Examining the detritus of any decade reveals artifacts that defy explanation. Can anyone really justify the popularity of bizarre ’70s trends ranging from est to mood rings to the Pet Rock? Or, for that matter, The Gong Show, a quasi-postmodern riff on broadcast talent contests that, in its original incarnation, ran from 1976 to 1980, with uncomfortable producer-turned-personality Chuck Barris hosting most of the episodes? The premise of The Gong Show was showcasing talentless people willing to humiliate themselves on television, even if the cost of doing so was getting booted offstage once “celebrity” judges struck a giant gong. Back in the day, The Gong Show seemed like a logical byproduct of a strange time; viewed years later, The Gong Show seems like an insane result of the fusion between hedonistic drug culture and vulgar lowest-common-denominator pandering. Compared to The Gong Show, other ’70s idiot-box atrocities—Battle of the Network Stars, to name just one—seem positively edifying.
That’s why the existence of The Gong Show Movie is so bizarre. The Gong Show was already losing its hold on the public imagination by the time the movie was made, and it’s not as if the ghastly content of the program left viewers hungry for behind-the-scenes insights. Unsurprisingly, the movie bombed at theaters and subsequently fell into such complete obscurity that it’s never been released on home video. Cowritten by Barris and cult-film stalwart Robert Downey Sr., The Gong Show Movie is exactly as boring and strange and wrong as you might expect. It’s partially an outtakes reel featuring clips too racy for broadcast. It’s partially a tone-deaf lament about what a burden it is for Barris to host and produce a popular show. And it’s partially a whacked-out phantasmagoria in which Barris suffers a nervous breakdown after overexposure to desperate weirdos. To watch The Gong Show Movie, you would think that hosting The Gong Show was the equivalent of eternal damnation. Which, come to think of it, is sort of how watching The Gong Show felt.
Anyway, the movie follows Barris through a rough period. While working through a bump in his relationship with his girlfriend (Robin Altman), Barris battles anxious censors, domineering network executives eager for increased ratings, mischievous celebrity judges (that raunchy Jaye P. Morgan can’t stop making sex jokes), and unhinged contestants. Eventually, Barris flips out and leaves Los Angeles for the desert, where his quest for meaning is interrupted by a cavalcade of Gong Show cast members, who sing him a vaudeville-type song about the role he plays in their lives. Chuck Barris, the saint who suffers—wow. Nearly every character in this overstuffed movie is a screaming lunatic, and everyone wants a piece of Barris, from the psychopath who seeks revenge because his mother got gonged on the show to the wannabees who accost Barris wherever he goes in order to give impromptu auditions. Through it all, Barris presents himself as the only sane man in a world gone mad, whether he’s rolling his eyes at the girls whose “talent” involves fellating popsicle sticks on national television or whether he’s unwinding by playing country-rock songs with his pickup band.
The Gong Show Movie is a stunningly misguided piece of work, because it represents a metaphorical slap in the face to the people who made Barris famous, and because it’s an 89-minute request for attention from a man who keeps protesting that all he really wants is to be left alone. Happily, the American viewing public granted his wish soon enough.
The Gong Show Movie: FREAKY