The revival of “The Gong Show” on ABC (10 p.m. Thursdays) would seem to be about as low-brow as TV can go.
Like the original version from the 1970s, the 21st century edition has a smarmy host, celebrity judges and contestants who believe they have talent. Sometimes they really do. And sometimes they do the kinds of bizarre singing and rapping and carrying on we might do when, say, we’re home alone and feeling frisky.
Only they’re doing it on national TV before a weekly audience averaging 3 million.
But I would argue that “The Gong Show” is not as low-brow as it seems. Four episodes in, it is emerging as TV’s most brilliant example of theater of the absurd.
For starters, there’s the host, a lantern-jawed British comic named Tommy Maitland. He is really obnoxious. But he is not real. He is Mike Myers of “Saturday Night Live” and “Austin Powers” fame, encased in prosthetics and unafraid to make the worst jokes imaginable. We’re laughing at this simulacrum — or is he laughing at us through his fake skin?
Then there are the contestants.
A recent episode featured a contortionist who wrapped his limbs into pretzels; a fake-bearded band called Meshugga Beach Party that played “Hava Nagila” with a surf vibe, and a mum clown who swallowed razor blades.
And they were the talented ones. There’s also the woman who wore a cat-eared hat and purred “Meow, meow, meow, wet food.” As judge Tracee Ellis Ross frequently wonders: “What is happening?”
You may tell yourself you’re going to tune out. Yet you watch the full hour because you’re curious to see what will come next. Most likely it will be something typically not seen on TV, like a striptease performer in a bear suit or a man who puts on a pig face and hollers, “Sooo-eeeey.”
When a performer is truly awful, the judges hit the gong and the act is over. Ungonged contestants earn 1 to 10 points. And each week, the winner gets a check for $2,000.17, which seems exactly the right amount for a preposterous exercise in public humiliation.
Read more of Marc’s musings: