Here’s an overview of the three programs I mentioned:
- “The Gong Show” – The broadcast was an amateur talent contest that featured several performers and three celebrity judges, such as regulars Rip Taylor and Phyllis Diller. The contestants were allowed to perform until one of the judges decided to end the act and he/she would sound a gong. Barris served as host, and some of the reoccurring acts became minor celebrities like the Unknown Comic and Gene Gene the Dancing Machine. The show gained a cult following and at one point the daytime version attracted 78 percent of viewers 18 to 49.
Side note: as a Metro Detroit native, I was amused when a “Dating Game” clip of former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm surfaced a few years ago. She was the bachelorette on an installment in 1978.
Barris was proud of “The Newlywed Game.” Speaking to NPR’s “FRESH AIR” in 1986, he said it was “the best show I ever created and ever would.” He described it as “microcosm of marriage” in that people “get married for any number of reasons” and this was reflected in the way different couples related to one another on air.
Competition shows with relationship and talent themes are now common, so it’s easy to overlook Barris’ contribution to the genre. Broadcasts like “The Dating Game” and “The Gong Show” laid the groundwork for “The Bachelor”/“ The Bachelorette” and “American Idol” /“America’s Got Talent.” Early rounds of “American Idol” were - it ended last year after a 15 season run - especially reminiscent of “The Gong Show” as contestants were ridiculed both by celebrity judges and the viewing public. In fact, some of the rejected contestants went on to fame BECAUSE they lacked talent. Remember William Hung?
As a child, Barris’ creations kept me amused. At the time, there was nothing similar to which I had access, so the programs felt fresh and unpredictable. As far as I knew, these were not actors playing roles, but “real” people being “themselves.” Now I'm more skeptical, and I understand that so-called “unscripted” shows involve a certain amount of planning and staging.
Barris, also during his “FRESH AIR” appearance, discussed the origin of his programs:
“I looked to the household for my show ideas. And I wanted highly identifiable shows where the audience could identify what was going on.”
Indeed! I COULD identify with the programs, and that was part of the reason I found them so enjoyable. My world was small then and most of my experiences involved home, family, school, and classmates. So, I could imagine my friends as “Gong Show” contestants as there was an annual talent show at my school. I had single uncles/aunts and older cousins who could have been on “Dating Game.” And as for would-be “Newlywed Game” contestants? My parents. I suggested they apply, even though by that point they would have no longer been newlyweds. They, however, nixed the idea. Too bad! Maybe they could have met Gene Gene the Dancing Machine.
I'm Eli Natinsky and I'm a communication specialist. This blog explores my work and professional interests. I also delve into other topics, including media, marketing, pop culture, and technology.