It's the immortal story. It's the human comedy. It's a 350-pound woman burping in rhythm, a man who eats a banana to the theme from "2001," an 80-year-old diva so deaf she doesn't know the band has stopped playing and the audience is shouting for her to get off the stage.
"Almost live" from Hollywood, it's "The Gong Show," a merciless variation on the old Amateur Hour and a bedazzling fantasia in humiliation that has become the most talked-about program on daytime television, and has spawned a nighttime version that makes its Washington bow on Channel 9 at 7:30 tonight.
"The Gong Show" is loud, shameless and vulgar, but it's not like any other game show on the air. People make fools of themselves, but not for Amana freezers. They do it for the incomparable thrill of fleeting fame. "The Gong Show" is dedicated to the proposition that people will do almost anything to get on television.
Part blue-collar "Chorus Line," part sideshow, part Christian dinner for hungry lions, "Gong" is like "Talent Scouts" without the talent, where worse is more and the lousier the act, the funnier, and more fascinating, the program. Each act gets about a minute and a half to perform, and after 45 seconds, if they're really stinko, one of three celebrity panelists can whack an Oriental gong that dispatches them back to oblivion. A shouting studio audience often insists upon this. The curtain goes down, the performers leave the stage.
"I really feel for those people. I feel for them greatly," says Chuck Barris, 47, whose past TV creations include "The Dating Game" and "The Newlywed Game," and who is host as well as executive producer for the daytime "Gong Show" on NBC. "These are strange people. Some of them are borderline nuts. But they're not phony. They're putting it on the line. I admire their guts, because I could never do what they do myself. It's Iwo Jima out there, and they're stark naked."
Barris took over as host of the show when the slick announcer type first hired proved he "just didn't understand the concept." What is the concept? On a recent program, Barris read a letter from a viewer who criticized its "tasteless and sadistic sick video humor.
"You got it!" laughed Barris. "Somebody finally grasped this show!" The audience cheered.
NBC has just moved the daytime version of "The Gong Show" to 4 p.m., on most stations, because during the summer it became apparent that the show is very popular with children. The syndicated nighttime version is not as good because it is hosted not by Barris but by former "Laugh-In" announcer Gary Owen.
On the surface "The Gong Show" may look cruel, but one has to keep in mind that those people cut there dressed in diapers or pouring spinach and jelly on themselves are doing it voluntarily. They can't really be in it for the money, because the top prize in the daytime is purposefully low $516.32 ($175.05 at night).
Actually, "The Gong Show" is probably less demeaning to its participants than game shows that require shrieking and groveling for a Mr. Coffee machine or a trip to Puerto Vallarta. It's also much more entertaining and sometimes, in some crazy show-biz way, moving.
"Cruel? That's baloney," says Madeleine David, director of daytime programs for NBC and champion of "The Gong Show."
"People who go on the show know that it's in fun," David says. "The show does have kind of a strange following. It's a show people love to hate to watch, or hate to love to watch, but they watch it. It has a charm no other show has."
David put "Gong" on the air even after it flunked a dry-run test with a guinea-pig audience in a market research lab. "In fact," David recalls, "'The Gong Show' tested the poorest of any daytime show we ever tested. It was strictly garbage-can time. But it got on the air because enough people around here cared about it and believe in it."
"People call it sadistic," scoffs Barris, in an office filled with toys, drums and bottles of Perrier water. "But what it's basically doing is fulfilling some kind of fantasy that these people can live on for a long time. They are going to be seen coast-to-coast!
But aren't they kind of sad, the star-Eternal Struggle in Art is to Forget struck folks with their home-made props and hopeless hopes of glory? "Why look upon these things as sad?" says Baris. "Most of them know they're never going to be anything in show business, so what? Even a good person, so he's good, but what's he gonna do next week? What fascinates me is the mentality of those people, what makes them think they're good."
Barris does not feel the experience of being gonged on the "The Gong Show" will warp anybody. Being seen is its own reward. "And besides," he says, "what was so great about their lives before?"
There are many framed mottos on Barris's walls. One of them says, "The Eternal Struggle in Art is to Forget Everything but the Essential."
If "The Gong Show" itself can be a tremendous hoot, the audtions for it can be an ordeal - an Our Gang comedy set in Dante's Inferno. On a recent Friday morning, Barris himself auditioned 25 acts for "The Gong Show" in a brightly lit but basically bare back room of an abandoned Hollywood restaurant. All the performers had already passed a preliminary audition with "The Gong Show" staff. About 10 per cent of those who first apply actually make it to the air.
Barris watched restlessly - sometimes jumping up to play an electric guitar - as they passed before him: a hippie singer, an inept mime, a transsexual harmonica player, a man who did a feeble Jimmy Carter impersonation, a skinny Jimi Hendrix look-alike who played guitar behind his back, a young lad in glitter and spangles who tap-danced and twirled "poiballs" on strings, a one-armed man who sang about Satan, and "The Liberty Kids" in red, white and blue, who did cartwheels and splits to a patriotic medley and ended their act by holding up a big silver banner that said, "Spirit of '76."
Most of these acts were pathetic, but one or two actually showed promise. You don't have to be bad to be on the show. Barris books a few good acts because "The good acts make the bad acts look worse." It's the clinkers that draw the viewers, however.
Most of those auditioning for Barris look shaky and terrified. Some try to patronize Barris ("I guess I'll be seeing you on TV all this week," said the hippie), other try to impress him ("We were in the Tinseltown Follies," bragged one half of a comedy duo). Barris works with each act in order to tighten or brighten it up; he negotiated with a tap dancer for half an hour before learning that the guy wouldn't even be in town for the taping of the show. He actually just wanted to do nothing more than audition.
The red-haired, middle-aged woman claiming to be a transsexual had spieced up her stale harmonica act with a selection of dirty jokes.Barris told her which lines would have to go. "Yeah, the line is bad - out!" Said the woman, in obsequious agreement.She left the room telling Barris, "Love the show! You're doin' a lotta good for a lotta people."
But the highlight of the morning was portly, 65-year-old Dora Romani, who burst into the room in her silvertrimmed pink dress and told Barris, "I'm a-gonna sing 'Butcher Boy.' I don't know one note of music. I been singing all my life by ear. I even dance by ear."
A giant pink flower was tucked in her pure white hair.
She sang with such gusto that nearly everyone in the room got up to dance. Barris shouted, "Bravo! Fortissimo!" and asked Dora if she could sing "That's Amore." Dora said, "I sing 'That's Amore' out of this world!" And with that, she leaped in the song with her arms wide open: "WHENNNNNN THE moon hits you eye like a bigga pizza pie . . ."
When Barris told Dora she would definitely be on TV she was elated. "Million people're going to listen!" she exclaimed. "I'm here in this country 45 years and I sing all the time, but never on television!" Later she confided, "Listen, nobody can beat me. I'm not bragging - it just comes natural to me. It's a gift. I was born that way, I might as well use it. I dance, too. Out of this world. And - you ought to see my food!"
Barris likes to sound tough and cynical in his office, but at auditions and on the show you can see he cares about the contestants, expecially those who are about to die, the ones most likely to be gonged. He'll even try to save an act himself. When three gospel singers were bombing, Barris appeared behind them on crutches, then thossed them away as if saved by a miracle. The crowd loved it.
"And then we got all these letters from the stupid public about how sacrilegious it was," he groans from behind a desk that dwarfs him. "You know, the world is really lacking humor out there in that friggin' wasteland."
Suddenly he stops talking because it is time for "The Gong Show" on television. He turns the set's volume up full blast and hears himself introduce an act by saying, "Here's an 83-year-old grandmother. She's young at heart but crazy in the head." The audience boos the woman as she sings, but, perhaps because she is singing "Oh God, be merciful," she escapes the gong.
She is followed by a terrible dancer, a terrible comic, a terrible singer and a teenage girl whose klutzy tap dance is interrupted by the gong but who does not leave the stage before mouthing those two immortal words that millions years to say on television: "HI, MOM." Barris, watching from his desk, laughs.
"The Gong Show" is life itself.