TV shows often dream about being turned into a movie with the original cast. Community was all about getting an extra season and a movie made. Firefly came back as a film. Star Trek found bold new words on the cinema screen. But what do you do about a game show that wants one last hurrah in the land of popcorn and jugs of soda? That’s just not normal. The Gong Show wasn’t a normal network game show. The amateur talent show brought together the worst, weirdest and rare future famous faces. In a matter of days Chuck Barris became a game show icon on par with Wink Martindale, Chuck Woolery and Bob Barker. The Gong Show Movie brought the daytime weirdness to the big screen.
The Gong Show Movie is part documentary, drama, comedy and fantasy as it explores the twisted talent show through the everyday life of host-producer Chuck Barris. The big revelation is that Barris was the most harassed man in Hollywood in the late ‘70s. In a town where every person think they’re a star in waiting, Barris became the key to getting that first exposure on network TV. This made little sense since most of the acts he put on his stage were worse than the tone deaf singers that ended up in the auditions on American Idol. They didn’t imagine themselves as the next great superstar so much as little better than the loser they saw gonged on the show the week before. They just wanted to perform for those precious 45 seconds before Jamie Farr gonged them to a merciful and abrupt ending. The Gong Show was how people expressed themselves before they could post cellphone videos of themselves on Youtube. No matter where Barris went, everyone wanted to do their audition.
The movie gives us a glimpse into a week of Barris putting together five episodes of The Gong Show. Barris basically plays himself. At first his character gets called Chuck Berry, but midway through the production he’s called Chuck Barris. He lives in a house with his red haired girlfriend played by Robin Altman, his girlfriend that would soon become his wife. His daughter Della also plays herself. He has his own country western band called the Hollywood Cowboys. He shares the stage with regulars Gene Gene the Dancing Machine and the Unknown Comic. This isn’t a reality show like Keeping Up with the Kardashians with people playing themselves. There are fictional characters involved in Chuck’s life. He’s hounded by the network executive who wants Chuck to bring up the ratings and tone down the adult content. Mabel King was not his secretary since she was too busy being the mother on What’s Happening? Quite a few of the people hounding Barris to see their act are actors who would make their name in future years. Vincent Schiavelli (Ghost) has an amusing bit when he wants to kill Barris for gonging his mother. Barris talks the near-assassin to appear on his stage.
Barris wasn’t an overnight success overwhelmed by the whirlwind. Barris was already a legend in the game show business as creator of The Newlywed Game and The Dating Game. He wrote the hit song “Palisades Park.” The biggest take away from the film is that Chuck made a major mistake by not hiring a professional host. He could have been the invisible genius behind the show. But instead he ended up as “Chuckie baby!” They made him into a Halloween costume.The film basically makes us wonder if Barris’ sanity will survive the insanity he put on the air.
The timing of the film is strange since NBC had canceled the show in 1978 after Barris refused to tone down the adult nature of the show since it was airing during daytime hours with Wheel of Fortune and Hollywood Squares. The tipping point was an act consisting of two women sitting on the stage and working their tongues all over Popsicles. The show would stay on the air in syndication until around the time that The Gong Show Movie was released in 1980. In a sense, this would be a way for Barris to retire the show and his host persona. Although Barris hid from the world after the film came out and bombed on all levels.
The film originally started with Robert Downey (Robert Downey Jr.’s dad) as the director and co-writer of the script. This collaboration made sense since Downey had scored big with the media razing Putney Swope. During production, Barris and Downey had a falling out.
Barris took control of his life story which makes it a rather uneven affair. His acting isn’t quite as soul bearing as when Sam Rockwell played Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. The vital part of the movie are getting to see moments that had been censored from the original broadcast. This includes a few butt uncoverings, the Popsicle incident and judge Jaye P. Morgan opening her shirt to flash the audience. There’s even raw video audition footage when Kitten Natividad of Russ Meyer movie fame performed one of her famous strip teases. The finale brings back a few of the outlandish guests to perform for the 35mm cameras. These are the moments that make the movie shine.
Other films have tried to emulate The Gong Show Movie including the failure that was Jerry Springer’s Ringmaster which had Jerry singing country music as an homage. Howard Stern’s Private Parts did a better job of learning from The Gong Show Movie. This film deserves to be remembered for giving us a glimpse of Taylor Negron (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) and Phil Hartman (News Radio) so early in their careers. The Gong Show Movie is a great nostalgic trip for any kid who faked being sick to enjoy the sickos that just wanted to be loved by Jamie Farr, Jaye P. Morgan and Tony Randall.
The video is 1.85:1 anamorphic. The transfer looks fine although there are segments culled from vintage video from the show and auditions. The audio is DTS-HD Master Audio mono. You’ll be hearing a lot of people screaming for Chuck’s attention. The movie is subtitled.
Audio Commentary from Pop Culture Historian Russell Dyball is very informative. He reads passages from Barris’ various books so it’s not just his opinion or passing on rumors about the production. There’s a few sad stories about what happened to a few Gong Show regulars.
Shout! Factory presents The Gong Show Movie. Directed by: Chuck Barris. Screenplay by: Chuck Barris & Robert Downey. Starring: Chuck Barris, Rip Taylor, Phil Hartman & Jaye P. Morgan. Rated: R. Running Time: 90 minutes. Released: March 29, 2016.
Joe Corey is the author of "The Seven Secrets of Great Walmart People Greeters." This is the last how to get a job book you'll ever need. He was Associate Producer of the documentary "Moving Midway." He's worked as local crew on several reality shows including Candid Camera, American's Most Wanted, Extreme Makeover Home Edition and ESPN's Gaters. He's been featured on The Today Show and CBS's 48 Hours. Dom DeLuise once said, "Joe, you look like an axe murderer." He was in charge of research and programming at the Moving Image Archive.