Best Chuck Barris 'Gong Show' Moments: Steve Martin, Pee Wee Herman, Oingo Boingo & More
Chuck Barris, who died on Tuesday (March 21) at age 87, made the world laugh, cringe and shake their heads during his time as the manic host of the beloved variety series The Gong Show. On any given night, you might see an unending parade of weird old cowboys, terrible burlesque dancers, guys pretending to choke for laughs, earnest folk singers, show regular Gene Gene the Dancing Machine, plus pre-fame guest judge David Letterman. And that was all in just one 1977 episode!
You just never knew what you were going to get on the show whose always wacky panel of judges ranged from such classic old school stars as June Allyson, Milton Berle and Ruth Buzzi to Adrienne Barbeau, Dione Warwick, Sarah Vaughan, Joan Rivers, Tony Randall, Johnny Paycheck, Martin Mull, Scatman Crothers, Wolfman Jack and Sinatra pal Peter Lawford.
Here are some of the most memorable moments from the show:
Cheryl Lynn: Before she became a disco queen, the "Got to Be Real" singer appeared on the show in early 1976 singing Joe Cocker's "You Are So Beautiful," which didn't win her the grand prize (she lost to a juggler), but did score her a recording contract the next year. Unfortunately, video of her moment is not available, but this is the alleged audio.
Popsicle Twins: In a bid to mess with censors, two scantily clad 17 year-olds came out and provocatively enjoyed popsicles to the hoots and hollers of the men in the crowd. Phyllis Diller gave it a zero, saying "I don't understand it altogether." The episode never aired on the West Coast, and Barris later said he regretted the stunt.
Steve Martin: The legendary comedian served as a guest panelist on one episode, and took the stage as "The Mad Banjo" to pluck on his instrument with a signature arrow through his head -- and again later in the same show as the "Wild Stringed Instrumentalist."
Oingo Boingo: The Danny Elfman-led "Dead Man's Party" group tried to impress a panel that included The Incredible Hulk star Bill Bixby, performing as The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. That's Elfman in the space ship costume with the kazoo leading the demented, dragon-fighting marching band.
Rhonda Shear: If you are of a certain age and spent way too many Friday nights watching USA Network's B-moive fest USA Up All Night, then you will surely remember its host, former Miss World and occasional Happy Days and Married... With Children Star Shear. This 1979 contortion act is classic Gong Show: terrible, super weird and slightly sexist.
Unknown Comic: We'll be honest, for as much screen time as Canadian actor/comic Murray Langston got for his bag-on-head schtick -- which reportedly came in head-hanging shame, as he needed a gig following years of appearances on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, The Midnight Special and The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour -- more than 150 episodes, we never really got the joke. Then again, that was kind of the point, eh?
The Evel Knievel show: With a loose theme for every episode, this 1977 one, "Evel Kneivel is a Crashing Bore!," was a classic. The show's incomparable lineup included a ragtime opening act with an original song called "Mama Don't Want to Let Me Go on the Gong Show," Tony Award-winning panelist Pearl Bailey, the usual compliment of Barris' wacky hats and the terrible disco-folk duo Carl and Ray.
Mare Winningham: When she was 16, the St. Elmo's Fire actress planned to sing a heartfelt cover of the Beatles' "Here, There & Everywhere" under her real name, only to get shouted down by a group of Girl Scouts in the audience. Luckily, judge and legendary singer/songwriter Paul Williams told the unruly Scouts to pipe down. Watch Winningham talk about it on The Tonight Show in 1980.
Pee-Wee Herman: Before he was our beloved manchild kid's-show host, Paul Reubens sang a jazzy number on a 1979 show while balanced on his toes as part of the duo Suave & Debonair.
Andrea McArdle: Just 12 at the time, the future star of Broadway's Annie appeared on the show in 1976, though video of the her act appears to have been vanished.
Michael Winslow: The man of 10,000 sound effects, best known for his magical mouth impressions in the Police Academy movies got his first TV credit in 1978 on the show, where he ran through the entire prime-time lineup of the year and imitated Jimi Hendrix.
Gene Gene the Dancing Machine: He danced, we laughed, they threw stuff.
The Hollywood Cowboys: On the original series' finale, Barris himself came out in cowboy drag to sing Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job and Shove It." Terribly. He got gonged, needless to say.