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Jeff Simon: The 'Gong' America needs now

You haven't lived until you've seen a pretty young woman in blonde pigtails pop a live tarantula into her mouth, pucker her closed lips and play the harmonica.

Badly. Very badly.

Her name, according to "The Gong Show" was "Mary Bleeds." Online, you can discover the incidental info that her pet tarantula's name was "Midas" but, frankly, I was too traumatized by it all to catch that part.

I didn't quite catch the name of the Asian-American couple who sang about gonging being an "Asian thing" so they better not be gonged on ABC's new Thursday night version of the show. I was still laughing at how they were introduced by "Tommy Maitland" as "Kevin and Elaine," or, as "Tommy" confided to us in prime time, "the names I give my testicles."

Host Tommy, as everyone knew before the show ever began, isn't really, as portrayed, a seedy, sleazy, dirty-minded, moth-eaten old Brit but, in fact, Mike Myers who somewhat oddly, hasn't been seen much of anywhere in 10 years but who wholeheartedly signed on to invent "Tommy."

I get it. Where else would he be able to urge a beauteous blonde model  to escort a "contestant" offstage by telling her "Mitzi, give this man a cup of tea and a good cropdusting"?

Most of the immediate negative reviews of "The Gong Show" redux could probably have used a "good cropdusting" but then that was always the basic problem of Chuck Barris' original shows too, which included "The Dating Game" and "The Newlywed Game."

Chuck Barris, the creator and original host of "The Gong Show." (News file photo)

Which, as Barris rightfully claimed before his recent death at the age of 88, were among the chief influences, in the 1970s, of what would become "Reality TV."

Take a look at "America's Got Talent" and the early rounds of "American Idol" and you'll immediately see the DNA of "The Gong Show" coursing through their veins.

The idea of "The Gong Show" was that Barris -- who also functioned as the show's charismatically incompetent but enthusiastic host -- was sending up the ancient radio and TV form of "the talent show," where supposed amateurs came out and did their thing in competition with one another.

What Barris created, though, was very much its own thing, though right from the start it was genius. The "acts" were often not exactly amateur but they weren't what any of us could possibly call "professional" either. There existed a glorious nether world that Barris and his co-creators knew existed but wasn't yet visible to TV -- where people do the nutsiest things imaginable in full confidence that what they were doing was "show business" (Ancient joke: When asked why the nonagenarian shoveler of elephant dung at the circus hadn't retired yet, he replied "What? And leave show business?")

There were semi-legit acts sprinkled in, but the joy and enduring value of the original show was the native surrealism of everything that actual people out in the world considered show business to be performed in front of others -- a comedian who wore a bag over his head and called himself "The Unknown Comic" for instance.

The idea was that if an act was just too awful a "judge" could hit a large gong and send the perp to oblivion (or the real world as the rest of us know it.)

Very bad critics at the time got into high dudgeon at the presumptuousness of those people presuming on the holy attentions of TV watchers everywhere. How dared they? How corrupt, or needy (or both) they must be to do such nonsense on television.

There was some truth to that on a lot of "classic" early TV shows (the ruthlessly exploitive "Queen for a Day," for instance, whose "contestants" were the neediest TV has ever given us.) But "The Gong Show" was gloriously, magnificently exempt. It was part of the most advanced of all TV creations, which would now be thought of as "anti-TV" i.e. Steve Allen, Ernie Kovacs, David Letterman's first late-night seasons on NBC, the first season of "Saturday Night Live." All the places, in other words, where a fledgling medium disgorged its neurotic anxieties and contempt for its own existence.

It's no accident that Letterman can be found on YouTube functioning as one of the "judges" on the original "Gong Show." Letterman got it. So did almost all of the show's "judges" including the fans' all-time favorite, Jaye P. Morgan, a wondrous white soul singer who is still with us at the age of 85 but long since retired.

She was one of the great treasures of vintage television, especially when her up-for-anything spirit and hunger for anarchy were contrasted with sometime judge Rex Reed, who is also, blessedly, still with us. Reed's insistence on actually functioning as a critic with good taste paved the way for Simon Cowell later but it was his "judging" contrasted with Morgan that was irresistible.

Left to right, producer Will Arnett, Ken Jeong and Zach Galifianakis on ABC's "The Gong Show." (Greg Gayne, ABC)

Jaye P., alas, was thrown off the show for good because she got so much into the Dionysian spirit of a frequent contestant that she did an impromptu striptease and flashed the camera. The act that inspired her was "Gene, Gene The Dancing Machine." At the time, people weren't nearly as kind to her as they later were to Drew Barrymore when she flashed Letterman while dancing on his desk as a birthday present.

The judges on the nouveau "Gong Show" Thursday were Will Arnett of "Arrested Development," one of the show's producers, as well as Ken Jeong and Zach Galifianakis. They were a trio who also, blissfully, "got it."

But sorely lacking was a female member to take the place of the immortal Jaye P. Next Thursday, we'll be treated to a judging trio composed of Will Forte, Fred Armisen and Elizabeth Banks (Good choice, there.)

Barris, as the original host, was so perfect because he was a "Gong Show" idea of a game show host -- awkward, affectedly stupid, genuinely lacking in performing skills but always willing to have a great time as long as he could wear a hat that covered his eyes.

Along with "Mary Bleeds," and Kevin and Elaine, the acts for the first new "Gong Show" included the week's winners "Married With Bananas" whose act consisted of spitting and drooling banana parts into each other's mouths. Runners up included the Unipiper, a fellow who rode a unicycle in a gorilla suit while playing the bagpipes. Flames. periodically, would flare out of the backs of the pipes, for the coup  de grace.

Why is Myers doing this? I'm guessing that along with a good deal of anarchic professional  rebellion, there's a secret malice in giving us a supposedly ordinary Brit TV host who resembles the infamous Jimmy Savile, whose long career concealed child abuse which was eventually and bitterly revealed.

It's all Mike's way of giving American TV in our era, "a cup of tea and a good cropdusting."


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