The Gong Show Movie

By Adam Lippe

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Several years before The King of Comedy flopped (which wasn’t acknowledged as ahead of its time until The Larry Sanders Show had already caused it to be dated), writer/director/star Chuck Barris and co-writer Robert Downey Sr. covered the same material by giving us an inside look at how often the host of a variety show gets hassled by the general public, and how hard it is to be famous. The immense effect that the movie had on the populace was clear, as it was pulled from theaters within a week and has never been released on video or DVD.

The fact that Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories was rejected the same year is indicative of how people felt about being told that they were annoying and couldn’t they just leave the hermit/celebrities alone? It wouldn’t be cool to talk about how much you hated your fans for at least another ten years.

The Gong Show Movie is a mix of scenes where Barris looks exhausted from his hectic schedule and having to be stopped all the time by everyone and anyone trying to show how talented they are so they can appear on his show (the point seems to be that they all lack tact, hence even when he just wants a cup of coffee, or to visit a dying friend in the hospital, the doctors interrupt him to perform their acts) and clips from the more outrageous material that was censored on the real television show which plays exactly like a “Too Hot For TV” episode does now. In this case, it is obviously put in to distinguish the movie from the TV show by garnering an R rating (relatively tame as the movie is).

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Obviously, this is an enormous vanity project; does Barris really want us to feel sorry for him, and do we really believe that his life is constantly interrupted by people stopping him on the street as often as he presents here? By using real clips and playing himself, or at least some version of himself, it certainly suggests that he does. But could it be more satirical than that? It is possible that Barris, who plays the role as if he was unwittingly thrown into the job as host of the show (despite being the creator/producer as well, he acts as if he was the only man for the job because no one else wanted it), is actually saying that he, like the talentless who appear on the stage adjacent to him, and perhaps seeing into the future by predicting the numerous reality shows, doesn’t deserve the attention he has been given, because he isn’t special for any reason. This would be backed up by the way he presents himself, always hiding his face beneath a variety of hideous and gaudy hats while introducing acts. It also fits in with Downey’s career long mocking of media culture.

I’m kind of split on how I see it, because on one hand, there are a handful of attempts at jokes, either slapstick (badly directed slapstick) or Barris’ pained “Why Me?” mugs to the camera whenever he is stopped or has to deal with a calamity*. On the other hand, there are a number of strange, surreal moments, such as a random musical in the Moroccan desert, featuring all the characters, one of the studio heads showing up at inopportune times to ask Barris to tone down the show to avoid dropping in the ratings, even if he admits there has been no “slippage,” and the fact that Barris’ secretary has her mother with her at all times, because “I tell her to go home, but she forgot where she lives.”

Perhaps because of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, this will eventually get put out, but I’m not sure there is much clamoring for it.

gongshow2* One particularly strange scene halfway through the movie has his 16 year old daughter (previously unmentioned and creepy as Barris lives with a significantly younger female lover, they refer to each other as roommates) arrive at his office to tell him she’s getting married. She says she realizes she’s met the right guy and sometimes, when you fall in love with the right person, you just know. And in walks this enormous(ly threatening) 30 year old black guy, who embraces her and introduces himself to Barris. The camera angle on him is so low as to make the guy look 8 feet tall, and Barris gives us a “What the hell is going on here?” look. To be fair, the sequence doesn’t seem patently racist, he seems more upset that his underage daughter is getting married on a whim. But the racial thing seems to put the disastrous event over the top, at least in the way the shot is framed.

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By Adam Lippe

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Featured Quote (written by me)

On Cold Fish:

Though the 16 year old me described the 1994 weepie Angie, starring Geena Davis as a Brooklyn mother raising her new baby alone, as “maudlin and melodramatic,” Roger Ebert, during his TV review, referring to the multitude of soap-operaish problems piling up on the titular character, suggested that it was only in Hollywood where Angie would get a happy ending. “If they made this movie in France, Angie would have shot herself.”

Well Cold Fish was made in Japan, where Angie would have shot herself and that would have been the happy ending.