What was the most embarrassing thing Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman) ever did? Sure, there was that indecent exposure escapade. But perhaps even more mortifying: his turn on The Gong Show impersonating the sound of a dripping faucet.
Yes, few escaped unscathed from The Gong Show, the shamelessly cheesy and much-maligned talent contest that debuted on NBC on June 14, 1976. Conceived as a spoof of TV's old amateur hours, Gong had all its oddball ingredients in place by episode 1. There was creator and host Chuck Barris, a hyper homunculus in a bad tux. There was a panel of C-grade celebrity judges Phyllis Diller, Happy Days' Anson Williams, and One Day at a Time's Pat Harrington who either rewarded wannabe stars with a check for the appropriately bizarre amount of $516.32 or crushed their dreams with a bang of the dreaded gong. There was a superfluous confetti-throwing midget. And of course, there were the wackos that is, acts themselves: an accountant doing birdcalls in a safari suit; a chunky hula dancer; and the debut-night's winner, a miniskirted granny cooing a disturbingly erotic meow-filled version of ''Alley Cat.''
The result was pure catnip to viewers. A kitschy hit, Gong ran for four years and spawned a 1980 theatrical movie with too-hot-for-TV clips. Predictably, though, critics gave it the gong. The New York Times called it ''objectionable,'' while The Washington Post referred to Barris as ''The Ayatollah of Trasherola.'' And upon viewing it, comic George Burns carped, ''For the first time in 65 years, I wanted to get out of show business.''
''We gave television exactly what it deserved,'' counters frequent Gong judge Jaye P. Morgan. Adds M*A*S*H vet Jamie Farr: ''We made it a great big party. Jaye P. was continually trying to bare her bosoms and I would wrestle her to the ground. And Chuck would get a dog act on, and take a raw steak and rub it against his crotch before the show.'' The audience howled at the resulting puppy love.
Eventually, the novelty of banjo players and burping singers wore off. The show petered out by 1980, and a few years later, Barris, who also created The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, sold his production company for a reported $100 million and moved to the south of France. But Gong lives on the Game Show Network airs reruns as well as a new, even crasser version called Extreme Gong. And more important, Barris' legacy continues to thrive in such modern freak shows as the Jerry Springer Show and Guinness World Records: Primetime. The best ideas never get gonged.
Time Capsule: June 14, 1976
AT THE MOVIES: Bill Cosby, Raquel Welch, and Harvey Keitel tear up theaters for the third week with the ambulance-laden comedy Mother, Jugs & Speed.
IN MUSIC: Paul McCartney and Wings' ''Silly Love Songs'' flies to No. 1 on the singles charts and will remain there for three more weeks.
IN BOOKSTORES: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's The Final Days, the duo's follow-up to All the President's Men, tops the nonfiction best-seller list.
AND IN THE NEWS: the Supreme Court lets stand a lower-court ruling ordering the desegregation of Boston's public schools through busing.