The Gong Show Returneth

The great irony of the original Gong Show, which has been resurrected by Comedy Central with Dave Attell as host (check your local listings for airtimes), was that the program itself would have gotten gonged. And to its credit, it (and its creator, Chuck Barris) wore that fact like a badge of (dis)honor, creating a space in television where it could be proud of showcasing the misplaced pride of the American populous. Or at least those members of the American populous who lived in the San Fransisco area, where the original was taped, and were weird enough to have a "talent" to get them on the air and had so little humility that they were willing and eager to perform. By its more generous critics, it’s been called "inimitable" (which usually means "mostly crap, but unique, at least"). But how wrong those critics were.

The Gong Show, it turned out, was immensely imitable. Reality programs wouldn’t be what they are today without the schadenfreude taught us by TV like Barris’ (and other shows before it, like Queen for a Day). And here it is again, remade in its own sorry image, messing about in the slag heap of the American talent pool, making fun of itself, its F-list celebs and most of all its own contestants.

And I’m not being elitist about this. It’s just that the original Gong Show always made me sad. I watched once in a while just to try to catch the Unknown Comic or Gene Gene, the Dancing Machine. But overall, it seemed like a show based on the cruel dismissal of a person’s dreams. And it seemed that way because it was. It pretty much just was. And I always felt so sad for those people who got gonged, especially because their dream was so small -- that a 63-year-old guy just wanted someone to be impressed by the way his daddy taught him to play the spoons, or whatever -- and he had to smile bravely through getting dissed by Jamie Farr or Joanne Worley or someone else whose claim to fame was so tenuous that they were… well, they were a judge on the freaking Gong Show.

I know. I was a sensitive child. Maybe too much so. And I have to admit, I’ve gotten more callous over the years -- such that I can now watch reality TV and not get as sad for these poor schmucks who whine about their "bad edits" and walk off with their fifteen minutes and a wad of cash. But part of the reason is, I’ve come to believe that these people know what they’re getting into, and they’re doing it willingly. I don’t think that was true of everyone on The Gong Show in the 1970s. Maybe it was, but it seems as though everyone understands the basics of reality shows these days -- and that wasn’t always true then. Hell, many people still thought pro-wrestling was real in that era. It was a simpler time, both in complexity, and in mind.

But this new Gong Show is hosted by the aforementioned Attell, who calls it "the wet spot on the casting couch of Hollywood." (Note to Dave: self-deprecation only works when what you’re saying isn’t really true.) And one of the judges is Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, who seems to have been born for a gig like this. He alone might be worth the price of admission. Just keep in mind that the cost might just be a few IQ points and a healthy portion of shame. -- Teague Bohlen

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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