It’s hard for me to explain the cultural behemoth that The Gong Show was when it debuted. Originally airing on NBC from June 14, 1976 to July 21, 1978 (and in first-run syndication from 1976 to 1980), the show was basically a talent contest with celebrity judges that graded the talent and could gong — meaning they’d have to stop their act — those who had no talent to speak of.
Sure, there were clunkers, but the show also featured real talent, such as Andrea McArdle (Broadway’s Annie), Cheryl Lynn (disco hit “To Be Real”), Paul Reubens and John Paragon (who would go on to become Pee Wee Herman and Jambi the Genie), Police Academy’s Michael Winslow, Boxcar Willie, Oingo Boingo (which had future composer Danny Elfman in the band), actress Mare Winningham and more.
But more famously, there were reoccurring characters like the Unknown Comic (he wore a bag on his head) and Gene Gene the Dancing Machine, as well as risque acts like the Popsicle Twins, who basically performed oral sex on, well, popsicles. They are considered the main reason why the show was moved from NBC to syndication (and one of the times when creator Chuck Barris said he began to reconsider his career). Of note, the other reason NBC canceled the show, judge Jaye P. Morgan flashing her breasts, appears in this film uncensored.
Barris is an interesting character study himself. He wrote the song “Palisades Park,” as well as creating The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game. He never intended to host the show, but did so to save it. Watching his appearances today, you’re reminded that while there weren’t as many entertainment options in the 70’s, there was plenty of coke. Where life gets really wild is that in his book Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, he confessed that states that he worked as a CIA assassin, killing 33 people while acting as a chaperone on The Dating Game‘s big vacation dates (although the CIA denies this and Barris even later stated that the novel was his fictionalized account of how his life would have been different had he become an agent).
Which brings us to 1980’s The Gong Show Movie.
Written by Barris and Robert Downey Sr., the film is all about a week in the life of the show (including a nervous breakdown which Barris may have really had at one point, of which he said, “I had a small nervous breakdown out there, doing strange things. When I see films of the last shows, I was walking around, busting up [studio] flats on the air. That was the behavior of a host who was bored to death.”).
Indeed, Barris starts the film exhausted and miserable, in direct juxtaposition to his manic on-air character. The first song, “Sometimes It Just Don’t Pay to Get Up,” (which was, like all the movie’s songs, written by Baris) sets up the defeatist tone. Barris is overwhelmed by the attention the show brings him as well as the work it takes to get the show on the air.
We see a quick glimpse of the show — hey, there’s the Unknown Comic, there’s Hard Boiled Haggerty, there’s Tony Randall — just so we remember why we’re here. Yet even in the moments where the film tries to be fun, a man named Melvin and his chicken dance leads to a heart attack after Barris makes the man do encore after encore. Even when Barris tries to atone by visiting the man in the hospital, he is faced with a constant barrage of people wanting to try out for the show — including the sick man!
What was it about the 70’s that led to the need to see our heroes get shat upon? Think of the trials that Rocky endured in his sequel or Altman’s Popeye whose miserable life includes the fact that he hates spinach?
The film then descends into auteur — or maybe vanity — territory as Barris attends a country music recording session which turns into a montage. He watches a man abuse his wife and intervenes, only to have them both attack him (a bit taken from Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality). And then, a discussion with his girlfriend ends up with him being attacked by two men whose mother he had gonged (character actor par excellence Vincent Schiavelli is one of them).
Another montage of clips follows, including Danny Devito singing, a group of girls in Alice Cooper makeup, a priest swearing, old women with falsetto voices, eggs being smashed and poured onto people, a crucified man singing “Please Release Me,” the infamous Popsicle Twins performance and Jaye P. Morgan’s baring her breasts uncensored.
Barris is harassed about the content of the show by his boss as he leaves. He sneaks into a restaurant where the maître d’ Raoul (Rip Taylor!) gives him a table inside the kitchen and the cook forces him to listen to a song. Meanwhile, another man is cooking naked in the background. The new boss finds him at dinner and follows him the whole way into the bathroom, where an excited fan pisses on Barris.
The boss even follows him to his house, where he interrupts breakfast in bed. This is followed by a montage of people waking up, with the Unknown Comic waking to his bag headed wife and Jaye P. Morgan in bed with numerous men.
Barris then meets with Morgan to discuss her behavior and that she acts too dirty on the air. Then it’s time for another montage of people getting ready for the show shot cinéma vérité style. Then Della Barris, Chuck’s real-life daughter, shows up and announces her plans to marry NBA star Bill Bridges. It’s at this point that I discovered that Barris’ love interest in the film, Robin Altman, was really his girlfriend at the time. In a 1980 People article, Barris said, “Robin used to work in our accounting department, but she was going with someone else, so I had to play it just hugs and kisses and copping a little feel. Then I threw my back out, and she came over with these heating pads because she had the same problem. We’ve been living together ever since.” The 70’s and 80’s, everyone!
Then it’s time for another montage, which ends with a pause on Barris’ face that stays on screen for way too long to hammer home the host’s nervous breakdown. Barris meets a doctor who he tells just how much he hates The Gong Show and how he needs to do something meaningful. She tells him that he needs to get away.
Somehow, Barris telling a joke leads to an argument which leads to him breaking up with his girlfriend. Which, of course, leads to another montage. Actually, it’s just one scene of him alone in the park with sad music. No, I take that back. It’s time for another montage, set to another listening of “Sometimes It Just Don’t Pay to Get Up.”
But Barris can’t escape The Gong Show. Even heading to a small diner in the middle of nowhere leads to the waitresses auditioning. So he heads to the airport and tries to fly out of town. A guy walks right up to him in line (Phil Hartman!) with a gun, because pre-9/11 these things just happened.
Barris takes a one-way ticket to Morocco and walks into the middle of the desert. If you think you’re not going to get a montage, you haven’t been watching this movie. We get view after view of Chuckie Baby crossing the desert to the tune of a sad piano. Finally, a helicopter lands and his boss gets out. Everyone wants him back and the USC Trojan marching band appears, marching over the dunes (seriously, after playing on a coked up Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk,” this is not the strangest thing this school band has ever been involved in). Everyone in Barris’ life comes out to sing a big musical number, including Gene Gene the Dancing Machine. Everyone thanks him as they sing “Don’t Get Up for Me.”
How does it all end? Another montage of show clips that ends with a man farting out a candle, which causes the new boss to faint. Did you expect anything different?
This is a film packed with cameos and character parts, like Mabel King (Mama from What’s Happening!), Harvey Lembeck, Ed Marinaro, baseball star Steve Garvey, Jamie Farr, Rosey Grier, Kitten Natividad and Taylor Negron, who must show up for a cameo in every movie made in the 1980’s.
You can watch this as a time capsule. You can watch it as a fascinating study in determining the difference between an auteur film or a vanity project. Or you can just be happy to see uncensored clips from the show. If you were born after The Gong Show graced the airwaves or have no interest in celebrity-obsessed 70’s pop culture, none of this will make sense.
The Gong Show Movie was in and out of theaters in less time than it took you to read this article. It did play on HBO, but wasn’t released on VHS. It finally came out on blu ray from Shout! Factory in 2016.