest and The Gong Show Movie.
Host/co-producer Chuck Barris was a real renaissance man. Not only was he responsible for those twin pillars of popular culture, The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, but he also wrote Palisades Park for Freddy Cannon in 1962.
Dr Joyce Brothers
Jaye P Morgan
The Unknown Comic