Like so much current pop culture, the re-makes and satires of things have completely supplanted — in many instances erased — the originals they were reacting against. Take, for instance, The Gong Show, which introduces a new version of itself Thursday night on ABC. The Gong Show was originally conceived in the 1970s by Chuck Barris (who died in March) to ridicule the calm, straight-faced talent shows of yesteryear — most prominently, The Original Amateur Hour, an immensely popular radio and TV show that ran in various incarnations from the 1930s through the 1960s.
Barris, as producer and host of The Gong Show, created a wildly anarchic deconstruction of the talent-show concept, inviting a mixture of acts of genuine quality mixed in with whatever oddball act walked into his Hollywood studio. Barris was a fascinating figure himself: essentially an executive — a canny producer of junk such as The Dating Game — he presided over the madness with a funky, mumbling manner, a wide grin splitting his face, a silly hat often on his head.
The new Gong Show is at once true to the original and very different. Executive-produced by Will Arnett — who appears as a judge on the premiere—this Gong Show is hosted by Tommy Maitland, a beloved British comedian making his American debut. Or at least, that’s what ABC is coyly telling you: Maitland is actually Mike Myers under tons of make-up. (Is it just me, or does Myers look a little like Robin Williams in that make-up?) Myers’ Maitland is intended as a spoof of British personalities such as Terry Thomas and the disgraced variety-show host Jimmy Savile, but the Maitland character is a dud. He sashays around the stage doing little dance moves to the live on-stage band, yelling out his so-corny-it’s-corny tagline, “Who’s a cheeky monkey?”
You’d think if a big name like Myers is fronting the show and he’s lousy, the show itself must be no good, right? But that’s not true; I found The Gong Show much more amusing to watch than NBC’s America’s Got Talent. Where Arnett has done well as a producer is in booking many engagingly eccentric acts, such as a woman dressed as Little Miss Muffett who puts a tarantula in her mouth and then plays the harmonica. Or the man in a gorilla suit riding a unicycle while playing the bagpipe. And the bagpipe emits flames. Also, the judges in the premiere — Arnett, Zack Galifianakis, and Ken Jeong — seem to be having a relaxed good time, while also taking their duties semi-seriously. Which is to say, they bang the giant gong — which dismisses an especially poor act — with judiciousness.
Sure, the show is mostly stupid, with flashes of real talent, such as a guy named Buddy Lee who does amazing things with a jump-rope. And I will look at The Gong Show at least one more time: Next week, to see the truly wonderful ventriloquist Carla Rhodes and her devilish companion Cecil Sinclaire.
ABC is putting The Gong Show into its summer rotation of revived game shows such as Match Game and To Tell The Truth. Those shows are terrible, ruined by everyone’s insistence on being too cool to play the game in the original loose but unironically competitive spirit. The new Gong Show, even with the unfunny Tommy Maitland, is a bit more fun than those other attempts at revival.
The Gong Show airs Thursday nights at 10 p.m. on ABC.
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