Let the gonging begin!
In anticipation of Thursday night’s ABC revival of The Gong Show — a cheesy but oh-so-beloved talent show from the ’70s that was created and hosted by Chuck Barris for NBC — we asked executive producer Conrad Green to give us an idea of what to expect from the host, the gong, and those crazy talents.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What did you try to bring from the old show, and what did you feel a need to update?
CONRAD GREEN: I think the most important thing we tried to bring from the old show was the sense of anarchy, trying to make it feel really individual and memorable and get it done with flavor. I think what you’re talking about in terms of the nostalgia for the show, it’s a huge part of it. It’s a feel. People of a generation remember it as a child, as a kind of naughty pleasure, or as a student watching it in syndication or getting stoned together with it or something. It seems to have played a really big part in a lot of people’s lives. … And having watched a lot of it before we sort of embarked on doing this version, we thought the worst thing we could do in the world is try and copy Chuck, because Chuck and the world he created was so singular and memorable and brilliant that to try and do an exact copy of things would almost certainly blow up in our faces.
So we tried instead to capture the spirit of the show, the lunacy, the unexpectedness, the judges being playful, and, particularly, a really memorable host. And then also to look at the acts themselves and think oh, it’s Gong Show acts compared to America’s Got Talent acts or more standard variety show acts. And they’re a very particular thing. They’re passionate people, sometimes a little bit odd, sometimes a bit weird, but who have skills they might have nurtured in their basement that are hilarious, you know? This isn’t really a variety show, not nearly so much as it is about enjoying and embracing the weirdness of humanity and the crazy acts that people can devise and bring to us and celebrating that with genuine open arms for those people. So that was kind of our bigger headline approach, wanting to capture the spirit of the original but make it have its own voice and its own feel and hopefully get a fresh generation of fans. You know, my 9-year-old boy, I showed him an act with a whole lot of people bent over with lips on their bottoms singing opera songs, and he thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen.
It was a whole load of people bent over with lip and eyes on their bums, and then they bounce up and down singing opera songs. And he thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen. Or there was a man who played classical music by doing different fart sounds with his armpit, which my son thought was the funniest thing he’d ever seen. And so sometimes the naughtier gags that somebody comes up with or that the judges come up with fly completely over the kids’ heads, but what they love is the anarchy and the strangeness of it all, and so that’s what we wanted to tap into, the people across America who created these crazy acts that have no other home to go to, but they’ll be cherished and adored here.
So you don’t want super-talented people in the conventional sense?
We want super-talented people in an unconventional sense. For me, an amazing talent can be someone who just hums the national anthem brilliantly, you know? There can be all kinds of things. There was a guy whose whole act, he called himself Water Man, was to balance a cup of water on his head and do a forward roll without spilling the water. Very few of our acts could have a residency in Vegas. Some of them, yes, but most of them are acts very homemade, very sort of elemental, people who’ve got strange imaginations, and created something wonderful, individual, memorable, and most of all, funny.
What will they win?
There is a prize at the end of each show, and it’s the princely sum of $2,000.17. It won’t change your life necessarily, but it’s enough to make it worth your time. For most people, to be honest with you, the reason they wanted to be on it was because they wanted to be on The Gong Show. It’s got such a lock on the public imagination, this format, and I think when we started making it, we started to realize that. Many people came on the show saying, “If I’m gonged, I don’t mind. If they think I’m gong-worthy, that’s a badge of honor in its own right.”
Did a lot of time and effort go into creating your actual gong?
We actually ended up shipping that from Chicago, and it was a race against time to get it ready for this show. We looked all over to try and find the right kind of gong. We wanted a proper, real gong. We wanted one that genuinely did the job. Ours is slightly grander. Our whole set is slightly grander than the original ‘70s show, although that’s not saying much because the original ‘70s show was pretty much made out of cardboard and sticky tape. Ours is a little bit flashier, but again, we tried to keep it human-sized, you know? We’re not competing. This isn’t a Chinese state circus with loads of grandeur. Our acts tend to be smaller, they tend to be more intimate. They’re much more human.
Whose idea was it to have Mike Myers play this character named Tommy Maitland, who will host?
I don’t know where you got the information that Mike Myers is involved. Tommy Maitland is a legend! And what we wanted to do with Tommy was introduce a different type of hosting, which is familiar to everyone. He’s basically a legend on British TV, right? I don’t know if you’ve ever seen people of a certain era of British TV. Bruce Forsythe is a famous host in Britain, who hosted until he was 81 and then he retired like five years ago or something, from live TV. He’s a song-and-dance man whose first appearance on TV was in 1939. Tommy Maitland is very much from that history and that background, along with the comedians of the era, so Tommy Cooper, Spike Milligan, there’s a whole history and style of presentation that Tommy embodies.
Are you all done with the production, and are all 10 episodes in the can?
We’ve shot all 10 of them. We had a right laugh doing it. We would love there to be another go at it because we think we can only make things better from here. We just want America to get in there and to enjoy it and get to know Tommy, to reacquaint themselves with The Gong Show, to see some great comic and movie actors taking part in a really silly TV show and really having some fun there, you know? As Tommy would say, turn off your brain, turn on your TV, it’s all for funsies. It’s meant to be an antidote to the world we have at the moment. You know, it’s a pretty tough time at the moment. Turning on the news is hardly fun for most people in America, one way or another. It is quite nice to just have some wild abandon and silliness to embrace. So to embrace the humanity of America, you know, it’s a family show with naughty edges.
The Gong Show debuts Thursday at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.