The Gong Show and Me: A Love Story
Have you ever told a story that fell so flat it left you no choice but to invoke the old 'you had the be there' line?
This might just be one of those stories.
When Chuck Barris died at age 87, yesterday (March 21), nearly every obituary around the country talked about how he created the iconic TV game shows 'The Dating Game' and 'The Newlywed Game', and how he wrote the popular 1962 song, 'Palisades Park'. Any one of those accomplishments would be enough to make for quite a life. To do all three was really something.
But the Chuck Barris I will always remember is the guy who created, and reluctantly hosted, one of my all-time favorite TV shows - The Gong Show.
When it first arrived on daytime TV in 1976, it was supposed to be another amateur talent search, with a trio of celebrity judges ready to literally 'gong' an act off the stage if they didn't like it. It was the precursor to shows like America's Got Talent and X Factor.
Barris wasn't supposed to be in front of the camera, but when original host John Barbour (Real People) balked at the less-than-serious nature of the show, Barris was brought in as an emergency replacement.
Over the two years The Gong Show was on-the-air (before going into syndication), The Gong Show did bring us our first glimpses of actress Andrea McArdle (Annie), singer Cheryl Lynn ('Got To Be Real'), singer Boxcar Willie, comedian Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman), impressionist Michael Winslow (Police Academy movies), and the band Oingo Boingo.
But what really drew people to the show were the unusual and offbeat acts which emerged from that curtain each weekday. You never really knew which acts were legit and which were just a creation of Barris and the other slightly warped minds behind the show.
You just knew you couldn't look away.
Unlike today's talent shows, which promise big money payouts, record deals, or Las Vegas headlining gigs, contestants on The Gong Show were competing for the 'Golden Gong' trophy and a quirky amount of prize money, which ranged from $966.83 on the first show, to the more customary $516.32 in subsequent episodes.
None of that mattered to me.
As a 13-year old watching every day from my parents' family room in Southern California, I tuned in religiously to see Barris bumble and stumble his way through the show, with my fingers crossed hoping to see two of my favorite new 'cult heroes'.
The first was a guy named Gene Patton, who was recruited by Barris to 'warm up' the crowds before the show and during commercial breaks. Patton proved to be such a big hit with the studio audience that Barris decided to create a recurring role on the show as 'Gene Gene The Dancing Machine'.
Cue his theme song, Count Basie's 'Jumpin' at the Woodside':
As much as I loved to watch Gene strut across the stage, nothing brought a bigger smile to my face than an appearance from Murray Langston.
Legend has it, Langston, an actor from Canada, was strapped for cash and agreed to tell some jokes on The Gong Show, but was so embarrassed about the gig that he (with the show's permission) wore a paper bag over his head to conceal his identity.
A legend was born.
The 'Unknown Comic' went on to make more than 150 appearances on the show, always with the same intro from Barris:
Not exactly highbrow stuff, but The Gong Show always transports me back to a very happy place.
Sadly, a show like that wouldn't come anywhere near the airwaves these days. But I'm so glad The Gong Show was there for me all those years ago.
I guess you had to be there.