Gong Show Movie, The (Blu-ray Review)11 Apr, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Stars Chuck Barris, Robin Altman, Jaye P. Morgan.
In what would become a Universal Pictures’ launching-the-decade contribution to that lengthy list of “singular cinema,” Chuck Barris (playing himself) questions whether or not his career as a game show host has been worth the time and effort — due, in part, to all of those novelty acts who insist on auditioning for him when he’s standing at the urinal.
Such “what’s it all about?” sentiment is certainly something to fill any professional viewer of The Gong Show Movie with empathy, but I’d be a hypocrite not to note that I’m also in the club of stalwarts who actually paid to see the theatrical engagement of this movie, which was spun off Barris’s “anti-Talent Scouts” half-hour of the day. This full-length go-round played (uh, briefly) in my apartment’s walking-distance triplex whose screens were about the size of an ancient ’50 Philco on which one might have watched, three decades earlier, Broadway Open House stars Jerry Lester, Dagmar and Milton Delugg — the last much later known as Barris’s music director (and a Gong Show Movie featured player). So what could have been wrong with all those other people who didn’t turn out to see this movie at the time? Hell, the only other competitors opening that same week in 1980 (per some Blu-ray commentary by pop culture historian Russell Dyball) were obscurities like The Empire Strikes Back and The Shining.
The TV version’s popular success on ABC was a kind of rebuttal to now the quaint concept of network “standards and practices” — and this only 15 or so years after CBS’s programming chieftain James Aubrey was cynically shoveling a bunch of hayseed sitcoms full of mate-less characters who were widowed, never divorced, onto his own schedule. After this, it was almost heartening to see acts like the Unknown Comic (that “Gong Show” regular who had the paper bag over head) or the Bait Brothers or two young girls sucking provocatively on Popsicles (this one got Barris into some trouble).
There was also the ongoing threat of panelist/judge Jaye P. Morgan threatening to flash her breasts at the drop of a longshoreman — which she does here in the movie, though I can’t recall if she really did it on the actual show. Other judges (or gong-ers) of sorry acts included Jamie Farr and former Dodgers first sacker Steve Garvey, whose image as a wholesome guy was tarnished some when two of his squeezes got pregnant out of wedlock at the same time. This later led David Letterman to put the “Steve Garvey Warm-up Mattress” (or something close) on his “list” of the least visited attractions at Cooperstown, along with a glass of water that contained Billy Martin’s teeth.
But I digress. The movie, which does have a storyline of sorts, casts Barris as a kind of Chuck Fellini whose significant other (Robin Altman, our star’s future wife in real life) worries that he’s going to suffer a breakdown if he can’t get away from the pressures of network executives, unfairly “gonged’ (in their view) contestants and the aspirants who come at him 50 at a time — to say nothing of the fact that he tapes every week’s five shows in a single day). The last brings to mind the time I somehow saw all five days of the late humorist Henry Morgan doing a guest shot on (I believe) “The New Truth or Consequences” when he hadn’t even bothered to change his very loud shirt from show to show. Now, that’s dealing with pressure.
According to historian Dyball, who in turn quotes Barris’s account, the star took over direction from his co-writer Robert Downey Sr., who knew a thing or twelve himself about big-screen oddities (in 1970, I managed to catch a screening of Downey’s barely even shown Pound, with actors voicing canine characters as they wait out the days until they’re put down). At some point in a shooting schedule that was more or less chronological, Barris took over the entire project and apparently later conceded that this was the point where the result went south. The movie’s vanity project dimension can still drop a jaw, but (as a fan of the show), the included skits still make me laugh, and there are a lot of them. And by the way, I still love the ’50s RCA Victor hits by Jaye P. Morgan — though when I once mentioned to a former USA Today colleague and classical music enthusiast that I always thought her a good singer, he looked at me as if he’d just caught me in a threesome with the Bait Brothers.
Also by the way, it’s likely true that fans accosted the real-life Barris at the urinal because Johnny Carson said the same thing happened to him. And as a former national film critic, I can at least tell you that one of my former dentists liked to talk about film when he had me trapped and my mouth jammed with the standard paraphernalia. I thought this last was impressive until I mentioned it to a female work colleague who replied, “You should be like me and have your gynecologist bringing up movies when he has you in the stirrups.” That one really shut me up, gotta say.