Long before “America’s Got Talent,” America had the bizarro talent of “The Gong Show.” That ’70s show, hosted by creator Chuck Barris, celebrated the quirky and outlandish from a singer dressed as a penguin to the Unknown Comic, who told jokes with a paper bag over his head. And at least a few times during each episode, some honest-to-goodness talents took the stage. Acts had roughly 90 seconds to make an impression on the celebrity judges without getting gonged.
Now the gong’s all here again as ABC brings it back for a summer run beginning Thursday at 10 p.m. So, how different is the bright and shiny new “Gong” from its predecessor?
THEN Affable goofball Barris reveled in introducing each act with zingy one-liners, and he sometimes sang — badly. On the final episode, his performance of “Take This Job and Shove It” got gonged by Jamie Farr.
NOW A totally unrecognizable Mike Myers takes on hosting duties in the persona of “British comedic legend” Tommy Maitland, whose catchphrase is “Who’s a cheeky monkey?” His commentary on each act is deliciously droll: After the Sensei, an overweight and under-talented dancer in a karate outfit, performs, Maitland remarks, “I can’t tell whether you’re more influenced by Bruce Lee or Sara Lee.”
THEN The panel usually consisted of B-listers such as Jo Anne Worley, Gene Rayburn, Arte Johnson and the most frequent gongers — Farr and vocalist Jaye P. Morgan.
NOW Pretty much anyone who was ever on “Saturday Night Live” or in the “Hangover” movies. Will Arnett (an executive producer), Ken Jeong and Zach Galifianakis do the gonging on Thursday’s premiere, and let’s just say they’re not always in agreement. The judges also become part of the act by Married With Bananas, a husband-wife duo with odd a-peel: They catch banana pieces in their mouths.
THEN Several contestants went on to have post-“Gong Show” success. Cheryl Lynn, who sang “You Are So Beautiful” on a 1976 show, had the top 10 hit “Got to Be Real” two years later. Using the pseudonym Sharon Shamus, actress Mare Winningham wowed the judges singing “Here, There and Everywhere” in 1978. And Michael Winslow of “Police Academy” fame showed off his skills as a fast talker and won in 1976.
NOW The acts are still outrageous (gorilla-costumed The Unipiper plays bagpipes on a unicycle), but jump-rope master Buddy Lee is the real deal.
THEN The act with the highest score received a check for $516.32 and a trophy that resembled a gong, and each Friday the “Most Outrageous Act of the Week” also would get a check plus a dirty tube sock.
NOW The champ still gets a trophy, but the prize has been upped to $2,000.17. After adjusting for inflation, the amount is actually $220.58 less than winners received in 1976 when the show debuted. That deserves a gong.