Remembering the Gong Show

While driving in the car today a story came on the radio that made a reference to a “Dancing Machine”.

My mind immediately drifted back to the 70s, and the classic TV show, The Gong Show.

For me, it was must-see-TV. I even remember for a while there was a group of us that would go down to the “study” lounge in our dorm and watch the show every day.

If you’re not familiar with the show, or want a trip down memory lane, here’s a description of the show from Wikipedia:

Each show presented a contest between amateur performers of often dubious talent, with a panel of three celebrity judges. If any judge considered an act to be particularly bad, he or she could force it to stop by striking a large gong. Most of the performers took the gong with sheepish good grace, but there were exceptions. Chuck Barris, the emcee, would then ask the judge(s) in question why they gonged the act.

Originally, panelists had to wait 20 seconds before they could gong an act; in short order this was extended to 30 seconds and then 45. Some performers deliberately ended their acts before the minimum time had elapsed, but Barris would immediately disqualify them. In other cases, 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.

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.

While The Gong Show was known for its absurdist humor and style, with the actual competition secondary to the often outlandish acts presented, there were a few acts which went on to achieve success.

Twelve-year old Andrea McArdle appeared on an early show in 1976, shortly before winning the lead role in the hit Broadway musical Annie. Cheryl Lynn was signed to a recording contract as a result of her performance, and recorded the Top 40 disco hit “Got To Be Real”. Pee Wee Herman was also a contestant on the show.

There were a few recurring acts, the two that I remember most were The Unknown Comic and Gene Gene the Dancing Machine (as noted above, hearing this on the radio today is what triggered this blog post).

Here’s descriptions of their acts from Wikipedia:

The Unknown Comic was a stand-up comedian who told intentionally corny jokes while wearing a paper bag over his head. Eventually, Langston would beckon to “Chuckie” and tell insulting jokes at his expense (“Have you ever made love to your wife in the shower?” “No.” “Well, you should, she loves it!”). Barris would then feign anger and eject Langston from the show.

Gene Gene the Dancing Machine was a heavy-set, middle-aged man wearing a warm-up suit and flat hat. Gene-Gene’s arrival would always be treated as though it were a glorious surprise to everyone on the show, especially Barris. Upon hearing the opening notes to his theme music, Barris’s face would light up and he would stop the show, yielding the stage to Gene-Gene. Members of the crew would toss random objects from the wings, littering the stage while Gene-Gene danced on, oblivious to the activity around him. Barris and the panelists would enthusiastically mimic Gene-Gene’s dance moves, which consisted primarily of a slow-footed chug-chug motion, punctuated by an occasional, exultant fist pointed skyward. Typically, the dance break would be interrupted by a commercial or by the show’s promotional announcements.

Here’s a couple of videos of each of their performances:

To me what made the show so great though was Chuck Barris, the emcee. Again, from Wikipedia:

Barris was originally the show’s co-producer but not its host. He was an emergency replacement host for John Barbour, who objected to the show’s satirical concept and tried to steer it towards a traditional amateur-hour format.  Barris resisted the requirement that he wear a tuxedo, only caving when NBC threatened to drop the series altogether. Even then, Barris usually ended an episode with undone bowtie and disheveled tails. In time, mandatory tuxedos gave way to more casual attire; later episodes had Barris in casual clothes very unusual for a television host, such as blue jeans. Also, Barris began wearing a variety of silly-looking hats on stage, which were eventually seen on a rack at stage right. He would frequently change hats during a show.

Barris was ill at ease in front of the camera; he had a nervous habit of clapping his hands together and pointing to the camera while talking. He did this so often that, by the show’s second year, it had become a running gag. Audience members began clapping their hands in unison with Barris whenever they saw him doing it. Barris caught on, and would sometimes pretend to clap, deliberately stopping short to fool the audience.

Before long, Barris was working so loosely that some viewers assumed he was intoxicated from alcohol or other drugs. For example, he sometimes pulled his hat down over his eyes, totally obscuring them and his dialogue was almost never crisp, clear, or professionally apt; even, at times, considered to be unscripted ramblings.

The show was broadcast on NBC’s daytime schedule from June 14, 1976, through July 21, 1978, and in first-run syndication from 1976 to 1980 and 1988 to 1989. The show came back this year, but I have yet to see the new version; I’m sure it can’t match the original.

I vaguely recall that there was the occasional juggling act on the Gong Show, but a quick search only found this one:

They just don’t make shows like they used to…

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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