The late Chuck Barris was no poet, his book, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," not withstanding. But the ethos of the schlock game show king could be summed up with a paraphrase of John Donne: Ask not for whom the gong tolls, it tolls for thee.
It tolls again for all with Thursday’s return of "The Gong Show," via ABC. Just three months after his death at age 87, Barris' warped baby gets new life on the television landscape he helped birth.
The show, from its premiere in 1976, never pretended to be more than a burlesque played for often-cruel laughs, with its gonged goodbyes presaging cries of "You're fired!"
Its reach extends from this century's boom of competition shows to Reality TV programs in which being famous for being famous – or foolish – proved enough to lure viewers.
"American Idol," the evolved child of "The Gong Show," tweaked the formula and emphasis by showcasing prodigious talents (most famously Jennifer Hudson) while mining the early auditions to mock the awful (most infamously William Hung). "Idol" eventually imploded, in part because the program became more about the celebrity judges than the contestants.
The new "Gong Show" appears to be focusing on star power, with the likes of Zach Galifianakis, Elizabeth Banks and producer Will Arnett racing to bang the gong. There's no sign of the paper bag-wearing Unknown Comic. But the host is almost certainly an exceptionally well-known comic in disguise: an unrecognizable Mike Myers, playing fictional British comedian Tommy Maitland, whose bio includes hosting an Australian game show called "Dingo's Got the Baby."
The Jiminy Glick-like gimmick represents an attempt to add another ring to the circus of the odd, while toying with the distance between the real celebrities and the deluded wannabes.
The "Gong Show" return also vies to tap nostalgia in a similar vein to ABC's summer prime-time, star-stocked revivals of the 1970s likes of "Family Feud," "Match Game" and "Pyramid" (now up to $100,000), with “Battle of the Network Stars” on the way. The network is even resurrecting "Idol" next year, two years after its last gasp on Fox.
Time and ratings will tell whether "The Gong Show" still resonates in an era when it might seem tame compared some of the current fare and figures it influenced. It's a good bet, though, that somewhere Barris is flashing his sardonic grin, laughing at the return of the television absurdity he wrought with a gong and a mallet.