Q&A with Adam Nedeff, author of Gong This Book! The Uncensored History of Television’s Wildest Talent Show

adam nedeff gong show q&a

Q&A with Adam Nedeff, author of Gong This Book! The Uncensored History of Television’s Wildest Talent Show

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What WAS The Gong Show?
The Gong Show was this unlikely pop culture phenomenon that emerged in 1976. Contestants would have 90 seconds to perform their act—any act. Singing, stand-up, ventriloquism, juggling, anything at all. There were three judges watching them and scoring the performance, and at the end of each episode, the highest-scoring act won the Golden Gong trophy, plus a check for $516.32…or $712.05…or $716.32…it changed a couple of times.
But one important detail…there was an enormous gong looming behind the judges. After the act had performed for at least 45 seconds, if one of the judges felt that the act wasn’t worthy of continuing, the judge could end it right there by banging the gong.
The creator and host of the show was an eccentric gent named Chuck Barris, a producer who would organize parades with his employees, marching through the other businesses in their office building and disrupting the work day, or renting buses to take everybody out for ice cream or out to the movies. That’s who he was off-camera. He became the host of The Gong Show because the host he hired wasn’t working out, and a network executive pretty much forced Chuck to host the show himself. Chuck, as a host, was wildly unnatural. He stared, clapped his hands as a nervous habit, tugged and scratched his hair, shuffled his feet, and squinted—he was so self-conscious about his eyes that he began bringing his hat collection to the tapings, and he would wear ridiculous-looking oversized hats to cover his eyes.
As for the performances themselves…The Gong Show was not a show along the lines of, say, The Voice. This was a show that celebrated mediocrity. This was a show that chose to shine the spotlight on people who weren’t that great. Basically, The Gong Show was most interested in people who wanted to be on TV. People would do the most bizarre, jaw-dropping things for the sole reason that it would get them on TV, and The Gong Show loved people like that—people who broke eggs over their heads while singing, or disrobed, or belched in time to music. So you have that general ‘70s sensibility, which was already tacky and cheesy, plus a host who had no business being a host, plus acts that were more ridiculous than sublime. It was this alchemy that produced a once-in-a-lifetime series. If you watched it once, you could never forget it.
What were some “typical” acts, if there was such a thing?
I watched as many episodes of the show as I could get my hands on to research the book—about 450 episodes in total. I kept a detailed spreadsheet of all the acts that performed on the show. Just a random sampling from my notes…
“Man with bells attached to his clothes, who shakes different parts of his body to play a melody.”
“Marionette artist who makes his puppet strip.”
“Brothers play a guitar duet, with one brother sitting piggyback on the other’s shoulders”
“Senior citizens playing musical instruments that they built themselves”
“Singer who does chicken clucks instead of lyrics”
“Viking who beats up a rubber snake while lip-syncing to an old record”
“Whistles through his navel”
“Trained dog that solves math problems”
“Stripper who starts in a straitjacket and removes it”
“Professional wrestler who sings while breaking things”
“Trio of teenage girls dressed in peanut and grape costumes sing a song about peanut butter and jelly.”
“84-year-old who does cheerleader splits”
But in the midst of all that insanity, there were sincerely talented people—up-and-coming performers looking for early career breaks and exposure.

What made this show so appealing for young talents auditioning?
If there’s a young reader who stumbles on this book, it’s so important to explain what the world was in terms of entertainment. The internet wasn’t a thing yet—there was no social media. No viral videos, no influencers, no live-streaming. As far as entertainment goes, you couldn’t do anything to make a name on your own. All entertainment had gatekeepers. There were three to five channels on your television, all doing very mainstream content to get the largest audience possible. Getting your name out there was exceedingly difficult.
Along comes The Gong Show, and it’s instantly clear from the earliest episodes of the show that as long as what you’re doing is something different, or clever, or even above-average, this show will give you a forum for two minutes.
Not only did it give you a forum, but Chuck Barris was unbelievably supportive of his contestants. He encouraged his contestants to join performers’ unions—he would even pay the membership fees for them, sometimes. This did a few things. First of all, it meant that he was required to pay around $250 to unionized contestants, and in that era, that was a pretty nice chunk of money—it’s about a thousand dollars now. But then, even more than that, it meant that Chuck Barris would be required to pay royalties to these people if he ever sold the show’s reruns, which he did. And since the show booked particularly talented contestants multiple times, those people in particular got a nice little windfall when the show first went into reruns. Again, Chuck Barris chose to do that; he was under no obligation to do so, and people would have been on The Gong Show anyway. But he was the one who told these people to make sure they became part of the unions, and then made sure they were paid accordingly when he made business deals.

Any future stars among the performers?
Plenty. Comedian Robert Schimmel, actor Phil Hartman, actress Mare Winningham, singer Cheryl Lynn, but the most noteworthy contestant is probably Paul Reubens—the man who became Pee-Wee Herman. The Gong Show operated a little differently from most talent shows and game shows; Chuck Barris would encourage performers who audition for the show again. The only restriction people were given was that they had to come up with a different act every time they auditioned. Well, Paul Reubens was an imaginative guy, so he was up to that challenge. He kept coming up with unique ideas for acts, so they kept booking him. He was a contestant 14 times, always under a different name and doing something that he hadn’t done before.

Who were the stars who sat on the judges’ panel?
An eclectic mix of stars were judges on the show—Steve Martin and David Letterman, Oscar winner Paul Williams, heavyweight boxing champion Ken Norton, singer Dionne Warwick, and a group of 1970s icons—M*A*S*H cast member Jamie Farr, Arte Johnson from Laugh-In, Password host Allen Ludden, and singer Jaye P. Morgan. Morgan was probably the best-known judge on the show—and today I think it’s feasible that more people know her for her Gong Show judging than her singing. She also holds the distinction of being barred from the show by NBC after she flashed the audience during a taping.

Who were some of the other stars on the show?
The Gong Show had several homegrown stars. Many of them were actually members of the staff and crew. Chuck loved using his employees as talent on the show. His wardrobe and makeup men became Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, who would perform really, really blue material while Chuck would pretend to be offended. Chuck’s joke writer, Larry Spencer, was part of a series of gags where he would try to play musical instruments that would break.
And then there was a member of the crew named Gene Patton. Chuck was backstage one day and noticed Gene dancing while he was sweeping the floor, and Chuck was so taken by that, he dubbed the man “Gene-Gene the Dancing Machine” and featured him as a regular performer. Gene would just come onstage and dance. No reason for it, but Gene had this everyman charisma, and he gave off a vibe of being completely amused that he got to be on TV dancing; you could feel that. Audiences loved him. The studio audiences at taping would get up and dance along with him. Gene brought so much joy just from showing up unexpectedly and dancing.
There was also Murray Langston, an actor/comic who had amassed some respectable credits as a TV performer. He wanted to be on the show simply because he was unemployed, acting jobs weren’t coming steadily, and he needed the money. He didn’t want his friends and family worried that he needed money if they saw him on The Gong Show, so he wore a paper bag over his head and called himself the Unknown Comic. He told some of the worst jokes ever on television, and something about the whole act—these terrible jokes coming from a performer hiding his face—just delighted the audience, and he became a regular performer.

There’s always discussion on social media about how old entertainment as aged, often poorly. How is The Gong Show when watching it through modern eyes?
There are elements that you could take issue with—Paul Reubens pretended to be a Native American for one of his many acts for example.
What absolutely stood out to me, though, is that there is an “All are welcome” vibe to this show. First of all, there’s this interesting element of minorities being “in on the joke.” The show didn’t tell these contestants what to do; they actually weren’t allowed to, legally, because that would be interfering with the competition. The acts that you saw on TV were exactly what the contestants wanted to do. So when you see a black contestant actually wearing blackface and doing a minstrel show act, or an Asian contestant doing an obnoxious character rooted in every negative stereotype as he delivers a monologue about being a tourist, what can you say? They were the ones who wanted to do that.
This show had openly gay and openly transgender contestants. And before anyone wants to say “Well, probably just to be made fun of”…well, that’s just it. Was the navel whistler treated with dignity on The Gong Show? Was the chicken-clucking singer held up as a paragon of humanity? Of course not. Yes, gay and transgender contestants were the butt of jokes, but so was everybody else on the show. Everybody—everybody, regardless of race, color, creed, or sexual orientation—had the same opportunity to be on national television and get made fun of while they did something silly-looking. Nobody was there as a token. Nobody was there because their label made them an easy target. The judges and Chuck Barris were made objects of ridicule, too. They were all in it together. And it’s sort of the same logic that Syndrome brings up in the movie The Incredibles; when everybody is the butt of the joke, nobody is the butt of the joke.

What was your favorite part of researching this book?
Since The Gong Show was derided for being a freak show with weird contestants, I thought it might be worthwhile to dedicate an entire chapter to tracking down ex-contestants and learning their stories.

The response to my inquiries was overwhelmingly positive. Finding people was not easy, for the simple reason that the vast majority of contestants performed under aliases. But the people I reached out to returned my calls and eagerly shared stories and memories. What I loved was that nobody had a boring story. Nobody’s story is “Well, I called the production office, scheduled an audition, and got booked.” Everybody who spoken to me regaled me with “The series of wacky misadventures that led to me being on The Gong Show.” Everybody had a totally unique journey to being a contestant.

The other great thing about this was learning how many of them are still actively performing somewhere on earth 40-plus years later. Ex-Gong Show contestants are still at it, in coffee shops, honkytonks, college campuses, and county fairs. I went to a senior citizens’ home in West Hollywood to watch a performance by Michael Sherman, who was a contestant and 40 years later, now an impressionist for hire. I watched as he entertained octogenarians and nonagenarians with whole routines as Jack Benny, George Burns, Ed Sullivan, and more.

At the end of the show, he stuck around and introduced me to the audience as “a young man writing a book about The Gong Show,” and a 90-year-old gleefully speaks up. “I was on The Gong Show!!! I dressed as a clown and danced on stilts! My name was Captain Hoppy.”

If somebody is already a fan of The Gong Show, what will they learn that will surprise them the most?
I think the discussion of drug culture, in the 1970s in general and at Chuck Barris Productions. I’m staying very terse here, but I’ll simply say I was surprised to learn what I learned, and I think fans of the show will be just as surprised.

What was its influence on entertainment?
It was a forerunner to a lot of things you see on social media. The cap on performances was 90 seconds, which means everything you saw on The Gong Show was bite-sized entertainment that may have been good or may have been bad, but either way, it was over before you were sick of it. And that is so much viral video fodder.
You also see The Gong Show’s influence in shows like American Idol, America’s Got Talent. And not even talent shows necessarily. There’s a thread of that show running through things like Nailed It and Hell’s Kitchen. Failure is interesting. Failure has merit as a form of entertainment. There is something perversely interesting about somebody trying as hard as they can, and then they’re bad at it. And I think television learned that from The Gong Show.

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