One way to understand The Gong Show Movie is to realize that it isn’t really a comedy. Sure, it has its funny moments, mostly dealing with the onstage antics of the brutally untalented contestants who made Chuck Barris’ prime-time masterstroke both addictive and reviled. But the movie it kept reminding me of was The King of Comedy, which Barris’ film predated by three years. (Tony Randall has jokey cameos in both movies.) These two movies are really meta-comedies — they’re more about comedy, and the toll it takes on the anointed famous, than actual ha-ha-funny romps. If Scorsese’s film had stuck with the beleaguered Jerry Langford instead of focusing on his obsessive stalker Rupert Pupkin, it might’ve come out a bit like The Gong Show Movie.
The movie is a fascinating public act of career seppuku. If Chuck Barris intended the film (which he wrote with the notoriously audience-challenging Robert Downey Sr., who had his own crashing flop that same year with Up the Academy) to end his tenure as America’s favorite master of raunchy, inept ceremonies, the movie can only be called an unqualified success. Viewers expecting a feature-length string of manic absurdity must have been bewildered: What they found was a rather sour document — Chuck Agonistes, in which the haggard-looking fifty-year-old celebrity bemoans his fame and feels trapped inside the phenomenon he created. Calling it The Gong Show Movie was the final perverse touch; yes, the film has some Gong Show highlights — including the infamous bits with the Popsicle Twins and Jaye P. Morgan exposing herself — but most of the film plays like Barris’ version of Woody Allen’s bitter Stardust Memories (also released that year).
Poor Chuck! Everywhere he goes, people recognize him and disrespect him on a variety of levels — launching into impromptu, excruciating auditions; telling him how dumb the show is and what a schmuck he is. Some of this must be exaggerated a little for absurdist effect, but probably only a little. (If you’ve read Barris’ Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and The Game Show King, you know that the loons he encounters in the movie aren’t far from reality.) His girlfriend Red (Robin Altman, Barris’ real-life wife for a while) encourages him to get out of the show to save his own sanity. An unctuous network executive (James B. Douglas) keeps telling him the show is getting too wild for mainstream America. Chuck drags himself out of bed every morning knowing that he has to endure an endless stream of auditions, followed by a crushing schedule of shows filmed back to back. His life has become all-invasive; he can’t get a moment’s peace. Even on his morning jog, a vicious dog strains at its leash trying to get at Chuck.
For reasons of its own, Universal bankrolled this 89-minute psychotherapy session, only to bury it quickly and decisively — as of this writing in July 2006, it has never been made available on home video¹, and fans have had to make do with bootleg copies probably taped off of the Movie Channel back in the early ’80s (I saw a bit of it back then). If you’re expecting nonstop raunchy laughs, the movie fails, and even some of the bits of business Barris intends to be funny don’t really make it. But the film is always fascinating when it’s not funny. To watch it is to show belated respect for Barris, a genuinely gifted writer and also a songwriter, who sort of fell into the creation of game shows and never meant to become the American schmuck of the airwaves (he would’ve had someone else host The Gong Show, but felt nobody else would really understand its premise as a subversion of conventional talent shows).
It isn’t all Barris’ show. He pulls together some oddball talents aside from the people onstage, such as a young and much skinnier Phil Hartman harassing Chuck at an airport, or the eternally death-faced Vincent Schiavelli as a guy incensed at Barris because the judges gonged his mom. We also get the usual standbys: Father Ed, Gene Gene the Dancing Machine, and the Unknown Comic. Possibly the most unexpectedly saddening appearance is by Barris’ then-16-year-old daughter Della, looking happy and healthy; she died of a drug overdose in 1998. The movie functions in part as a family portrait and a snapshot that could only have been taken at the dusk of the ’70s.
Chuck Barris has been credited with being the godfather of what we know as reality TV today, an unfair label I don’t think he deserves (why blame him for Fear Factor?). His true achievement on television was to bring the counter-cultural concept of anti-entertainment — best typified by Andy Kaufman’s onstage experiments — to a mass audience five nights a week. The order of things, of course, was re-established when one of the familiar TV personalities hit the gong; but for minutes on end, people across the country were watching horribly bad performances, and tuning in night after night for more of the same.
Barris celebrated fringe behavior, exalted the no-talents who displayed their ineptitude in exchange for their 15 minutes (usually far less). The Gong Show Movie is about the intelligent man behind all the rampant stupidity. All the movie lacks is the true-life happy ending: Chuck dumps the show, sells his production company to the tune of $100 million, and moves to France, where Jerry Lewis (Langford?) has already prepared the natives for the arrival of a misunderstood comedian.
¹In 2016, Shout! Factory finally released the film on Blu-ray.