To Gong or Not to Gong? ‘The Gong Show Movie’

The Gong Show was screwball to the point of centrifuge. So how did The Gong Show Movie find itself being gonged?

According to lore, The Gong Show Movie opened nationwide on a Friday in May of 1980 and was plucked from theaters nationwide come Monday. Its failure at the box office was unexpected, given the widespread popularity of the TV game show on which is was based: The Gong Show (1976-1989), an amateur talent contest in which judges strike a gong to cut the worst acts short.

The “gonging” of The Gong Show Movie marked the end of an era as the very wound-up show wound down, and its in-your-face host Chuck Barris withdrew from the public eye. Memories of the TV show have endured, but the film sank into abject obscurity, failing to resurface even on the cheapest bargain-bin VHS. Only now has The Gong Show Movie seen the light of day, on DVD and Blu-ray from the retro pop culture label Shout! Factory.

Though not so mesmerizing as hyper-campy stinkers from the era, like Sextette (1978), Rabbit Test (1978), and Can’t Stop the Music (1980), The Gong Show Movie is a sincerely quirky artifact, revealing grit in the showbiz hokum and hope in all that pathological attention-seeking. More to the point, the movie is Barris’ reply to his own creation, much like Dr. Frankenstein addressing his own monster.

The Gong Show (1976-1980)

On TV in the ‘60s and ’70s, as yesteryear’s model families gave way to All in the Family (1971-1979), legendary producer Chuck Barris created a string of breakout game shows designed to defy restraint and idealism. His career took off with The Dating Game (1965-1980 during its first run) and The Newlywed Game (1966-1974 during its first run) that, in a then radical way, focused on the unpredictability of personal relationships over winning grand prizes. At his peak, Barris dominated the air with 27 half-hours of game show programming each week, with his success culminating in a zeitgeist-tapping magnum opus called The Gong Show for which he served as both producer and host.

The Gong Show mocked earlier talent shows like Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts (1946-1956) that ruled ‘50s television with its genteel applause meter. Gong Show contestants needed, if not talent, then a profound lack of talent combined with unabashed gimmickry. An act good enough to win the $516.32 prize may not be as memorable as the act bad enough to be gonged by Jamie Farr, Phyllis Diller, Rip Taylor, David Letterman, Pearl Bailey, Jaye P. Morgan, Wayland Flowers and Madame, Steve Martin, or one of the other celebrity judges. In his autobiography Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Barris describes contestants as “the lunatic fringe on coast-to-coast television” and insists “Everybody was a star for the first forty-five seconds of their act. At least. For the last forty-five seconds, they were gongable.”

Alternating with acts deemed good (a few even going on to fame, like Pee-wee Herman, Boxcar Willie, Oingo Boingo, and Cheryl “To Be Real” Lynn), imagine the bad and the gonged: a geriatric cowgirl crooning through slipped dentures, some shirtless adolescent who thinks his hambone is all that, a neo-vaudevillian abominable snowman routine, “Pop Goes the Weasel” with kazoo and armpit-farts, a chicken impersonator bawk-bawking “In the Mood”, two young women in short-shorts fellating popsicles, and the violently arrhythmic “tattooed disco punk”. Typical in some ways, illogical in others, the variety within the variety added up to a genuine kind of diversity unseen elsewhere on TV. Perhaps the oddball makeup of Barris’s production company encouraged this, a “beautiful phantasmagoric subculture,” he called the company—or, as Newsweek described, “a bunch of hippies laughing all the way to the bank.”

Gong Show audiences were most boisterous about talented underdogs daring to shine or brazen no-talents willing to embarrass themselves. This constituted a spectator sensibility uniquely ritualized by The Gong Show, a sensibility anticipating the now long-sustained popularity of karaoke, amateur drag shows, and reality television. One Gong Show contestant named Rick Cutler wrote a satiric country-folk song in which he admits: “Mama don’t want to let me go on The Gong Show. Mama’s afraid I’m gonna look like a fool.” That he obviously defied his mother, and her allegiance to respectability, is key to understanding The Gong Show phenomenon in generational terms.

Whatever the specifics of a half-baked act, inhibition is rejected as exhibitionism is staged. This is echoed in an obscure documentary from 1978 titled Acting Out. “A great lack of inhibition is abroad in America,” the narrator tells us in the intro, “and a wide variety of people would, if given the opportunity, step in front of a camera and act out their most intimate sexual fantasies.” Which they do, in this now mild-seeming documentary, just as others stepped in front of Gong Show cameras to sing “Feelings” off-key with bravado, or do slapstick acrobatics involving milk crates and a two-by-four.

It was screwball to the point of centrifuge: the ultimate anti-format format. Chuck Barris stoked the bedlam unremittingly between acts, and even during them. Wearing tuxedo tails with denim bell-bottoms, a rubber chicken in his gun belt holster, and a Mountie’s hat pulled down over his eyes, he shimmied around the set in sock feet while hoisting a hockey stick much like a scepter. NBC pressured Barris to reign in the chaos and tone down the bawdiness, but he was far too popular to yield. Barris had become so well-known and so instantly recognizable that kids were “Chuck Barris” for Halloween.

Besides ready-made Barris masks, Gong Show merchandise included bubble gum cards, “Gong Show Reject” iron-ons, and a board game. Local-level manifestations of the show became common at schools or for charity events. On a memorable episode of What’s Happening!, beloved character Rerun auditions for The Gong Show. “The weirder the better,” they tell him. The Gong Show was so ubiquitous that even the 1979 porn film Candy Goes to Hollywood features a parodic scene on “The Dong Show” in which Wendy O. Williams (prior to fame with her metal band The Plasmatics) shoots ping pong balls out of her vagina. Instead of a mallet striking the gong, the celebrity judge swings a dildo.

The Gong Show Movie (1980)

Given such a cultural reach, a Gong Show Movie spin-off makes sense. One tagline for the R-rated comedy promises: “All the stuff that Chuck Barris had to keep under his hat, until now!” Referring to Barris’s goofy, perpetually revolving hats (be it Mountie, drum major, cowboy, top-hat, or the so-called bucket hat for which he’s most known), Barris always pulled the brim down over his eyes, and so begins The Gong Show Movie. An alarm clock rings on Barris’s nightstand and he wakes, reluctantly sitting up. Groggy in his underwear, he puts on his bucket hat and we see the movie title. Even though his hat allows him to avoid direct eye contact with the world, Barris’s movie from the get-go is as personal as he, within its narrative, is vulnerable.

On his way to early morning auditions at the studio, random people around L.A. recognize Barris and assault him with spontaneous auditions of their own: a real-life norm for Barris turned running gag in the film. Everyone from a drunk on the street to a physician at the hospital breaks into song and dance for Chuck Barris. Should he put them off, they may well turn on him, abruptly reject his show as stupid, maybe even the worst show on TV, echoing many established critics who condemned Barris as the “King of Schmuck”. Aside from all this, the movie’s plot-driving bad guy is TV network executive Buddy Didlo (played by James B. Douglas), who radiates smarm while brandishing contracts. After celebrity judge Jaye P. Morgan flashes her breasts during a Gong Show taping, Didlo threatens Barris to clean up his show or face cancellation.

The Gong Show Movie does not tell the story of The Gong Show, but presents a week in the life of its creator two or three years into its run. Barris’s secretary (played by the great Mabel King) and his girlfriend (played by real-life girlfriend Robin Altman) both observe how Barris no longer has fun making The Gong Show. His physical health is suffering and he’s psychologically bent out of shape. Barris confides to his doctor that, more than the exhausting schedule and unwanted attention in public, he’s come to hate being thought of as a clown. He yearns to do something “meaningful”, he tells her. This impulse, according to Barris himself, proved to be The Gong Show Movie‘s downfall.

In his autobiography Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (1984), Barris writes: “Unfortunately, just about a third of the way through, I couldn’t resist trying to make a serious motion picture. A film that said something. It was a disastrous mistake.” Barris went so far as to take the place of original director Robert Downey Sr. — a significant filmmaker in independent cinema with whom Barris had written the Gong Show Movie script.

The resulting film feels pieced together both structurally and tonally: gag-driven scenes akin to Airplane! (1980), low-key private moments with Barris and his girlfriend, several substantial Gong Show montages (uncensored auditions and tapings), plus a delightfully climactic musical number featuring the whole cast and a marching band on a Moroccan sand dune. Somehow it all adds up to a coherent lack of coherence that ’70s-nostalgic viewers and “trash cinema” aficionados should appreciate.

Achieving serious ratings by not taking itself seriously, with a portion of performers aspiring to be gonged, The Gong Show could stand fairly impervious to being “gonged” by critics for dumbing down culture. The Gong Show Movie, daring to be serious on at least one level and aspiring to cultural relevance, could not stand so impervious to being “gonged” at the box office and was swiftly vaulted. I can’t say, however, that the movie fails because it fails at being meaningful; it’s a sincere movie about an insincere business and, to me, not knowing quite what kind of movie it wants to be is almost poignant. There’s enough to enjoy in The Gong Show Movie, and nonprofessional actor Barris makes for a likeable lug of an antihero. He might even have new appeal today, to those weary of Simon Cowell (the long-reigning judge on American Idol), and similar talent show icons.

The public had such brief access to The Gong Show Movie before its exile that they barely had time to catch their (somewhat unflattering) reflection in it. With dismay if not disdain, Barris portrays his public — those who watch, audition for, and appear on The Gong Show — as self-centered, fickle, shallow, and obnoxious. Shameless, yes, and equally hopeful. Surely they’re due, if not their fifteen minutes of fame, then their 45-90 seconds on The Gong Show. According to pop culture historian Russell Dyball (audio commentator on the DVD), The Gong Show Movie became referred to as “the unholy grail of cult films”, so ultimately, with The Gong Show Movie being unfairly gonged into oblivion it also earned it a certain and comparable allure, which we can now revisit for more than 15 minutes.