Publicity photo of Chuck Barris promoting the June 14, 1976 premiere of the NBC reality talent show "The Gong Show." Photo courtesy NBC Television.
Last Thursday, ABC introduced a new generation of viewers to a rebooted version of “The Gong Show” more than 40 years after Chuck Barris ’53, who received an honorary degree in 2001, debuted his original amateur talent contest on television.
Barris, who graduated with a degree in business administration, had already made a name for himself in the ‘60s by creating and producing the pre-reality-TV shows “The Dating Game” and “The Newlywed Game,” thus reinventing the staid game show format. The irreverent and sometimes scandalous shows were a product of the freer, groovier ‘60s and struck a chord with the changing American audience. The idea of “The Gong Show” came about when Barris, who was a behind-the-scenes star, was asked to come up with a variety show that he wasn’t even supposed to host.
“I went out looking for acts for this variety show and I didn’t find anything that was really good,” Barris explained on “The Drexel InterView” in 2008 when he was interviewed on campus by Paula Marantz Cohen, PhD, dean of the Pennoni Honors College and distinguished professor of English in the College of Arts and Sciences. “So I decided to go back and say, ‘Let me find bad acts. I can’t find anything good so let me do acts that are really bad’ And [network executives] thought I was really crazy, but at that time I had a bunch of shows that were on the air, so they went with me.”
Originally scheduled to produce the show, Barris took over when the original emcee bowed out (reportedly because, as Barris recounted, he “just didn’t understand the concept”). As it turned out, Barris was the perfect host to reign over the outlandish “Gong Show.” Dancing, cracking jokes and even making fun of judges and contestants to their faces, he introduced amateur performers (often with dubious talent) to a panel of three celebrity judges — and Americans across the country. The winner could look forward to a check of what Barris called a “highly unusual amount,” like $516.32 (later increased to an equally confusing $712.05).
Some acts, like “The Unknown Comic,” and “Gene, Gene the Dancing Machine,” became beloved repeat performers. Others were forced off the stage if a gong was struck by judges who deemed the contestant’s performance particularly terrible and needing to be stopped immediately. The show was a cultural sensation, making Barris a household name (and a reputation as “the King of Schlock”) and cementing his status as a game show and television icon.
The 1953 Lexerd yearbook page featuring Chuck Barris. Photo courtesy University Archives.
The show ran from 1976–78 and was syndicated until 1980. A rebooted or spin-off version has popped up in every decade since it went off the air, including “The Gong Show Movie” in 1980. A few years after that, Barris shocked America once again with his 1984 autobiography, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” in which he famously (or infamously) claimed that he worked as a CIA hitman.
A sensation at the time, Barris’ story made headlines again almost 30 years later when George Clooney adapted the book into a movie with the same title for his first directed film (Sam Rockwell played Barris). Renewed interest in the outrageous claims forced the CIA to release a public statement denying that he ever worked for the spy agency — and introduced Barris to a new generation.
The 2017 version of “The Gong Show” stands to do the same as the most high-profile reincarnation, appearing on a major broadcast channel and featuring a slew of current comedians and celebrities as guest judges. It’s hosted by Tommy Maitland, a comedian with a heavy British accent and facial prosthetics concealing the fact that he may or may not be comedian Mike Myers (ABC hasn’t confirmed it yet, but the general consensus is that yes, it is). Like Barris, he started the show wearing a tuxedo — but only time will tell if he, too, ends up wearing more casual — and sillier — outfits as the show goes on.
The first episode showed that the program was going to stay pretty faithful to the original version. Standout contestants included a unicycler in a gorilla costume playing flaming bagpipes as well as a married couple performing a banana spitting routine. The guest judges were actors Will Arnett (an executive producer of the show), Zach Galifianakis and Ken Jeong; future judges include Dana Carvey, Andy Samberg and Jack Black. Every week, the winning act will receive a $2,000.17 check, an homage to the original version’s cheeky prize. The show will run for the next nine weeks at 10 p.m. on Thursdays.
ABC’s “The Gong Show” premiered two months and a day after the 87-year-old Barris passed away on March 21, so it’s unknown what his response to the reboot would have been. But when Cohen interviewed him for “The Drexel Interview” nine years ago, she wondered why he thought none of the other attempted reboots of the show ever seemed to work out.
Barris, always quick with a snappy retort and an excellent knack for self-promotion, answered almost immediately: “Well, they don’t have me.”