You might believe gonzo 1970s variety show phenomenon The Gong Show was the spiritual ancestor of all the talent shows that have dominated TV this century, from American Idol to Dancing with the Stars to The X Factor. If that’s the case, then you, my friend, are wrong.  Talented amateurs competing for prize money and fleeting fame have existed since television’s earliest days.

But The Gong Show, less of a talent exhibition and more of a freak show, predicted something else altogether. Producer, host, and alleged CIA contract killer Chuck Barris had loftier intentions back in 1976, looking for the next wave of fresh talent to entertain America.  “But we couldn't find any; they were all lousy,” he remembers. “So rather than throw away the idea, I said, 'Let's reverse it. Let's do lousy acts.'"

The premise of the show was simple. Barris, an oversized hat pulled over his eyes, introduced mostly horrible performers.  A three-member panel of C-list celebrity judges would rate the act from 1 to 10.  If the act was especially excruciating?  The judge would strike a large gong, exiling the performer from the show.  In extreme cases, an act would get gang-gonged, a group rejection effort from the entire panel. 

America went absolutely crazy for terrible talent. And the crazies couldn’t wait to get on The Gong Show. Very few would make it big in show business – this was a showcase for weirdos, oddballs, and eccentrics.  In other words, it was the early days of YouTube before the notion of a “world web web” had even been conceived. 

Take, for example, Gong Show singing contestants.  The best performers -- and by this, we mean the funniest -- were the aggressively untalented crooners who had no idea how bad they were.

Poor dude was way too early to go viral and find a different kind of fame.  If he was born 30 years later, it might have been him singing Chocolate Rain.

The early days of YouTube went bananas for stuff like the Evolution of Dance:

Just like Gong Show viewers demanded repeat performances from crowd favorite Gene Gene the Dancing Machine.

Pick your early YouTube phenomenon -- Star Wars Kid, Rebecca Black, the guy who went nuts to the Numa Numa video.  Any one of them would have fit in seamlessly on the Gong Show stage, having their “acts” dissed and dismissed by the likes of Jamie Farr and Jaye P. Morgan.  Two dudes putting Mentos into a bottle of Diet Coke would likely have taken home that episode’s top prize.

Similarly, Michael Scott would have been sharing Gong Show videos just as fast as he could hit the forward button. After all, who doesn't love a little cringe? “One day I decided to do a show entirely of acts that (sang dreadful 70s ballad) Feelings. I thought that was hysterical,” says Barris. “Marvin Hamlisch bumped into me a hundred years later and said, ‘I’ll never forget that show.’”

Despite battles with the censors, the show got good ratings and its popularity even inspired The Gong Show Movie.  (Safe bet that other daytime entries like Sale of the Century and Tattletales weren’t getting the big-screen treatment.) It was a one-of-a-kind phenomenon, but the no-longer novelty of terrible entertainment is why recent Gong Show remakes, including that weird version with Mike Myers under 30 pounds of latex, haven’t worked.  

Is this guy’s can-dancing act a little out of the ordinary? We guess--but we can find something a lot more bizarre in about thirty seconds of YouTube surfing.  Weird just isn’t what it used to be. 

Contrast that to the 1970s, when no one had ever seen video of a man whistling Yankee Doodle alongside his hissing tea kettle.  How about the woman whose entire act consisted of getting her head caught in a cardboard box? And we guarantee it was the first time two young women sat on a stage and lovingly worked their way through melting Popsicles. 

The raciness of the Popsicle Twins helped get the original Gong Show canceled. Today, they’d be social media influencers doing branded TikToks for Good Humor/Breyers. Like the Gong Show, they were just a little ahead of their time.

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Top image: Chuck Barris Productions

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