The Gong Show, which premiered on June 14, 1976, was an irreverent response to years of strait-laced variety talent shows from the likes of Ed Sullivan and Lawrence Welk. The singular Chuck Barris hosted most of the episodes of both the daytime and primetime versions of the show, where contestants had 45 seconds to impress celebrity judges before being in danger of getting "gonged" off the stage. Long before American Idol made the talentless popular, The Gong Show was giving unequivocally terrible and at times tasteless amateur acts their 15 minutes of fame.
1. THE CONCEPT CAME FROM A CANADIAN SONGWRITER.
The idea for The Gong Show came after Tommy Hunter, "Canada's Country Gentleman," told producer Chris Bearde about a guy who had auditioned for his show. The idea clicked with Bearde, who then pitched the concept as a series to the CBC.
"Hunter was telling me about these guys that juggle and throw bowling pins up and they bang them on the head and they never catch them," Bearde recalled. "Then they take four bowling pins and they throw them up in the air and they miss every one of them, and then the guy turns to them and says 'Now I would like to do it blindfolded' ... Let's get Hunter and dress him in a nice tuxedo, and after we get him in the tuxedo he'll introduce all these people." When the CBC said no, Bearde joined up with Chuck Barris to create it in the United States.
2. THE GONG MAY HAVE COME FROM THE APOLLO THEATER.
Howard "Sandman" Sims—the Apollo Theater's "exterminator," who ran on stage shooting a cap gun and sounding a siren when a performer got booed—claimed in 1986 that his whole act is "where The Gong Show came from. The idea is, if the kid is not good enough, we have to create some comic scene to get him off the stage without the audience embarrassing him."
3. IT WASN'T A HIT WITH TEST AUDIENCES.
The Gong Show had "the poorest" results out of any daytime show NBC had ever tested at the time. Madeleine David, NBC's then-director of daytime programming, put it on the air anyway because enough people at the network "cared about it and believe in it."
4. THERE WAS A HOST BEFORE CHUCK BARRIS.
Chuck Barris, who also produced the show, originally hired John Barbour to act as host, but—according to Barris—Barbour "just didn't understand the concept." (Barbour would go on to create Real People and write and direct a 1992 documentary on the JFK assassination.) The ratings with Barbour weren't good, and NBC insisted that if Barris didn't host, the show would be canceled.
5. WEIRD AL YANKOVIC AUDITIONED.
"I was in college," Yankovic recalled, "and a friend and I drove down to L.A. for the day, and auditioned for The Gong Show. And we did a song called 'Mr. Frump in the Iron Lung.' And the audience seemed to enjoy it, but we never got called back. So we didn't make the cut for The Gong Show." Only about 10 percent of applicants ever made it to the show.
6. THE SHOW FEATURED SOME TRULY TALENTED PEOPLE.
Steve Martin was an act and later was a guest judge. Andrea McArdle appeared and subsequently won the lead in the Broadway musical Annie. Cheryl Lynn was signed to a recording contract and recorded "Got To Be Real." Mare Winningham won when she sang "Here, There, and Everywhere," under an alias. Danny Elfman and the rest of Oingo Boingo performed. Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman) estimated he was on the show roughly 15 times. He won money, too.
7. THE $516.32 GRAND PRIZE WASN'T AS RANDOM AS IT SOUNDED.
While Barris referred to it as "the highly unusual amount of $516.32,” it was actually the Screen Actors Guild union scale minimum for one day's work.
8. THE POPSICLE TWINS NEVER RAN ON THE WEST COAST.
Chuck Barris would occasionally send up acts he knew the censors wouldn't allow, distracting them from barring other risqué acts he wanted to put on. The Popsicle Twins (officially known as the "Have You Got a Nickel?" act) were one of those sacrificial lambs, but NBC censors let them through. Enough East Coast viewers complained after witnessing two barefoot 17-year-old girls in shorts and T-shirts sucking on orange popsicles to "I'm in the Mood for Love" that NBC pulled the show's feed from the air before the act could be shown to the rest of the country.
9. NBC BANNED PANELIST JAYE P. MORGAN.
Weeks after The Popsicle Twins incident in 1978, panelist Jaye P. Morgan flashed the studio audience. It never made the broadcast, but she was barred from the show by the network. It was one of the final straws for NBC and the daytime version of the series was canceled soon after. The flashing appeared in The Gong Show Movie (1980).
10. CHUCK BARRIS GOT GONGED IN THE SERIES FINALE.
Barris appeared as a contestant singing Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job and Shove It." He gave the camera the finger.
11. ROBERT DOWNEY SR. WROTE AND DIRECTED THE GONG SHOW MOVIE.
Halfway through production, Barris decided to direct the movie himself (Downey Sr. was okay with this). It made just over $6.6 million.
12. THEY KEPT TRYING TO BRING THE SHOW BACK.
There was the syndicated weekday revival of The Gong Show, hosted by San Francisco DJ Don Bleu, which ran from 1988 to 1989. Each winner won $701 that time. Ten years later, the Game Show Network presented Extreme Gong, where viewers called in to declare whether an act was good or not. The Gong Show with Dave Attell ran for eight weeks in the summer of 2008 on Comedy Central. Winning acts won $600.