Chuck Barris (as himself) works in television, a fact that gives him a headache seemingly every waking hour thanks to the TV show he is best known for creating and hosting: The Gong Show. This talent contest takes the form of inviting mostly amateurs on to perform their acts, and if the panel don’t like them they bang a gong to stop the act continuing. However, for this to run as long as it has, it needs a steady stream of contestants, and Chuck finds himself interrupted from whatever he is trying to do in his day to day life by wannabes who demand they be listened to by him with a view to appearing on the show. This is becoming an increasing imposition on his life, so what should he do to cope?
Considering this movie version of the cult, camp favourite comedy show arrived the year the original run of the series ended for good, you might have expected it to be a final kiss goodbye from Barris to showbiz, and on this evidence a none too fond one at that, though records indicate that he was still trying to reclaim his past glories as a legendary game show king (with such titles as The Newlywed Game to his name) well into the nineteen-eighties. This was for sure: he certainly wasn’t going to make it as a movie star or even moviemaker, as in 1980 The Gong Show Movie was a notorious flop that even fans of the small screen incarnation were uninterested in, especially when Barris appeared to have nothing but disdain for it.
Not helping was that this was not a feature length talent show with series regulars Jamie Farr and Jaye P. Morgan gonging off acts too racy for the box, but a more navel-gazing examination of what it’s like to mix with the lowest rung of showbiz from someone who had actually done very well out of it. Yet what sank like a stone back then turns out to be oddly fascinating now in the twenty-first century, especially for those who liked their vintage movies with a particular gonzo sensibility. Barris showed clips of material from the show, some of it considered too much for its daytime slot such as the infamous footage of Morgan performing an impromptu strip that saw her briefly topless, and also audition footage from the sort of person who thought performance art containing the poem “Here I sit all broken-hearted, tried to shit but only farted” was appropriate.
Depending on your sense of humour, this was inane trash or absolutely, weirdly, how did this get on TV funny, and it was true the movie had a very specialist audience, even more so when George Clooney chose Barris’s autobiography Confessions of a Dangerous Mind as his directorial debut. Though that film fell from the public consciousness fairly quickly, the notion that the eccentric, haphazard Barris could have been a C.I.A. contract killer as he claimed made this supposedly autobiographical effort all the more intriguing, but it should be pointed out at no point during the course of the movie did he perform a hit on anyone, or do anything remotely spy based. The C.I.A. denied any involvement with him anyway, which will have you either observing an unshocked “No shit!” or a suspicious “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?”
What you did get in a script co-written by Robert Downey Sr was an abundance of repetitive scenes of the hero harassed at every turn by what would best be described as maniacs, Chuck being such a distinctive individual that he’s instantly recognisable and attracts nutters like flies. He complains about this to his girlfriend Red (Robin Altman, his actual second wife) and his boss (James B. Douglas) who wants the show toned down, though his solution proves just as idiosyncratic as the rest of it, not to mention an excuse for another example of the director’s songs (he could pen tunes as well). Along the way were cameos from the type of celeb you might expect such as Rip Taylor, Harvey Lembeck and Rosey Grier (engaged to Barris’s teenage daughter in a gag rather sadder to see now as she died young of an overdose) and a longsuffering take on the business of entertainment which nevertheless would be absorbing for pop culture aficionados. Plus there were a lot of funny bits in it, with The Unknown Comic delivering a hilarious routine to end on that would never have made it to television. The appreciative audience may have been small for The Gong Show Movie, but they would be very glad it existed.