Remembering ‘Puttin’ on the Hits,’ the most bonkers TV talent show of all time

Lyndsey Parker
·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
Gregory Gilger lip-syncs to "Baby Face" on 'Puttin' on the Hits.' (Photo: YouTube)
Gregory Gilger lip-syncs to "Baby Face" on 'Puttin' on the Hits.' (Photo: YouTube)

Decades before Jimmy Fallon’s Lip Sync Battle, way before RuPaul demanded that drag queens lip-sync for their lives, there was Puttin’ on the Hits — which premiered 35 years ago (on Sept. 15, 1984) and, thanks to YouTube, remains internet-preserved in all its fuzzy, VCR-tracking-challenged, duplicated-Maxell-taped glory.

POTH was the best thing on syndicated television from 1984 to 1988 and maybe ever. It was definitely the most ‘80s thing ever — and probably the weirdest talent show of all time, at least until The Masked Singer came along with its much more generous costuming budget.

Starring a dazzling and delusional array of bored housewives, suburban tweens, goofball frat boys, and even a pre-O.J.-trial Kato Kaelin miming along to Madonna, Boy George, and Pointer Sisters songs for a $25,000 cash grand prize, Puttin’ on the Hits was inspired by regional lip-synching contests created in 1981 by a man named Wm. Randy Wood (who later was a consulting producer for POTH, and tells Yahoo Entertainment that he is currently working on a book about the history of the show). POTH was executive-produced by Chris Bearde, who had respectively worked on the most ‘60s and ‘70s things ever, Laugh-In and The Gong Show. Bearde had also been the original director hired to helm Robert Stigwood’s 1978 ridiculous Sgt. Pepper movie musical starring the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton, which actually makes perfect sense.

A 1984 TV Guide ad for the exciting new series 'Putting on the Hits.' (Photo: https://gameshows.fandom.com)
A 1984 TV Guide ad for the exciting new series 'Putting on the Hits.' (Photo: https://gameshows.fandom.com)

Perhaps more surprisingly, the legendary Dick Clark, of American Bandstand fame, was also a co-executive producer on Puttin’ on the Hits (his son, R.A. Clark, had a producer credit). Guest judges included Helen Reddy, Paul Williams, Stephanie Mills, Marilyn McCoo, Eagles guitarist Don Felder, and Exorcist/Roller Boogie actress Linda Blair, and a pre-superstardom Growing Pains/Dallas actor Brad Pitt once even served as a celebrity judge for the show’s open-call auditions at some Dallas shopping mall. (Like I said, the most ‘80s thing ever.)

Another award-winning Hollywood actor, Cuba Gooding Jr., also competed on the program in 1985, but apparently his funky-fresh Doug E. Fresh tribute didn’t win, so POTH did not show him the money that day. (Sorry.)

Apparently all this lent the utterly bizarre show some actual industry cred: Puttin' on the Hits was the first No. 1 syndicated music variety show in TV history, and it was even nominated for two Daytime Emmy Awards (which it obviously totally should have won).

An '80s trade magazine ad touting the success of 'Puttin on the Hits.' (Photo: https://gameshows.fandom.com)
An '80s trade magazine ad touting the success of 'Puttin on the Hits.' (Photo: https://gameshows.fandom.com)

Some of the amateur celebrity impersonators on POTH were practically Grammy-worthy, if not Emmy-worthy. The contestants may not have possessed the vocal chops to compete on another TV talent show of the era, Star Search, but they had doubletake-inducing doppelganger outfits and better lipping skills than many of the actual pop stars miming to track on the above-mentioned Bandstand. Goldie Fox’s Sheila E. impression was so spot-on and downright Hollyrockin’, for instance, I’m surprised Prince didn’t make Goldie one of his official protégés. And this rocker chick definitely got the Pat Benatar mullet just right.

POTH even had an American Idol-esque moment and launched the legitimate showbiz career of soul group Troop (who, after being discovered on POTH, signed to Atlantic Records and scored 15 top 10 singles, including five No. 1’s, on the Billboard R&B chart). So you could say Puttin’ on the Hits had a better track record than, say, The Voice.

The lip-synching concept has returned to TV over the years, with varying degrees of success. While a children’s spinoff version of the POTH, the awkwardly titled Puttin’ on the Kids, was short-lived, as was the Fox Family Channel’s Great Pretenders (hosted by the members of girl group Wild Orchid, including a future Black Eyed Pea named Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson) and MTV’s Lip Service, Lip Sync Battle is a smash. And just this week, CBS aired the one-hour special Lip Sync to the Rescue, a feelgood interactive countdown show, hosted by Cedric the Entertainer, featuring first responders lip-synching to pop hits.

And now the co-creator of the Puttin’ on the Hits, the above-mentioned W. Randy Wood, hopes to the revive the original show’s spirit, also for a good cause. “Maybe I was a little early,” Wood explains to Yahoo Entertainment. “When I heard of the Lip Sync Battle production in 2015, I called and spoke with executive producer Casey Patterson before Lip Sync Battle aired, and explained I wanted to set up lip-sync contests nationally for charity, mainly with kids. She responded that it sounded good but they were currently taping the show and only featuring celebrities, but if I could get something going we could talk. So I put together a website for contests that could be held at malls, fairs, and radio station promotions, and at casinos for over-21 contestants — all leading to a national finals, preferably on television.” That information can be found at americaslipsyncbattle.com.

A 'Puttin' on the Hits' poster, signed by R.A. Clark, given to Wm. Randy Wood. (Photo: Wm. Randy Wood)
A 'Puttin' on the Hits' poster, signed by R.A. Clark, given to Wm. Randy Wood. (Photo: Wm. Randy Wood)

For now, though, the 18 YouTube-available performances that best exemplify POTH’s totally-‘80s gnarliness are ranked below. Pick the song and lip along!

18) Kato Kaelin, “Born to be Wild”

You haven’t really lived until you’ve seen O.J. Simpson’s seemingly coke-bingeing (or at least extremely overcaffeinated) houseguest perform a semi-striptease routine to Steppenwolf while straddling an invisible motorcycle. KATO, as he was then singularly known, scored a respectable 26 (out of 30) for Appearance, which I imagine was largely due to the feathered-hair-flapping wind machine that he conveniently strapped to his handlebars.

17) Joel Steven, “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Is this the real life? Nope, it’s just fantasy. This aspiring mime didn’t have Freddie Mercury’s charisma, but his coconut-shell-headed puppet choir (little silhouettos of some men, if you will) stole the show and saved the day. Without those opera-singing bobbleheads, Joel never would’ve gotten that perfect 30 score for Originality! (This other POTH puppeteer gets an honorable mention.)

16) Tony & Susan, “Angst in My Pants”

Susan makes a pretty convincing Ron Mael here, I must say. Sparks indeed flew. But this won’t be the only gender-flipped performance to make my list.

15) Ty, “Mr. Roboto”

I think this guy needs to sue The Masked Singer for copyright infringement. He looked just like the Bee or the Raven here!

14) The Bowles Brothers, “Just a Gigolo”

These novelty pranksters almost literally lost their heads during their vaudevillian horror show. By the way, the brothers lip-synched to David Lee Roth’s version, of course.

13) Bootie Boys, “Girl Talk”

These bros had a license to ill, and they weren’t afraid to use it. Check your head before you watch.

12) Trisha Lasmett, “Lovergirl”

Just like the RuPaul’s Drag Race lip-synchers who would follow her years later, this sassy street dancer knew the power of a dramatic mid-performance wardrobe reveal.

11) The San Dieguito Spuds, “Girl U Want”

Are they not Devo? These guys dared to be stupid in the best possible way.

10) Metronome, “Heavenly Action”

It was POTH GOTH! The show got a little bit hipper when these impeccably coiffed new wavers, who sort of resembled a poor man’s Thompson Twins, lipped along to a relatively obscure Erasure song.

(Incidentally, two of the guest judges that day were actual members of Devo, who of course gave Metronome high marks.)

9) Infant Rock, “Bang Your Head”

Apparently, metal health really will drive you mad. For some reason, these grown-ass men thought it was a good idea to go on TV dressed as oversized babies performing a Quiet Riot tune. You know why? Because it was a good idea! Infant Rock won the semifinals that day, when their adult diapers and lobster bibs earned them a perfect score for Appearance.

8) Donny Lovedart, “Cupid”

Infant Rock didn’t have the creepy-oversized-baby market cornered on POTH. There was also this diapered manchild, sweating to the oldies.

7) Little Punk, “Shout”

Men in diapers was apparently a recurring theme on POTH. This was another memorable diaper dude, dancing on what appeared to be a handmade, low-budget recreation of Chairy from Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

6) Gregory Gilger, “Baby Face”

OK, move over, Infant Rock, Donny Lovedart, and Little Punk. They were all outdone by this baby-monster who attached himself, conjoined-twin-style, to a mommy mannequin — and likely scarred the psyches of an entire generation of UHF television viewers in the process.

5) Fancy Ray, “I Put a Spell on You”

Those babymen were scary, but none of them could compete with this full-grown caped creature, who completely committed to his character. Spell-binding, indeed.

4) Dave Margosian, “Fast Food”

Thirty-five years ago, long before Seamless and Postmates, this was how everyone had to deal with their late-night munchies. Dave perfectly captured the ‘80s agony of this First World problem.

3) Debbie Sichta, “Dancin’”

Kudos to Debbi for pulling double-duty and taking on both the Olivia Newton-John and Tubes roles for this little-heard Xanadu soundtrack gem. This performance definitely was not a Xanadon’t!

2) 3-D, “19”

Looking like a real-life Max Headroom or Kraftwerk showroom dummy, 3-D put on a mesmeric man-machine performance of Paul Hardcastle’s anti-Vietnam war hit. Trivia alert: Hardcastle was once managed by Simon Fuller, the creator of another very important TV talent show, American Idol. Fuller went on to name his company 19 Entertainment, after this very song.

1) Houston, “Endless Love”

Houston, aka legendary drag artist Jazzmun, fine-tuned the his-‘n’-her shtick seen in Debbi Sichta’s Xanadu number, and this clever performance actually kickstarted Jazzmun’s career. After making her first national television appearance here dueting with herself, she went on to appear in music videos by Gloria Estefan and RuPaul, release her own pop music, and land roles in Nip/Tuck, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Dreamgirls. The possibilities were indeed endless on POTH.

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