In June of 1976, The Gong Show came to TV. It only ran a little over two years, but there is no doubt of how much it has influenced today’s entertainment. How popular is American Idol? It’s the same show, with Simon acting as the Gong Guy. Sure, the talent level of American Idol exceeds that of any act on The Gong Show, but American Idol doesn’t have porn stars as hostesses (Paula’s hot, but I don’t think she has acted in any naughty movies).
Well, I wouldn’t necessarily call Carol Connors a hostess. I’d say she was more like one of those girls in spiked heels, carrying signs at fighting matches reminding of which round we are watching. She just didn’t have the sign, replacing it with a sexy purr, while introducing Chuck Barris to the viewing public. Carol Connors is also the mother of Thora Birch, who starred as the daughter of Kevin Spacey in the multi-Oscar winning Best Picture of 2000, American Beauty.
It always cracked me up when Chuck Barris said “tee wee” for TV. He was a hoot. Apparently, he was a very shy guy on stage. You never would know it. Although he seemed a little wasted, I doubt it.
There were a few acts on the show that were regulars; particularly Gene Gene the Dancing Machine and The Unknown Comic. They would play a certain tune, and everyone knew Gene Gene was coming out in his green sweat jacket, doing something like the Mashed Potato, or Pony, or whatever kind of dance it was. It was funny. Sometimes the judges and crew would throw things at him, while he grinned and cut a rug.
In 1979 I hosted a Gong Show in Greenbelt, MD with the Jaycees to raise money for the Greenbelt Arts Center. Our show was titled “A Salute to Tom O’Bedlam,” and my stage name was Menjie Rovasfringle (the same name on the side of my Good Humor truck six years before). Our judges were Greenbelt Mayor Gil Weidenfled, Miss Prince George’s County, and University of Maryland star running back, Charlie Wysocki.
Eleanor Roosevelt High School contributed a huge Gong used by their band, but the stipulation was it could only be played by a skilled Gonger. He came in a tuxedo, with a beard and horn-rimmed glasses; looking every bit the part of a professional Gongophile. When one of the judges wanted to “thumbs-down” an act, they signaled to Gongman and he banged the Gong.
We planted several sure-to-be-gonged losers in the lineup, hoping for good comic relief and healthy laughs. In the program, we identified those acts as “not competing for prizes” with an asterisk and disclaimer. One of the Jaycees was instructed to encourage the judges to gong them (they were so pathetic there was no need for encouragement), but not the Ungrown Comic; my seven-year-old son. The communication to the judges was to gong all the planted performances.
Sean had diligently practiced his skit. During the show his routine was to jab at me with insulting quips, kind of like “Menjie is so stupid, he rolled down the car window to yell for help because he locked himself in.” Those types of jokes. The audience was laughing loudly. And Sean was cute. He was smiling under the bag and getting a real kick out of smacking his Old Man around. Part of his act was shooting me with a banana (if you click on the picture, you can see the fruit in his pockets). The banana went empty, and he was planning to peel the one in his pocket and use it to replace the spent yellow tube-fruit. Because of the miscommunication, he was gonged. The audience sighed, awwed and booed the judges, and I stared into two shocked and pitiful eyes through the A&P grocery bag, of a youngster who at the moment felt betrayed by his “Pops” (tell me about it, all you parents out there). I’m sure he wanted to kick me in my exposed shins. But we had a show to do.
So, I egged him on. “Go ahead and finish,” I mumbled, trying to make it look like I wasn’t. He obediently attempted to continue and pulled the reserve banana, but because he had been gonged, one of our guys came out and picked him up by the seat of his pants, and dragged him off the stage, kicking and screaming. My heart sank, but as the host I had to see the show through. But it was hilarious. As he was being yanked off, I threw a rubber hand from the back of my almost-a-straight jacket toward him and said, “Let’s give the kid a hand!” It sounds planned, but the hand wasn’t for him. It just worked out that way.
At the end of the show, we gave away door prizes. Our first prize was a door. The lady who won was really pissed because we told her she had to take it (the guy holding the door kept pushing it toward her), and we were embarrassing her in front of 300 people. After just a couple of minutes of torture, she was given the real prize . . . . dinner for four, donated by Beefsteak Charlie’s.
Adam Sandler’s brought The Gong Show back for 8 episodes to Comedy Central on July 17, 2008. It was hosted by Dave Attell of the Insomniac series, and it was good, but not as good as the original, Still, I was happy to see it come back.
I’m just glad my son forgave me for 1979.
Bake My Fish