Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Movie: The Gong Show Movie (1980)

My love of The Gong Show drove my father crazy. “What’s the point of a talent contest with no talent?,” he’d ask. I couldn’t mount a defense, because I was busy stuffing my face with peanut butter. I was also too young to articulate the genius of Chuck Barris.

It’s hard to believe that Chuck’s show was once considered a harbinger of the end of civilization, particularly in light of what’s currently on TV. But as the saying goes, the pioneer is the guy with all the arrows in his back.

Chuck was visionary enough to recognize a simple truth: those who are untalented still crave attention. On The Gong Show, scorn and celebration were conjoined. Yes, your armpit rendition of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” was an abomination, and frankly the tutu didn’t help. Yes, you were gonged by L.A. Dodgers great Steve Garvey. Yes, we are laughing at you. But you got to be on TV, nobody’s feelings were hurt, and you can come back at the end of the show when the confetti drops. There was something pure, innocent, even noble about The Gong Show. It was a half hour during which every dog had its day.

Now, eating animal testicles on Fear Factor is a way of building your personal brand, people bounce from one reality show to another as if it’s a career path, and there’s no gong on American Idol. I ask you, what’s worse?

Chuck’s “unauthorized autobiography” Confessions of a Dangerous Mind – later turned into a terrific film – tried to make sense of the public’s hostility toward him. But his first attempt to deal with the subject was The Gong Show Movie. Made during the waning days of the TV series, it didn’t receive a real theatrical release and has never been available on video. Finding it on TV the other day was like sighting the Flying Dutchman.

The movie’s a true cri de coeur, asking the eternal question: Why does everybody think I’m an asshole? It combines uncensored audition footage with absurdist scenes of Chuck struggling to get through life. Think of it as Jackass meets , with musical numbers by Chuckie Baby himself.

It’s not a good movie, by any stretch. Chuck’s not much of a director; he should have turned the reins over to his writing collaborator, cinema wild man Robert Downey. But so help me, I loved every minute. I paid it the highest compliment I can think of: I didn’t erase it from my DVR. A day will come when I will want – nay, need – to revisit it. It’s even given me a new catchphrase. “Dr. Crawford, if you please ...”

Sundance Channel will be airing the movie a few more times throughout March. I cannot honestly recommend it to anyone. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.