45 Years Ago: ‘The Gong Show’ Makes TV Crazy
Chuck Barris once explained that he originally wanted The Gong Show to be full of "new, fresh, good acts. But we couldn't find any; they were all lousy. So rather than throw away the idea, I said, 'Let's reverse it. Let's do lousy acts.'"
This idea – putting bad performers onscreen – led to one of the most iconic game shows in U.S. history and one which would leave an indelible mark on television itself.
When The Gong Show debuted on June 14, 1976, in a daytime slot on NBC, there was almost nothing like it on the air. Even in the freewheeling television culture of the late '60s and early '70s – which included programs like The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, All in the Family and Hogan's Heroes – The Gong Show stood out for its riskiness, bizarreness and commitment to chaos.
Watch Highlights From 'The Gong Show'
In the early '70s, Barris was already something of a legend in the game-show world for creating The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, both of which thrived on awkwardness and spontaneous human moments.
The Gong Show took this idea to new heights. Instead of asking contestants sly questions to elicit responses that revealed the quirky details of their dating preferences or personal lives, this show would turn the spotlight on contestants being goofy or bawdy just for the hell of it.
The formula was simple: There were three judges and a gong. Performers tried out their acts, and when one of the judges couldn't stand it anymore, they smashed the gong, ending the proceedings. Whichever performer won the day's show received a check for $516.32, which was rumored to be the Screen Actor's Guild minimum daily wage at the time.
Watch 'Gene Gene the Dancing Machine' on 'The Gong Show'
There were also recurring bits sprinkled into the show. Barris himself – who was notoriously camera-shy despite his over-the-top comedic sensibilities – acted as emcee, often wearing ridiculous hats and accompanying his patter with intermittent strings of weird dance moves. The "Unknown Comic" (Murray Langston) performed bits with a paper bag on his head. And "Gene Gene the Dancing Machine" – a stagehand named Eugene Patton – came on occasionally to do his trademark soft shoe while people threw things at him from offstage.
The show pushed boundaries of taste, decency and comedy. Occasionally, good acts would show up – Paul Reubens, whose claim to fame would be his character Pee-wee Herman, made an appearance in an early episode – but mostly the acts fell somewhere between silly and ridiculous.
There were women singing off-key in other languages, two people doing a song and dance stuffed into the same set of clothes, men whistling "Deep in the Heart of Texas" with their backs turned and keeping the beat by pulling the zippers on their pants up and down.
Watch 'The Unknown Comic' on 'The Gong Show'
It was contagiously zany, and Barris was a master at keeping viewers tuned in because they knew the show could shock them at any time. The most famous of these provocative moments came in 1978, when a pair of teenage girls sat on the stage and sucked on popsicles in a way that was far too suggestive for television, then or now, earning themselves the moniker "The Popsicle Twins." This, and an episode in which frequent judge Jaye P. Morgan opened her shirt to expose her breasts on camera while Gene Gene the Dancing Machine was performing, helped bring an end to the show's two-year run on NBC.
The show quickly moved to syndication, where it hung around for another two years before being called off for good in 1980. It's since gone through periodic revivals – the first in 1988-98, and the most recent in 2017-18 – but has never managed to recapture the original's potent madcap energy.
Watch 'The Popsicle Twins' on 'The Gong Show'
The show's original magic was entirely due to the presence of Barris. An innovative genius in the game-show business – he had at least 17 shows, along with a number of unsold pilots – he also loved unsettling any audience he came into contact with. This extended to his 1984 autobiography Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (later made into a movie by George Clooney), in which he claimed to have worked as a CIA hit man during his time in Hollywood. Although the claim was preposterous on its face, Barris never fully admitted that it was an invention, preferring instead to stand by the idea that something ridiculous but entertaining is better than something safe but dull.
And this is exactly the way The Gong Show influenced subsequent generations of TV. The comedic breaks on American Idol or America's Got Talent that come when an act obviously falls flat are direct descendants of Barris' recognition that sometimes it's fantastically fun to watch someone do something poorly.
Likewise, the freewheeling sensibilities of shows like Community and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia owe some of their freedom to Barris and other producers in the '60s and '70s who realized that the absurd, the awkward and the occasionally obscene can make for great television.