Director: Chuck Barris
Tagline: “All the stuff Chuck Barris had to keep under his hat until now!”
Choice IMDB keywords: Man with no name, reference to Willie Bobo, reference to Chuck Berry, breaking a pencil, bag over head, flashing breasts, written by star
Plot: As Gong Show creator and host Chuck Barris goes through the daily business of leading television’s most prominent freak show, he wears a permanent look of world-weary resignation. He slouches drearily, his trademark fishing hat pulled low over his eyes to hide his ever-present shame.
Folks assume life as a big TV star is one big laugh. At the gym, an admirer played by football star (and future Hill Street Blues hunk) Ed Marinaro inquires, “So, what are you up to tonight, Chuckie-baby? Big première? Dinner with some movie star? Bang a few starlets?” But judging from the film, Barris’ life is a punishing slog through trash-culture hell as he’s hounded by freaks angling to audition for The Gong Show. Suffering through five tapings of The Gong Show in a single agonizing day, he frets that he’s personally responsible when an elderly contestant has a heart attack on the show.
Barris’ worries never cease. The Gong Show is being dropped by affiliates for obscene stunts like judge Jaye P. Morgan flashing her breasts, or the pair of fetching young ladies licking popsicles in a loving recreation of fellatio. Barris is speeding headfirst into a work-induced nervous breakdown, but he can’t quit out of concern for Gene Gene The Dancing Machine’s well-being and financial future. His life is his show and his show is driving him steadily insane.
Finally, Barris musters up the nerve to escape his golden shackles, and he buys a one-way ticket to Morocco. Not even the desert provides respite, however, as an executive eventually finds Barris and begs him to return to his show. To persuade Barris, he brings a battery of Gong Show all-stars (including Morgan, Gene Gene, The Unknown Comic, and Rip Taylor), the USC marching band, and Barris’ own daughter. The ploy succeeds. Depending on your perspective, that’s either a happy ending that finds Barris embracing his trashy destiny as an entertainer and temporary employer of morons, or a fate worse than death. Within the punishing context of the film, however, it’s definitely worse than death.
Key scenes: Barris’ life turns into a terrible vaudeville skit when he shows up at a hospital to visit the contestant who suffered a heart attack, and the old coot springs to life to show off his new routine. Barris flees in horror, only to be cornered by the poor man’s doctor, who advertises his services to Barris as a Gong Show contestant called “Dr. Jerry, The Singing Chef.”
The film’s 89-minute running time is padded out by uncensored “performances” from “entertainers” who presumably couldn’t meet the exacting standards of taste, quality, and decorum that characterized The Gong Show’s television incarnation. Not everyone, it seems, is qualified to appear even on what is widely considered one of the worst hit shows of all time. Yes, The Gong Show Movie offers the scintillating promise of The Gong Show, only with real-life profanity! And boobs! And profanity! Did we mention the profanity?
As if to prove 89 minutes can feel like a long time, the film treats viewers to a montage sequence chronicling the waking habits of a cross-section of The Gong Show’s most beloved personalities, including Morgan (who wakes up in a giant heart-shaped bed, alongside a softball team’s worth of male admirers) and The Unknown Comic (who wakes up alongside a paper-bag-wearing paramour).
Barris thinks he’s escaped the pressure and hassles of The Gong Show after he goes AWOL from his television baby, but his fame follows him, as evidenced by this scene where Barris tries to score a simple cup of coffee at a diner and is afflicted by the song-and-dance stylings of the “Diner Dolls,” gargoyle-faced greasy-spoon waitresses eager for a TV showcase. As this scene attests, The Gong Show Movie owes a heavy debt to Federico Fellini: Barris and co-writer Robert Downey Sr. (who specialized in a much more assured vein of surrealism in groundbreaking independent films like Putney Swope) are basically making an answer to 8 1/2, but with Rip Taylor.
Still, not every flaky would-be superstar here was destined for absolutely nothing. In one scene, a frighteningly young Phil Hartman manages to distinguish himself even in this bottomless pit of sour despair as a snappy-talking, gun-toting man at an airport (this was before 9/11, when it was considered an amusing eccentricity to bring a gun to an airport) eager to wow Barris with his dead-on impression of Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Can easily be distinguished by: It’s the film about Chuck Barris’ life and career that purposefully ignores Barris’ supposed sideline as a CIA hit man.
Sign it was made in 1980: A stand-up comedian played by a young Taylor Negron dates the film to the heyday of Valley-speak when he, like, totally quips, “I mean, I totally can’t believe Morris The Cat is dead and they’re still showing commercials! It totally bums me out to the max.” Amen, brother.
Timeless message: The only thing more joyless and depressing than watching The Gong Show—or ribald, uncensored outtakes from The Gong Show—is actually running The Gong Show.
Memorable quotes: The executive who won’t leave Barris alone complains of his show’s nonexistent standards: “Once, The Gong Show was a symphony of entertainment… [now it’s] The Goon Show! Bad jokes, filthy language, Jaye P. exposing herself! Transvestites! Adolescent girls giving, excuse the expression, head to popsicles!”