Game shows were always popular television, but nothing was crazier than the debut of The Gong Show. Created by Chuck Barris, who was also the host of the show, The Gong Show was another showcase for the wierd and wacky common folk.
Barris had done well with the debut of The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game in the 1960s and decided he could use the public’s creativity and desire for 15 minutes of fame to create a new game show.
The show was an amateur talent contest, judged by three celebrities, who could each strike a gong if the performance had been particularly bad. Each performer was given a minimum time, but if the judge struck the gong early, Barris could overrule, in order to keep the live audience laughing as the hapless contestant continued on in defeat.
The judges were often comedians including Phyllis Diller, Artie Johnson, Rip Taylor, Jamie Farr and Jaye P. Morgan. The contestants tried their hand at everything from stand up comedy to juggling to dance. The audience loved the anticipation of the judge’s reactions. If the performance was worthy, the judges could pick a score between one and 10, with the winner of the highest point total receiving $512.36. This was reputedly the minimum wage of one day’s work from the Screen Actor’s Guild. The winner was feted with confetti and balloons on stage.
Each week Barris would also choose the Worst Act of the Week, showcasing the worst of the week’s performers every Friday. The chosen one would also receive $512.36 and a dirty tube sock.
And to add to the craziness, Barris had reoccuring performers, such as the Unknown Comic, who wore a brown paper bag over his head while doing stand-up comedy, Gene Gene the dancing machine, Scarlett & Rhett, The Worm, Larry and his Magic ….. and Chuckie’s Fables, where the host would read a ‘story’ from an oversized book, with pantomime happening behind him.
Airing for four seasons on NBC, The Gong Show always a had layer of raciness below the surface, which was encouraged by Barris.
The network cancelled the show in 1980, citing low ratings, but many believed they were tired of dealing with Barris’ consistent desire to push the envelope with the show. The Gong Show continued in syndication for another four years.
I adored this crazy game show – because it was silly, unpredictable and ridiculous. I’m sure as a kid I didn’t understand half the jokes or any of the adult nuances that were being tossed out by the judges and host, but to me it was pure fun, and I enjoyed it.
Barris did write and produce The Gong Show Movie, which was released in 1980 and was a flop. But his creation of a zany game show that relied on the audience’s lack of skill was ahead of its time – and is now copied regularly on every reality game show now on television.