If you’re a regular reader of these musings, you likely know the name Adam Nedeff, and you probably know him better than I do. For those of you who don’t, you should, and for a lot of reasons beyond the mere fact he can tell you more about people and shows no longer with us despite the fact he himself wasn’t alive for a good deal of of his subjects’ trajectories.
Adam was at best a gleam in his parents’ eyes when the subject of his 11th book on game shows, THE GONG SHOW, debuted in the summer of 1976. It was slotted at the tail end of a struggling NBC-TV game show block in a time slot that the year before had seen five different more traditional titles come and go, victims of marginal ratings enhanced by increasingly inconsistent clearance rates by the affiliates. The show that directly preceded it at 12:30 PM Eastern was a dull “advice” program fronted by a Los Angeles newscaster that had the usual cadre of B and C level “celebrities” offering up their thoughts on viewers’ problems rather than trying to match answers or give clues as many of them did elsewhere on the many other shows being produced for both daytime and nighttime, network and syndication. It was a Hail Mary from a newly promoted executive who was willing to try anything different to try and better compete with the soap operas that CBS and ABC were scheduling against them. It was launched the same day as was its lead-in, a true footnote to history, THE FUN FACTORY, which attempted to incorporate more traditional play-along elements with sketch comedy and was kneecapped early on by a writers’ strike that derailed its production. Low ratings didn’t help that show either.
But GONG, which had its own roots in the more classic talent shows of early radio and TV, had a much greater impact. It was, in a word, different. The TV world already knew of producer Chuck Barris’ penchant for contestants willing to be “exploited” from his successful DATING GAME and NEWLYWED GAME series that put a previously irrelevant ABC daytime schedule on the map in the 1960s, both later finding their way to prime time as well. But in 1976, both of those shows were out of production, and his increasingly bizarre syndicated weekly TREASURE HUNT, which itself had roots in early TV, was starting to see ratings eroision of its own. So Barris had as much motivation to pull out all the stops as did NBC. And after the first batch of NBC tapings that featured a different and downright normal emcee came out frustratingly inconsistent and dull, he was challenged by the NBC executive to simply just host THE GONG SHOW himself.
THE GONG SHOW was a talent competition in name only; as the Amazon blurb for Nedeff’s newest authorship attempts to describe it. it was a trippy 1970s time capsule, a variety show, a showcase for new talent, a party, and a playground for its creator and star, the one and only Chuck Barris.
It was castigated and villified by more mundane TV critics as perhaps his most embarassing effort yet. Contestants would rely upon truly bizarre acts, using costumes and pseudonyms as insurance lest their 45 seconds of fame go awry. They sung poorly, they covered themselves in food, they told bad jokes, they contorted themselves, they did things with animals that many thought we impossible. And then some. But, as Barris himself would consistently remind anyone willing to listen, just as the newlyweds and daters were more than eager to line up for those shows with little potential reward other than a dinner date or a washer-dryer, these aspiring stars weren’t being dragged kicking and screaming into his offices for the chance to be seen by America and be judged, in pursuit of a union-dog whistling top prize of $516.32, often flippantly and harshly by many of those B and C level celebrities whose own careers weren’t exactly exemplary.
And viewers were showing up as well. The summer of 1977 may have been known in the news world as the “Summer of Sam”, where a deranged postal clerk terrorized New York discos, but on “tee-wee”, as Barris referenced it, it was the “summer of Chuck”. The nighttime version, initially hosted by Gary Owens, became one of the five highest-rated syndicated shows, and the announcement that Barris would take over as its host accelerated its sales. When the show moved to late afternoon where it followed the scheduling of another edge-pushing show of the era, MATCH GAME, it found a loyal audience among younger viewers that at one point saw nearly five million people watching each day, without the benefit of time-shifting or streaming. And Barris’ face, usually being framed a tuxedo and covered with a bucket hat, became as ubiquitous and as polarizing as anyone’s, anywhere.
For those of us who were around for it, it was memorable. And Nedeff once again takes on the task of studying it with a meticulous penchant and thirst for detail with the doggedness of both a fan and a researcher, qualities I know a decent amount about myself. As the Amazon blurb continue, Nedeff literally went to the ends of the Earth to find those close enough to Barris (who passed away in 2017) and the surviving participants to document this Roman candle with unprecedented precision:
Gong This Book is a celebration of this unique oddity in television history and the extraordinary staff of people — “Chuck’s Lemmings”— who made it happen. Among those sharing their recollections for this book are celebrity judges Jamie Farr and Jo Anne Worley, Scarlett O’Hara, Rhetch Butler, Confusion the Philosopher, Larry and His Magic Trumpet, The Cowardly Lion, The Women of NBC, The Brothers Vert, Mike the Vike, Count Banjola, Dr. Flame-o, and even “The Prince of Puns! The Wizard of Whoopie! THE UNKNOWN COMIC!” Illustrating many of their tales is Vince Longo, the staff photographer for Chuck Barris Productions, whose camera lovingly captured every day on the set.
THE GONG SHOW’s meteoric popularity was short-lived; when the daytime version was moved back to a more traditional time slot after NBC gave up trying to fight its affiliates to clear a show at 4 PM Eastern at all, a good deal of that young audience was no longer available to watch it, particularly when school was in session. And the show did become increasingly more and more strange, and Barris’ rebellious nature eventually reached the point of self-destructiveness. When an act innocently referenced as HAVE YOU GOT A NICKEL, later appropriately memorialized as THE POPSICLE TWINS, showed two young ladies demonstrating talents that perhaps had been learned watching something other than “tee-wee”, affiliates of both NBC and its syndicated lineup began to pull episodes from air, and the criticism mounted. When ratings declined, NBC dropped it. The syndicated version continued as part of an all-out blitz of Barris productions that dominated syndication in the late 1970s, including successful revivals of both the DATING and NEWLYWED franchises that were now often airing in late-night time slots where their subject matter was under less scrutiny. But Barris’ bubble burst entirely by 1980, when audiences and executives finally had had enough of his button-pushing–ironically the show that received the most castigation was an idea he had dreamed up long before GONG that he obsessed about, a forgettable NEWLYWED knock-off called 3’s A CROWD, which pitted wives against secretaries to see who know more about their man.
They’ve tried to do THE GONG SHOW without Barris several times since his version left the air, including a version I was attached to which somehow thought Mike Myers in prosthetics as “long-forgotten British legend Tommy Maitland” would resonate with the same audiences that were embracing other supersized revivals of 70s-eras hits, including MATCH GAME, that ABC was seeing prime time success with. But aside from a host who actually existed, the ABC revival didn’t feature any legitimate talents, which was, indeed, the secret sauce that helped make the original so popular. Amidst the sea of insanity that dominated it were some actually talented folks, including the 80s band OINGO BOINGO and a much-scheduled young comedian named Paul Reubens, who later evolved into Pee Wee Herman. And, frankly, none of this era’s acts were as memorable as Dr. Flame-O and, certainly, not the Popsicle Twins.
You might not have known about 3’s A CROWD, or, for that matter, any of the folks that Nedeff has told the stories of in this or his 10 previous books. Nedeff is clearly someone whose love for the genre is infectuous, and reminiscent of the passion of someone who was dubbed MR. GAMESHOW, Fred Wostbrock, who sadly was prematurely taken far too young from this world in 2016. I first met Nedeff around that time, and immediately noticed similar qualities in him. He was starting a career trajectory similar to Fred’s as a researcher and production associate in demand on several shows, but it was obvious much like Fred he had way more to offer. I’ve learned more about people I thought I knew everything about from his earlier works, including game show legends like Bill Cullen, Gene Rayburn, Monty Hall, Allen Ludden and even Dennis James. The fact that people alive as 2024 begins even know who these men were, and why they’re still worth learning about, is a tribute to Nedeff’s determination.
And on a personal note, I want to publicly thank him for giving me and others a most-needed lifeline when the world was in lockdown. He included myself and many others, including the nephew of Bill Cullen and the son of Dennis James, on a regularly scheduled zoom call where he used the miracles of technology and multiple cameras to bring his massive board game collection to life and purpose. Maybe to you the idea of playing decades-old home versions of long-forgotten word games like PDQ and YOU DON’T SAY! sounds like a waste of time, but to see these faces, and to have some structure, particularly at a time when my own life was in far greater disorder than mere isolation, was a godsend.
Yes, buy his latest book. Buy his others as well if you can afford it. Appreciate him the way he appreciates many of us, in ways many members of his generation often don’t.
And if he does reach out to you, do convey I’m still waiting to take him to lunch to thank him for his talent and, in his own way, his friendship. Perhaps this may be one way to remind him that those of us that often feel we have been otherwise forgotten appreciate him.
Until next time…