Ho ho howdy folkses! Welcome to the Ninth Day of The Twelve Days of Shitmas! Last time we explored what happens when a bunch of pig-feet-eating Quebecors get hold of some sweet corporate cash with instructions to film a tax write-off disguised as a Christmas movie. Today we have an annual Christmas episode of a popular variety program that's pretty much representative of the series as a whole, but with a few extra trappings of the holiday season added to make it more special.

Jingle Smells provided at no extra cost.

We're posting a new review of a different Christmas special every other day, culminating in what we consider the worst of the bunch on Christmas morning. Today's feature is part of a long, time-honored tradition in American entertainment that goes back decades and generations, updated with a few silly surprises and a whole lot of wacky fun. It's the perfect, light-hearted aperitif before we unleash the multi-course glutton-fest of seasonal confusion that is our final three Shitmas feasts.

The Gong Show was the brainchild of songwriter, game show producer and showman Chuck Barris, who sought to bring the wild world of wince-worthy amateur talent contests to daytime TV, replete with a mixture of mostly homemade, often weird and frequently terrible acts, and the innuendo-laced, cheap-o humor you'd get at any $2 cover-at-the-door stage show in any nightclub or strip joint, in any small town in America. Added to this was a panel of three celebrity judges with the power to stop any act they didn't like with a whack of a huge mallet on a giant gong. The end result was a madcap entertainment experience that became an indelible part of 1970's television history.

Despite efforts by network executives to sabotage the program through time-slot changes and ongoing pressure to force Barris to water down his freewheeling, balls-to-the-wall style, the daytime show became a respectable hit and spawned a prime-time syndicated version that actually outlived its daytime counterpart by almost three years.

I'm a proud and unabashed fan of The Gong Show and I've always believed its ethos and aesthetic align perfectly with our own mission here at Million Monkey Theater. I'm thrilled to include the 1977 Christmas Episode in our Twelve Days of Shitmas holiday extravaganza.

As with every Gong Show episode, we begin with a shot of the logo at the top of the proscenium as the announcer declares "From Hollywood...Almost Live! It's The Gong Show!" This is followed by the introduction of Chuck Barris, usually by his Swedish model girlfriend, his daughter or occasionally a stand-in from the show's staff.

The Gong Show band is a tight and professional outfit made up of career professionals and conducted by musical director Milton DeLugg, who had his own travelling big band in the 1940's. They play the theme and incidental music and accompany some of the acts, occasionally even appearing in sketches or other weird bits cooked up by Barris and his writers to keep the audience and judges on their toes.

Chucky Baby!

Barris' schtick is infectiously silly, with his goofy hats, odd mannerisms, bad jokes and frequent punctuative handclaps that the audience anticipates and tries to clap along with. He'll sometimes pretend to admonish them, saying "Stop that!" or "Hush-up now!" and at least once in each program he'll start a clap but stop halfway, fooling the audience into clapping anyway. He creates a party-like atmosphere that's full of in-jokes and familiar elements but also with an edgy sense of mayhem and unpredictability. Best of all he encourages the audience to become an integral part of the fun.

First up in today's episode is an act called "Mammy," a parody of the famous Al Jolson minstral routine from the 1920's. A guy comes out dressed like Jolson, with the exaggerated, offensively stereotypical African American accent and horrid blackface minstral makeup, done here in green "so as not to offend anybody out dey-ah!"

I feel Dave Chappelle would appreciate this.

I like Al Jolson as a singer, and I even have a couple of compilation CDs, but I acknowledge that his act was full of inexcusable racism and some embarrassingly mawkish material. He was part of an old vaudeville tradition of mixing what is now considered offensive ethnic comedy with shameless pathos and sentimentality. Obviously that kind of thing hasn't aged too well.

He doesn't get too much airtime these days.

Our performer's Jolson impression is only middling, but he's more interested in skewering what was by 1977 a stale relic of Hollywood's past. After he sings a bit about traveling around, how the sun shines east and the sun shines west but that Mammy's home is where the sun shines best, "Mammy" herself shuffles out to scold him like a Jewish mother from a bad sitcom.

"Ya left seventy years ago and ya never sent a penny!"

It's a funny idea but not particularly well-executed, and the audience reaction is mixed to mostly negative. I kept waiting for the tell-tale sound of the gong but it never came. I later discovered that Barris had a policy of banning the gong for Christmas.

The act concludes and we meet "our little celebrities."

The first is a series regular and one of the supporting players from M*A*S*H*, Jamie Farr.

He gives "Mammy" a 9.

Insert your own joke about his enormous honker here. Chuck always does.

Now we meet the most notorious of the regular panelists, saucy singer, sultry sexpot, and, according to Chuck's intro, author of the bestselling memoir "51 Ways to Heat a Knockwurst," Jaye P. Morgan.

Like Jamie, she awards the act a 9.

Jaye was eventually banned by the network for exposing her breasts to the audience during a taping of the show.

Next up is TV personality and Password game show host Allen Ludden.

He also rates "Mammy" 9.

I hear big, square wire-frame glasses are making a comeback.

Clearly the compliments of the season and the copious quantities green room booze have left our panel in a generous frame of mind.

The total score for "Mammy" is 27 out of a possible 30.

Next up is "The Wit Brothers," a comedy trio who perform an old-fashioned, fast-paced song-and-dance-and-jokes routine of the sort popular in the 1930's and 40's.

One of the things I find fascinating about The Gong Show is how it simultaneously honors, parodies and deconstructs time-honored Hollywood tropes. The 70's were the last decade for traditional TV variety shows and Barris and his crew seemed to see the writing on the wall. They frequently chose acts that pilloried what was, unbeknownst to many industry professionals at the time, a form getting ready to keel over and breathe its last.

"The Wit Brothers," Nit, Half and Dimm.

It's a purposely hokey mix of celebrity impressions and silly one-liners that much like "Mammy" is a better idea in theory than it is in practice, but they're energetic and enthusiastic enough that it's hard not to root for them. These are all amateur performers and although some acts seem to actually believe they're destined for stardom, most are self-aware enough to be in on the show's central joke.

These guys know they're shit
but they roll with it.

Again, the Christmas spirit erodes the judges' discernment and good taste. "The Wit Brothers" get the maximum score of 30.

The next act is a woman named "Hana Arazzi," who gets a long, rambling buildup from Chuck, only to come out and perform a horrendous, barely-audible and tuneless whistling routine. The vultures in the audience almost immediately start howling in disapproval, but she whistles on, undaunted and seemimgly protected by holiday policy from the dreaded gong.

It's a good thing they didn't have any rotten tomatoes or this lady would be covered in marinara.

Suddenly a marching band comes out from the wings, led by Barris himself in a majorette's shako, and they march right past an utterly unfazed Ms. Arazzi. They march directly at the camera as we cut to a commercial break.

Yes, folks, we have been punk'd.

You never knew when one of the acts would turn out to be a fake and part of the fun was the unpredictability of it. No potential act was too weird or too shitty for The Gong Show, so it was almost impossible to predict which were planted by Barris and which were real until you got his proverbial wink and nod to give it away.

Back from the break we get "Freda Coker," an older woman with the comic timing of a gall bladder attack, who comes out in an absurd white pantsuit, platinum blonde wig and feather boa. She mumbles through a rambling spittoon-full of hackneyed one-liners, like Phyllis Diller's drug-addled and talentless alien doppleganger.

More like Freda Coke fiend amiright?

The audience is openly hostile, but she attepts to soldier on, eventually forgetting her lines and standing in awkward silence for almost 30 seconds, pleading with her eyes for one of the judges to gong her off the stage. Finally the band shows some mercy and plays her outro music.

Ludden seems to know a washed-up train wreck when he sees one.

The judges give her an unenthusiastic and pity-drenched 22.

Chuck comes out with one of famously terrible jokes now, saying "Our next performer loves Art, but as luck would have it Art is going steady with Leon."


He gets a signal from off-stage to stretch the intro, and trues to improvise a bit, imploring the audience three times to "Gimme a 'B.'" And what does that spell?


Now we get an act called "Mack Semi," which consists of a guy playing a piano and singing a song about being a cross-country trucker. His hook is that he's wearing a huge cardboard truck cab on his head.

It features a Fisher Price "Little People" figurine of Ernie from Sesame Street as a hood ornament.

This guy certainly has a gimmick but he really can play and sing. The Gong Show band backs him up with some plucky guitar and a driving rhythm section, and you can tell by about 15 seconds in that unless something else extraordinary happens this guy is probably going to win the competition.

"Mack Semi" gets a 30. No surprise there.

Chuck now removes his tie and shirt, revealing a big yellow hockey jersey emblazoned with his catch phrase:

Back in the day you could buy a Gong Show t-shirt with this on it...what a time to be alive!

When we come back from commercial we get a group called "In Case," consisting of a lead vocalist and two guitarists. They sing the Beatles' "You're Gonna Lose That Girl."

It's competent in a high-school dance sort of way and the two guitarists are pretty good at harmonizing, but the lead singer has dull, flat phrasing without a hint of nuance or personality.

That weak 'stache doesn't help, either.

"In Case" scores a 22, which is probably about right.

Chuck begins to introduce the next act when suddenly we hear the unmistakable intro to the single most beloved and anticipated part of any Gong Show episode. The band starts playing Count Basie's famous "Jumpin' at the Woodside" and Chuck feigns enthusiastic astonishment as he introduces "Gene, Gene the Dancing Machine!"

Festooned for the holidays in his Santa attire!

As Gene Gene shuffles and punches the air, various bits of junk are tossed onstage from the wings. He just kicks anything that gets in his path right out of his way and keeps on dancing.

It is impossible to overstate how popular this man and this segment became amongst fans of the show.

Eugene Patton, Sr. was not a performer but a stagehand, whose job consisted of clearing and sweeping the stage between acts. He was also historically important for being the very first African American to become a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees union. Chuck Barris saw him backstage doing his distinctive, shuffling dance during a musical segment during a taping of an early episode and asked him to do it on-air as part of the show.

Gene Gene's usual outfit was this distinctive cap and green jacket.

He immediately became a beloved part of the show and entered the cultural consciousness to the point that in 1997, seventeen years after The Gong Show's final episode, his retirement as a stage hand made national news.

To be honest my memories of my childhood are not always positive, but at my house the syndicated version of The Gong Show was can't-miss TV and we watched it together as a family. I was very young, but I vividly remember how keenly we looked forward to Gene Gene's silly dance routines. My father's name was also Gene, and much to our delight, he would jump up during each program and dance along with his TV counterpart. I treasure this memory of my dad, perhaps especially because we had an often-strained relationship, which was still unresolved at the time of his death.

Gene Gene's routine always turned into something of a party on-set, with Chuck dancing along on one side and the celebrity guests dancing along on the other. Once the stage was completely littered with detritus the show would cut to the final commercial break before the announcement of the winner and the awarding of the top prize: a Gong Show Trophy and a check for $516.32.

A word from our sponsor.

Today's contest was a tie between "The Wit Brothers" and "Mack Semi," so the judges decided the winner. Unsurprisingly they chose "Mack Semi."

Keep on truckin'.

This episode, as it happens, was broadcast on a Friday, so we also get to see the award of a dirty sock and a check for $516.32 to the "Most Outrageous Act of the Week," which in this case was two young women calling themselves "Nip and Tuck." We get a clip of them dancing back-to-back with their skirts sewn together, screeching out a horrendous a-capella rendition of "The Good Ship Lollipop."

I'm sorry I missed it.

A veritable avalanche of confetti and balloons drops down and Chuck leads the audience and guests in a sing-a-long of what he calls "a traditional Christmas song."

They sing "Easter Parade."

Sadly the daytime version of The Gong Show was forced off the air not long after this episode due to Barris' frequent battles with the network censors, and in 1980 the evening version was cancelled as collateral damage from a falling out Barris had with the network over a controversial game show called Three's a Crowd. That program involved a man's wife and secretary battling it out on air to determine which of them knew him better. It cause both a public outcry and and a private battle which Barris ultimately lost.

Several attempts have been made to bring back The Gong Show over the years with varying degrees of success, most recently in a Will Arnett-produced version that ran for two seasons on ABC in 2017-18. None of these revivals could quite capture the magic, energy and wild abandon of the original. Like The Match Game (which you must accept as the greatest game show in the entire history of the universe or be forever haunted by the ghost of Charles Nelson Reilly), it was the result of a perfect alignment of talent, culture and time and a particular type of brilliant lightning that simply cannot be put back in the bottle once it's gone.

Barris also wrote and directed The Gong Show Movie in 1980, which bombed hard at the box office, playing only a single weekend in a handful of theaters. I actually love it though, as it's one of those wrong-headed, navel-gazing vanity projects I just can't seem to get enough of.

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into one of the great, joyful entertainment experiences of the 1970's. Sadly The Gong Show is officially unavailable for home viewing, as renegotiating the music clearances is too onerous and costly a task to make a DVD release financially viable. Thankfully there are many episodes online, mostly recorded off-air during reruns, and some decent bootleg DVD collections ensuring this unique piece of Americana is not unjustly forgotten.

The End.

Merry Christmas, folkses.

Next Installment: December 21st.

As always, Cheers and thanks for reading!

Written by Bradley Lyndon in December 2019.

Questions? Comments? Expressions of disgust? Why not skip the middleman and complain to me directly?

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