With a simple, yet revolutionary premise, The Gong Show became a pop culture phenomenon by flipping the talent show on its head and featuring the decidedly untalented. The Gong Show granted amateur performers at least 45 seconds of fame to showcase their acts before a panel of three celebrity judges. If displeased, the judges could then bang the infamous gong to bring the performance to a swift conclusion. If an act survived without being gonged, each judge assigned the performer(s) a score from 1 to 10 for a maximum score of 30 points. The act with the most points was declared the winner and awarded a check for the whopping sum of $516.32.
Originally hosted by Gary Owens, show creator Chuck Barris, (The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game) assumed hosting duties after the first year. Barris brought an additional layer of quirkiness to the program, often rambling incoherently or wearing a hat that tipped down over half of his face. In his Archive interview, Barris admits that this fashion statement was intended to shield himself from the live audience, of which he was terrified.
Several celebrities enjoyed recurring roles as guest judges, including Arte Johnson, Rip Taylor, Phyllis Diller and Jaye P. Morgan – the latter of whom developed a cult following for his sarcastic wit. Other regulars on the show included Jerry Marren, resident confetti thrower, Siv Aberg, score-keeper, and Johnny Jacobs, the main announcer. Behind the scenes Gene Banks produced, John Dorsey and Terry Kyne directed, E. Jay Krause and Lynn Griffin designed the set, and Milton DeLugg directed the music, assembling some of Los Angeles’ finest studio musicians to provide the accompaniments that often outshone the center stage vocalists.
Though The Gong Show did at times feature real talent, it was by far known for showcasing “bad” acts. Among the most memorable: a dentist who played a startling rendition of “Stars and Stripes Forever” on his drill; “Scarlett and Rhett’s Vulgar Poetry” (which had to be bleeped); and “The Popsicle Twins” – two teenage girls who sucked on frozen treats in a decidedly sexual manner. “The Popsicle Twins” somehow slipped past the censors, yet the exotic dancer with a passion for tarantulas was deemed too hot for television.
The Gong Show debuted on NBC on June 14, 1976 and ran on the network’s daytime schedule until July 21, 1978. It enjoyed a syndicated run from 1976-1980 and was revived in 1988 for one final year. Chuck Barris was not involved with the late 1980’s reincarnation of the program. The “untalent” show format returned to television again in the 2000s with programs like America’s Got Talent and the audition episodes for American Idol, on which many performances almost beg to be gonged.
Host: Gary Owens, Chuck Barris (creator)
Announcer: Johnny Jacobs
Regulars: Siv Aberg, Jerry Maren, Jaye P. Morgan
Producer: Gene Banks
Programming history: NBC June 1976-July 1978; syndicated version - USA September 1976-1980 and 1988