By Nora Nolan
The first production of The Gong Show Live – the stage adaptation of the popular 1970s television show – was a success by most measures. BB King’s Blues Club in Times Square was packed, the audience was involved and eager, and the grand prize of $516.32 seemed to go to the most genuinely talented performer.
Walking into BB King’s that night was a reminder of why we all live in New York City. It’s the greatest city in the world, sure, but it’s also the city in the world where people are ever willing to pay for live entertainment. The place was brimming with excitement, expectations, and enthusiasm. My guest and I shared a table with a five-some – two guys and three girls. The girls sat across from the guys and got schooled in all things Gong Show before the show started. It was clear from the outset that many people in the crowd were there to be a part of a spectacle that they’ve loved since it was on television thirty years ago.
The show was a combination of cringe-worthy and why-didn’t-I-think-of-that acts. There was the girl who seemed to be a comedian by nature, and sang a song that she introduced with, “I never took piano or flute lessons as a child, but I did learn how to play… the rape whistle.” The crowd roared – showing its approval of politically incorrect humor – and for a few minutes I thought she might win. But shortly after her act a rapping duo of a heavy-set middle-aged woman and what I imagine was a twelve-year-old girl, stole the show with their ability to stay in “bad-ass” character roles.
But then came Wonder Boy. A guy who looked like any jock from any high school – he was tall, had a muscular body, and very likely joined a fraternity in college. He ran around the stage shooting arrows like cupid, prancing about with a toy horse between his legs, and punching balloons. His good looks, absurd character, and ability to completely humiliate himself, allowed him to tie for first place. He tied with a true talent, unfortunately for him. Mallet Man, the final winner after the tie was broken, played the xylophone and danced. He appealed to the audience by being an unassuming and talented performer with a great smile. Mallet Man stole the show by playing more to the obscurity aspect of Gong Show talent than the self-humiliating aspect.
The judges took up half of the show’s airtime, making jokes in between each act. They were all funny, and brought very different things to the show. Dan Naturman brought a smart and nerdy element, Chuck Nice was the energy comic who played to the audience in “gong-ing” people in the middle of their acts, and Leslie Gold rounded it out as the attractive female comic who could comfortably make rape jokes after the rape whistle act. The host, Ray Ellin, performed his role perfectly, keeping the crowd excited by interacting with audience members, making fun of absurd acts, and keeping his energy high. The band, The Gong Show Ten, also did its part to keep the room upbeat and ensure that there were no unnecessary silences during the show.
The only failure of the show was the Amish Comic, who the audience hated right away. He is an established quirky comic, and his job was to do a set in the middle of the show and then another one towards the end. The audience didn’t have the patience for his long set-ups or his lack of edginess. It seems when you’re bombarding an audience with edgy acts all night, the worst thing you can do is to put on stage someone who is going to make horse and buggy jokes. It wasn’t his fault that the audience was pre-conditioned to believe that they could “gong” or boo anyone that stepped up to the microphone. Perhaps that was the purpose of the Amish Comic in the Gong Show, but as an audience member it felt awkward and uncomfortable to watch.
Overall, this show was a huge success and will hopefully be back. If they can replace the Amish Comic with someone who makes fun of people like Amish Comics, and keep packing the audience with long time Gong Show fans and other equally enthusiastic people, it will continue to build momentum. I would certainly see it again, and would hope to see the same band, host, and judges as the inaugural show. In fact, I find myself wishing that the show I saw last Thursday night were a regular show on television.