The Gong Show was really a show unlike any other
Chuck Barris, Gene Gene The Dancing Machine, the judges and a group of people who were super-serious about their talent… or, lack thereof
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Let’s go back to 1976 for a show NBC had no faith in, that’s why they debuted it at 11:30 AM our time here in Chicago. In fact, in certain cities, the show wasn’t even on the network, they let other stations run it. Enjoy some great episodes below with all the great judges as well as the story behind it all on #laughbreak
ABOUT THE SHOW
When the Gong Show debuted on NBC, it started at 11:30 in the morning.
I lived across the street from the school so I’d run home to catch it. After a few months, it was moved to about 4 PM (from what I remember) and I’d be at home waiting for my new favorite show to start. The show would bounce For those who don’t know about it, think American Idol… WITH NO TALENT, Or, very little of it. The NBC edition of The Gong Show lasted until its cancellation in the summer of 1978 while the weekly syndicated went on until it was canceled in 1980. My favorite part of the show was Gene Gene The Dancing Machine! His real name was Gene Patton who passed in 2015. Patton was actually a television personality, dancer and stagehand who worked at NBC Studios in Burbank, California where the show was recorded in front of a live studio audience.
The show bounced around time slots on NBC and had its share of flare ups with NBC brass but, this was 70’s TV at its best.. and worst.
In the ’90s, I was looking to license a song from the show, I reached out and met with Milton DeLugg. A big band leader in the 40s, DeLugg was the musical director for the network, he was responsible for any NBC project that required special music. After we conducted business we spent a few hours talking about a ton of things including those times. He had told me that while he and Chuck didn’t like each other at first, they bonded quickly. At one time, Barris’s company was producing so many shows a week it was mind-boggling. At one time all these were in production simultaneously: The Bobby Vinton Show, Treasure Hunt, The 1.98 Beauty Pageant, The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show. I had such a wonderful meeting with DeLugg who, at the time was picking up the pieces of his life after the Northridge earthquake destroyed so much of his work and home.
Now, about the show. Each show presented a competition of amateur performers of often dubious talent, with a panel of three celebrity judges. The program’s regular judges included Jaye P. Morgan, Jamie Farr, Arte Johnson, Phyllis Diller, Patty Andrews, Pat McCormick, Anson Williams, Steve Garvey, Rex Reed and Rip Taylor. Other celebrities who appeared as judges included Charlie Brill, Mitzi McCall, David Letterman, Steve Martin, Pat Paulsen, Paul Williams, Dionne Warwick, Carl Ballantine, Pearl Bailey, Louis Nye, Scatman Crothers, Jack Cassidy, Soupy Sales, June Allyson, Peter Lawford, Dorothy Lamour, Shari Lewis, Allen Ludden, Jo Anne Worley, Charlotte Rae, Elke Sommer, Rue McClanahan, Michele Lee, Marty Allen, Clifton Davis, Mort Sahl, Ronnie Schell, Fred Travalena, Gary Mule Deer, Johnny Paycheck, Elayne Boosler, Rosey Grier, Della Reese, Milt Kamen, Sammy Cahn, Barbara McNair, Wayland Flowers & Madame, Trini Lopez, Chuck Woolery, Joanie Sommers, Jack Youngblood, Helen O’Connell, Margaret Whiting, Martha Reeves, Ja’Net DuBois, LaWanda Page and Mabel King. If any judge considered an act to be particularly bad, he or she could force it to stop by striking a large gong, a trope adapted from the durable radio show Major Bowes Amateur Hour.
Most of the performers took the gong with sheepish good grace, but there were exceptions. Barris would then ask the judge(s) in question why they had gonged the act.
Originally, panelists had to wait only 20 seconds before they could “gong” an act, but after a few episodes this was extended to 30 seconds, and then to 45. Some performers would deliberately end their acts early, before the minimum time had elapsed, if it appeared that a judge was about to gong them, though Barris would immediately disqualify them when this occurred. Sometimes, a judge would gong an act before its minimum time was up; Barris would overrule the gong, and the act would be obliged to continue with its fate already sealed. Occasionally, Barris would overrule a gong and permit an act to continue if he felt it was unjustifiably gonged or he simply felt sorry for the performers.
When an act was on the verge of being gonged, the laughter and anticipation built as the judges patiently waited to deliver the strike. They would stand up slowly and heft their mallets deliberately, letting everyone know what was coming. Sometimes, pantomimed disputes would erupt between judges, as one would attempt to physically obstruct another from gonging the act. The camera would cut back and forth between the performers on stage and the mock struggle over their fate. Some acts were so bad that two or even all three judges struck the gong at once (referred to by Barris as being “gang-gonged”). On rare occasions, judges found an act so terrible that they would go onstage, hand a mallet to the performer, and lead them back to the table to gong themselves out.
Any act that survived without being gonged was given a score by each of the three judges on a scale of 0 to 10, for a maximum possible score of 30. On the NBC series, the contestant who achieved the highest combined score won the grand prize: a check for $516.32 (a “highly unusual amount”, in Barris’s words; reportedly the Screen Actors Guild’s minimum pay for a day’s work at the time) and a “Golden Gong” trophy. The syndicated series’ top prize was originally $712.05 (the first episode was $996.83) and later increased to $716.32. In the event of a tie, three different tiebreakers were used at various times during the show’s run. Originally the studio audience determined the winner by applause, but this was later changed to a decision by the producers, and later by the celebrity judges. On rare occasions, both acts would each receive a check and a trophy. No prize was awarded if all of the acts on a particular episode were gonged, which occurred at least twice. Runners-up received a consumer appliance; Maureen Orth, on her February 24, 1977, appearance, reported receiving an iron valued at $33.95 for her second-place finish.
When Barris announced the final score, a little person in formal wear (actor and former Munchkin Jerry Maren) would run onstage, throwing confetti while balloons dropped from overhead.
The daily Gong Show also gave out a “Worst Act of the Week” award (later changed to the “Most Outrageous Act of the Week”), selected by the producers and each week’s judges. The winner of this award was announced following the trophy presentation on Friday’s show, and the performer received a dirty tube sock and a check for $516.32.
Originally, the series was advertised as having each day’s winning contestants come back after a few weeks (this is also mentioned in the pilot episode) to compete in a “tournament of champions”, with the winner being given the chance to appear in an unspecified nightclub act. However, only one of these tournaments was ever held. The winners on the NBC daytime show became eligible to appear on the syndicated evening version of the show for a chance to win that show’s prize. Occasionally, some of the show’s more entertaining or unusual acts were invited back to perform again without being judged and scored.
There were some very talented people who got their start on the show including Cheryl Lynn who has had an amazing RnB career staring with her 1978 hit “Got To Be Real.” Twelve-year-old Andrea McArdle appeared on an early show in 1976, shortly before winning the lead role in the hit Broadway musical Annie. There were more, but not many.
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