11/7/10

Movies That Killed: The Gong Show Movie (1980)

I was born less than two months before The Gong Show made its television debut, and I was only 4 years old when it was canceled. Yet when I look back on the formative viewing experiences of my young life, I think about Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Days of Our Lives (Like sands though the hourglass...), and The Gong Show. Now, Chuck Barris’ parody of a talent show was a real favorite around the house, and it didn’t hurt that every time Gene Gene "The Dancing Machine" would start doing his thing I would just bop in front of the TV and go, “Gene, Gene. Gene, Gene” What can I say? "The Dancing Machine" was my Teletubbies. Anyhow, there was another regular on the show (as if anyone was regular on that show) that also captured my imagination, Murray Langston, better known as The Unknown Comic. I’ll talk more about Murray later, but he gives me a good chance to welcome everyone to the last new feature I’m doing this month, Movies that Killed.

From a very young age, I enjoyed all sorts and kinds of comedy. There was nothing I liked better than watching a Charlie Chaplin or Abbott and Costello film, playing old time radio shows on my walkman, or listening to comedy albums. I just could not get enough. I have vivid memories of playing Super Mario Brothers on the original NES system with the sound turned down so I could spin comedy records. Everything from George Carlin, Vaughn Meader, David Brenner, to Shelley Berman (and what kid in the ‘80’s has a Shelley Berman record anyhow?) and The Smothers Brothers spilled out from my stereo. If it was comedy, especially a stand up comedian, I was listening to it. By the time I was 13 and The Comedy Channel, later to merge with Ha! Network to become Comedy Central, made its debut, and it was all over. I was exposed to stand-ups like Bill Hicks, Marc Maron, and Larry Miller, while watching far too much Tommy Sledge and Higgins Boys after school. For the past couple of years here at The Lair, I’ve focused mainly on horror, action, thrillers, and other assorted genre fare with little time for purposefully funny films (there has been plenty of the inverse.) I thought I would lighten things up until the end of the year with Movies that Killed, a selection of my favorite funny people and probably more rambling like this. Anyhow, let’s get on with it, shall we?

For many people, the only familiarity with Chuck Barris comes from the 2002 biopic Confessions of a Dangerous Mind starring Sam Rockwell and based on Barris’ 1984 memoir of the same name. In it, Barris boldly claimed that while chaperoning Dating Game contestants on exotic dates he also made hits for the CIA. The Gong Show Movie contains no such spy hijinks, but it does let us see inside of the titular “Dangerous Mind”. The movie stars Barris as Chuck “Chuckie Baby” Barris, host of The Gong Show and scourge of the network censors. In The Gong Show Movie, Barris tries to get though a week full of auditions, self doubt, girlfriend troubles (courtesy of his gal pal onscreen and off Robin Altman), network problems, people who want something from him, and those that want to tell him that he stinks. Eventually this all leads to “Chuckie Baby” having a nervous breakdown and heading to the Moroccan desert, but not before the film shows off quite a few famous (and infamous) moments from The Gong Show.

To just call The Gong Show Movie a comedy is to only partially describe the film. It's actually more of a  cross between a Robert Altman film, a Christopher Guest "documentary", and Barris getting onscreen psychoanalysis on Universal Pictures dime. Chuck walks a fine line almost getting too “woe is me” about the constant attention he receives, but the film does make the weirdos and nuts that Chuck encounters (including a young, uncredited Phil Hartman) seem creepy, invasive, and irritating. (Throughout I kept thinking that someone needed to show Dave Chappell this film before his show got popular.) Barris delivers a film that explores the cult of celebrity through his hyperbolic reality with warts and all intact. The public may be crazy, but Barris isn't exactly the voice of reason.

The Gong Show Movie balances out the introspective drama with outtakes from The Gong Show and the appearance of many of the regulars in the cast. “Gene Gene” cuts a rug. "The Popsicle Girls" proved why teenage girls are not allowed to eat whatever they want on TV. Jaye P. Morgan bares her breasts. The Unknown Comic tells some great (not so great)jokes, and we get got to go home with him to meet his Unknown Wife. R&B group Satisfaction, later heard on the soundtrack to Breakin’ 2, turn up for an audition. Danny Devito,  Phil Hartman (as I mentioned earlier), and Paul “Pee Wee Herman” Rubens all show up in cameos. Character actor Vincent Schiavelli shows up as a contestant. A group of priests and nuns does the famous Ton Lehrer novelty song, “The Vatican Rag”. The list can go on and on, but suffice it to say that a mix of heightened movie reality and out takes for the show more than make up for Barris’ occasionally mopey performance.

Before I wrap this up, I have to mention a couple of other people connected to The Gong Show Movie. Barris directed and starred in The Gong Show Movie, but he co-wrote the script with one of Hollywood’s founders of the unconventional comedy, Robert Downey. With films like Putney Swope, Downey laid the foundations for what would become outsider comedy in Hollywood. While The Gong Show Movie is a car being driven by Barris, the style seems like a gift from Downey. I liken it to the filmmaking partnership of Larry Charles and Sasha Baron Cohen. Don’t expect much in the way of polish though because you will be disappointed. Some of the footage looks extremely raw and occasionally it is quite easy to lose track of what is going on. Admittedly, the pairing of Barris’ meta musings and the out and out craziness of The Gong Show make for an uneven tone, but for fans of the show or Barris as a personality, the movie ads another layer into “Chuckie Baby’s” already confounding mystique.

 The Gong Show Movie took me right back to my youth and perhaps even explained a thing or two about where my absurdist sense of humor is derived. It also finally allowed me to see Jaye P. Morgan topless, something I’ve been waiting for since I was 3 (what can I say I was an early bloomer). If you go into this film expecting the wall-to-wall hijinks of The Gong Show, you may find yourself disappointed, but die hard fans of Barris should find themselves fascinated by the intimate portrait of the star. Sure it doesn’t contain Barris offing people for the CIA, but it does contain a seldom seen portrait of a Seventies icon. Well, that about wraps it up for this week’s installment of Movies that Killed, join me back here next week when I take a look at another of my comedy heroes.

Bugg Rating

9 comments:

  1. jimmie t. murakamiNovember 7, 2010 at 1:35 AM

    I didn`t watch "The Best Bits Compilation" because i knew it would be much to murderously em-CHUCKBARRIS-ing and unbearable to endure.

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  2. otis rampaging heterosexualityNovember 7, 2010 at 5:28 AM

    I agree with Jimmie, Chuck Barris was an appalling embarrass-girl-t to himself and the rest of hu-girl-ity, he was almost as unendurable as those two other ludicrous pathetic tossers Robin Williams and Jim Carrey and thats saying something believe me !!!.

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  3. I met Mr. Barris back in 1978 at a party in LA. He was a strange duck (to say the least). That said, I loved the Gong Show - as well as this movie. If memory serves, isnt there a song at the end of the film that goes something like, "Don't stand up for me" or Don't get up fro me?"

    Great review my friend. What a shame that this generation has no idea about Barris' manic genius (as opposed to his delusions).

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  4. Movies That Killed is a great new feature and I look forward to more in the series.

    You nailed The Gong Show movie correctly with your line "Chuck walks a fine line almost getting too “woe is me”". The movie in the end does manage to walk that fine line and as an added bonus delivers a lot of great comedy.

    Whether someone likes Chuckie Baby or not, the ability to see all of these Gong Shows acts, plus the pandemonium of the panel/whole show, makes this movie well worth watching for anyone with a skewed sense of humor.

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  5. @Otis and jimmy. I would have thought you would have liked Chuck. He's in no way British.

    @Pax- If I was forced to guess one person I knew who had met Barris I think I would have guessed you. Yes the film does end with the regulars singing a song at the end complete with Jay P. singing a few notes about her lack of assets.

    Thanks for the comment. I love me some Chuck, but I don't think folks get him.

    @B Goode I definitely agree. The film doesn't ever get mired in Barris' musings, but instead they serve as a good way to pull the movie back between the absurdity.

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  6. jervaise brooke hamsterNovember 8, 2010 at 5:24 AM

    True, at least he was American, if he`d been British scum he would have been 100 times worse.

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  7. I actually saw this one in a theater (paid for a ticket, bbought popcorn, the whole schmeer). It was the now-defunct Berwyn Theater, in the west-of-Chicago suburb of the same name.
    What I remember best was the big desert production number, "Don't Get Up For Me", which wasn't even mentioned for a Best Song Oscar.

    One other point:
    I understand that Robert Downey Sr. was the film's original director, but left after a falling-out with Barris. Chuckie-Baby took over the reins, and the rest is history.

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  8. I used to watch The Gong Show on tv years ago and found it hilarious! The movie looks great!

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  9. I was also a fan of THE GONG SHOW back in the day (haven't thought of Gene Gene the Dancing Machine in YEARS), but I never did see this movie. Based on what I've read here, plus a touch of nostalgia for the show, I'm really gonna have to check it out.

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