The Gong Show Celebrities: List Of Stars Who Debuted On TV's Amateur Hour
Left: Chuck Barris, host of 'The Gong Show.' Right: Pee Wee Herman, also known as Gong Show competitor Paul Reubens. Sources: Bettmann / Contributor / Getty; IMDB
On The Gong Show, host Chuck Barris celebrated strange talents, oddball behavior, and people's longing to be seen by a national audience. Performers on the show had about 30 seconds to strut their stuff on air before a panel of guest judges could stop their performance banging on a giant gong. Performances ranged from the spectacular to the downright strange.
One of the coolest things about the classic version of The Gong Show is that many of the performers went on to be real deal celebrities. From Steve Martin to Pee Wee Herman, the stars of tomorrow were all over this nationally televised series and we’re going to let you know which ones were gonged, who won some cash, and who flamed out spectacularly.
Steve Martin performed twice in one show
Steve Martin was in transition from comedy writer to full blown comedy star when he appeared on The Gong Show. In his first appearance on the show he was a guest judge and he performed as “The Mad Banjo,” complete with a fake arrow through his head. He showed up later as “The Wild Stringed Instrumentalist” playing the same song on the banjo but without an arrow through his head.
Gong or No Gong: Technically he wasn’t gonged but host Chuck Barris cut him off in both performances.
Paul Reubens worked out a huge bit on the show
As a member of The Groundlings comedy troupe in Los Angeles, Paul Reubens created a series of characters that he could dip in and out of without having to memorize a lot of lines. Most famously he played Pee Wee Herman, but he also had an act with fellow Groundling John Paragon (you may know him as Jambi the Genie). The duo called themselves “Suave & Debonair,” they were essentially a nightclub act who sang about how suave and debonair they were while dancing on the tips of their toes.
The tip toe dance remained in Reubens’ repertoire as Pee Wee Herman, most notably in the “Tequila” scene of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.
Gong or No Gong: No gong. Reubens and Paragon performed their entire song, receiving a solid 30 points from the guest judges.
Oingo Boingo got weird but they didn't get gonged
Before Danny Elfman and company evolved into the ska influenced art rock band Oingo Boingo they performed as the musical theater troupe The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. The group performed on a 1976 episode of The Gong Show in front of Incredible Hulk star Bill Bixby, Buddy Hackett, and Shari Lewis. The entire performance is nuts - Richard Elfman is inside of a homemade rocket ship, and Danny Elfman plays the trombone like a demented bandleader.
Gong or No Gong: No gong for Boingo. The group won their episode with a score of 24 points.
Michael Winslow wowed the judges
Introduced as “Mike Winslow,” the future star of Police Academy came out with guns blazing and performed about 10,000 different sounds in under three minutes, including the sounds of Star Trek, Benji the dog, and Jimi Hendrix performing “Purple Haze.” On top of that, the audience couldn’t stop screaming for Winslow.
Gong or No Gong: No gong. Michael Winslow wowed the judges with his mind blowing sounds and earned a solid 30 points. The “Purple Haze” bit stayed in Winslow’s act for years and his Star Trek sound effects received a small update in his appearance in Space Balls.
Rhonda Shear contortionist act is wild
As the host of USA’s Up All Night, Rhonda Shear definitely has cult status among a certain demographic of night owls, and her line of clothing and fragrances sold through the Home Shopping Network have made her a multi-millionaire, but before all of her success she appeared on The Gong Show performing a baseball themed contortionist act. Shear’s pliability is genuinely astonishing, especially an Exorcist level twist that she performs towards the end of her number.
Gong or No Gong: No gong. The guest judges were so impressed with her abilities that they awarded her 28 points.
Cheryl Lynn won a record contract from her performance
Not every performance on The Gong Show is fair. Unfortunately Cheryl Lynn had to learn that lesson in 1976 when she sang a breathtaking version of Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful.” Shortly after the performance Lynn became a backing vocalist on the national touring company of The Wiz before taking on the role of Evillene.
Her version of Cocker’s hit was so powerful that it nabbed her a recording contract with Columbia records and she scored a massive hit with her single “Got To Be Real.”
Gong or No Gong: No gong, but this is where things get depressing. Lynn scored a perfect 30, but she tied with a juggler. When the audience was asked to decide on a winner they turned their back on her and gave the prize to the juggler whose name has been lost to time.
Andrea McArdle went on to play Annie after her performance
Before winning the lead role of Annie in the hit Broadway musical, Andrea McArdle took her astonishing pipes to The Gong Show in 1976. At the time she had only appeared in a few regional commercials and on the soap Search for Tomorrow, but she wasn’t a known quantity. Her performance doesn’t seem to be online so we’ll have to imagine that she did a bang up job.
Gong or No Gong: There’s no way to no, but it’s hard to imagine anyone gonging a pre-teen girl with the vocal chops to take her to Broadway.
Joey D'Auria became a staple of the series
You may not know Joey D'Auria’s name but you’ve heard his voice and if you grew up in the midwest in the 1980s then he was your Bozo the Clown, but before all of that he was a regular fixture on The Gong Show as Professor or Doctor Flame-o depending on the day. Flame-o’s bits involved him placing his hand over lit candles and screaming at various tones in order to sing a famous melody.
Gong or No Gong: It’s not clear if he was gonged or not, but D’Auria was brought back to the show multiple times and he also performed on The Tonight Show before going on to play Bozo the Clown.
Mare Winningham was taunted by Girl Scouts during her performance
Long before se was the star of St. Elmo’s Fire and a few seasons of American Horror Story, Mare Winningham tried to jump start her singing career with an appearance on The Gong Show. Winningham sang "Here, There & Everywhere" by the Beatles and had to deal with a gang of unruly Girl Scouts who were putting her on blast.
Gong or No Gong: No gong for Winningham, and to boot singer-songwriter Paul Williams stood up for her and told the Girl Scouts to keep it down. The same year she began a lucrative career starring in made for TV movies on top of releasing four albums.
Before he was a coach Brian Billick performed as a monkey
Before he was the head coach of the Super Bowl XXXV winning Baltimore Ravens, Brian Billick was a college student who apparently had an in with the 1970s game show circuit. He appeared on The Match Game and he also gave an extremely strange performance on The Gong Show.
Clad in a furry, thumbless monkey costume Billick jumped around in the air making monkey sounds and screaming, “Monkey, monkey, monkey.”
Gong or No Gong: Oh baby, Billick was gonged into another universe. Judge Jamie Farr referred to the act as a train wreck and Billick left in shame.
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