Thursday, March 6, 2014

Cool Ass Comedies: The Gong Show Movie (1980) review


Chuck Barris (Chuck Barris), Robin Altman (Robin "Red" Altman), James B. Douglas (Buddy Didlo), Mabel King (Mabel), Murray Langston (The Unknown Comic), Vincent Shiavelli (Mario Romani), Rip Taylor (Restaurant Maitre D'), Jamie Farr (herself), Jaye P. Morgan (herself), Della Barris (herself), Gene Patton (Gene Gene the Dancing Machine), The Bait Brothers (themselves), Rosey Grier (himself), Danny DeVito (himself), Tony Randall (himself), Phil Hartman (man in airport), Kitten Natividad (herself), and MORE STUFF!

Directed by Chuck Barris

The Short Version: Chuck Barris co-writes, directs, stars and sings in this pseudo-documentary style comedy misfire logging what it's like to be Chuck Barris, creator of one of the most controversial and successful game shows, the talent(less) game show contest, THE GONG SHOW. Barris tries to be serious at times, but his GONG-a-maniacs keep getting in the way. The jokes come fast and furious, but mostly crash and burn -- much like the actual GONG SHOW itself. Lots of good-natured sleaze and familiar faces are seen in archival material. Barris's hat collection co-stars.

***WARNING! This review contains nudity, trashy imagery and MORE STUFF!***

"I never considered taste or intelligence in my shows. My thrust was always entertaining the lowest common denominator." -- Chuck Barris, People Magazine, June 2nd, 1980 

Chuck Barris tries to maintain his sanity and private life between keeping The Gong Show afloat and dealing with a tidal wave of nutty acts, gonged, disgruntled contestants, and an eccentric, omnipresent network executive who likes to say, "pardon the expression"

"You know, I watch that stupid show of yours every day before I go to work. First I put on the coffee, then I put on my TV, and then I watch your stupid show. That is the dumbest thing."

Watching THE GONG SHOW MOVIE (1980) is much like watching The Gong Show itself; or a ninety minute version of it with all the profanity and trash elements left in. It's basically one long running gag as we follow Barris around and every weirdo desperate for stardom follows him around to. Virtually everywhere he goes passersby and public workers instantly break out in some (often) horrific act in the hope they'll get a spot on his game show. He can't get no satisfaction, no lunch, and no respect. The man can't even take vacation in the Moroccan desert without some schmuck bringing an entire entourage to perform in front of him.

"You've been working on that loony bin show for so long, it's driving you crazy, and you don't even know it!"

When it's not depicting THE GONG SHOW as the professional wrestling of the game show world, Barris's movie acts as an autobiographical representation of his troubled TV show, and Barris's life in particular. Judging by all the wild things written about him over the years, it's difficult to know what to believe, or even take him seriously, and he probably prefers it that way. Barris, mercilessly accosted by assorted nutcases who will do anything to be on the title game show, depicts himself as tired, overworked, "mad at the world", and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. If all this was going on behind the scenes, he disguises it extremely well on TV what with his constant smiling, clapping his hands, hats pulled down over his face, and fumbled lines. Many speculated he was either drunk, or on drugs. Barris has denied all that, but one could never say he didn't know how to throw one helluva party!

"Once upon a time, Charles, The Gong Show was a symphony of entertainment, but now, The Gong Show is The Goon Show! Cheap jokes, filthy language... Jaye P. exposing herself, transvestites... adolescent girls giving, pardon the expression, head to Popsicles!" 

As for the show, viewers knew what they were getting, and it was free on television. The movie is much the same thing, if trashier; only here you were having to pay for it up on the big screen. This might be why "judges" gonged it at the box office. The comedy is all over the map, and as chaotic as the show with absolutely zero balance. The running gag (and it literally runs the duration of the entire movie) of Barris being approached, threatened, and mobbed by over-excited fans gets about as tired as Barris looks throughout. It's not a total gong'er, as some genuinely funny moments emerge, and the bulk of these are born out of the painful antics of Gong Show contestants -- a number of which raised a stir and were censored for one reason or another.

"Our next act is a big disappointment!"

One of the funniest bits is a flaccid rendition of 'Amazing Grace'; and while the man drones onward, Barris comes into the background on crutches. He then tosses them aside as if he's been healed, praise be to He, and summarily falls forward on his face.

There's also a singing dog, a man tied to a cross Christ-like indolently belting out Englebert Humperdinck's 'Please Release Me (Let Me Go)'; a man pouring a glass full of raw eggs down his pants; tap-dancing with roller skates on; more people singing badly; repeated offenses by The Unknown Comic; a little bit of Gene Gene the Dancing Machine leading into Jaye P. Morgan's infamous breast baring; and the equally notorious Popsicle sucking act where two young girls simulated fellatio with ice-cold treats on live television.

Sadly, we're denied the old clip of Paul Reubens being 'Suave and Debonaire' in his double song and dance number with John Paragon (The Breather on ELVIRA'S MOVIE MACABRE and Jambi on THE PEE WEE HERMAN SHOW); or any of Reubens' GONG appearances for that matter. Interestingly enough, Reubens would create his famous Pee Wee Herman character with the aid of his friend, Phil Hartman -- who has a small role here as a weird character (he can do a great Baryshnikov impersonation) in an airport openly holding a handgun behind an oblivious, and disinterested Barris. Both Hartman and Paragon joined Reubens as part of the cast of his PEE WEE'S PLAYHOUSE television series from the mid 1980s.

The Unknown Comic, alias Murray Langston, pops up periodically delivering dozens of dirty jokes; occasionally at the expense of Chuck Barris. Having worked with a lot of big comedy names prior to his GONG SHOW appearances, he made his name as the rapid fire jokester with the bag over his head on Barris's raunchy program. 

According to Langston, the whole 'bag on the head' schtick came by accident as he said he was embarrassed to be going from THE SONNY AND CHER show to doing THE GONG SHOW -- where people actors and comedians went when they needed money. It ended up being his big break. Langston, as The Unknown Comic eventually became the Farrah Fawcett of the poster world with a risque photo displaying his naked body with both a bag on his head, and on his penis. The lewd image cameos in the film over the Comics headboard. He also wrote and starred in Jackie Kong's hilarious, and vulgar NIGHT PATROL (1984).

This wild, out of control quasi-variety cum game show did have other stars surface from the muck of its generally gutter-level acts. Singer Cheryl Lynn, comedian Steve Martin, rock band Oingo Boingo, and Michael Winslow appeared on the Gong Show prior to making it big. The big prize for humiliating yourself on this precursor to AMERICA'S GOT TALENT and JACKASS was the grant total of $516.32. Still, everybody including the judges were having a ton of fun. And that may be where the movie fumbles -- it's rarely fun. The film itself is one big joke at Barris's expense. He's the butt of many jokes, taking it on the chin around every corner. You don't know whether to laugh or cry. 

"I think I just don't like to do The Gong Show any more. In fact, I HATE doing The Gong Show. Everybody thinks of me now as some kind of a clown, you know... buffoon, an idiot jumpin' around the damn stage like a damn fool. I'd just like to do something meaningful."

What's problematic with THE GONG SHOW MOVIE (1980) is it wants to be both funny and meaningful. It wants to show the frenzied nature of The Gong Show while detailing what Barris is seemingly going through while trying to hold both the show, and his sanity together. Perhaps that's why he frequently wore his array of hats pulled down over his face -- to hide his embarrassment. Still, to make his statement, there wasn't much choice but to throw everything at the screen to see what would stick. It's just an odd marriage of seriousness and slapstick camaraderie. In putting his frustration up on screen, Barris (who also co-wrote the film and composed the score) put his girlfriend (and later wife) Robin Altman, and his daughter Della in front of the camera, too.

Some of the in-film acts are right hilarious. The movie culminates in multiple song and dance numbers -- one of them in the desert when all of Barris's associates, friends and cohorts try to coerce him to return to his wild and wooly program. What follows this grand musical number set against Morocco's desert sands is a montage of gleeful offensiveness like 'The Vatican Rag', featuring a singing priest and three men in drag; two fat women called The Siamese Connection let rip their rendition of 'Love Will Keep Us Together'. Cue onslaught of Unknown Comic dirty jokes. Following that it's a man dressed like Dracula playing a banjo while hanging upside down, and a man who makes animal sounds with his ass just prior to blowing out a candle with a fart.

Other than The Gong Show, Chuck Barris was the mastermind behind such perennial favorites and forgotten gems like THE DATING GAME, THE $1.98 BEAUTY SHOW, THE NEWLYWED GAME and THREE'S A CROWD (not the mid 80s Three's Company spin-off). THE GONG SHOW will likely remain the series he's most closely associated with. 

At the time of THE GONG SHOW MOVIE's release, Barris hinted at a second movie (non-GONG related) that never materialized. His sole directorial effort has remained in obscurity since its theatrical release having yet to surface on any video or digital format. It's a quirky anomaly that's worth seeing at least once for curiosity seekers, and those who are fond of seeing people embarrass themselves. If you remember the show at all, or were even a fan, get your mallet ready, get it on, and bang a gong with this 89 minute theatrical sideshow from 1980.

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