Behind the scenes he was a genius who produced some of the most provocative programming television had ever seen, but for many Chuck Barris — who died Tuesday night at the age of 87 — was best known on-screen, as the lovable host of his wackiest concept of all, The Gong Show. The talent competition, which presented cringe-worthy entertainment and D-list celebrity judges not afraid to trash it and ultimately “gong” it away, was a precursor to pretty much every reality TV competition in existence today, from American Idol to America’s Got Talent. Likewise, his sexy hits The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game taught an entire generation about flirting and “making whoopee,” well before The Bachelor was a glimmer in Mike Fleiss' eye.
As with contemporary reality competitions, stars were born on The Gong Show, but these were unique (to say the least) characters whose talents were questionable even if their originality wasn’t. One of its most popular, “The Unknown Comic,” known for his bawdy humor and simple yet brilliant shtick (his material was so bad he wore a bag over his head), remains an iconic comedic figure to this day. Even younger generations who never saw The Gong Show will find his image — a '70s sport coat–clad Tony Manero type with a brown paper bag concealing his face — oddly familiar. The man behind, or under, the bag is actor Murray Langston, an L.A. resident who’d been in the business long before he bagged the Gong gig. We spoke with him by phone yesterday about Barris, how his legendary comic creation came to be and the mark of madness his buddy and boss left on pop culture.
“It was something that happened by accident,” says Langston, 71, who now resides in West Hills with his two daughters. “I came up with the idea, but it was his brilliant mind that made me a regular on the show. I really appreciated that.”
Langston, who came to L.A. from Montreal, had been a regular on the variety show circuit clocking in multiple seasons on The Sonny and Cher Show, The Wolfman Jack Show and The Hudson Brothers Show, to name a few. He was so successful that he made enough money to open his own comedy club and restaurant in the Valley. The venue was called Show-Biz and it was at Lankershim and Victory. According to Langston, both David Letterman and Michael Keaton got their starts there. Ultimately, it wasn’t a success, and soon he had filed for bankruptcy and was looking for work.
“The Gong Show had been on the air for about six months, and I found out if you were in the union they had to pay you $250 to be on it,” Langston recalls. “My only goal was to make a quick buck. But because I had been on other television shows, I didn’t want my friends to see me on this ridiculous one. I put a bag on my head so nobody would know it was me. “
The jokes were cheesy and risqué, while the visual was absurdly brilliant in its simplicity and mystery. Who was under that bag? After the Unknown Comic became a household name, many speculated he was a famous comedian having some fun, the most popular theory, according to Langston, being Steve Martin or Bill Murray. Andy Kaufman came up a lot, too.
Masked identity aside, what really made the character work was the rapport he had with the show’s creator and host. Langston and Barris' talent coordinator Ruth Goldberg decided it would be adversarial at first. He would insult Barris right off the bat during his Gong debut.
“So my first show I came out onstage and I call Chuck over, I say, ‘Hey Chuckie, did you and your wife ever make love in the shower?’ He said no. And I said, “Well, you should. She loves it!” Langston recalls.
“This is how smart he was. Right after the show he runs over to me and he says, 'Murray, can you do that again next week? Come back and insult me again!' Basically I ended up doing 150 shows, and most of the time I’d come out and make fun of or ridicule him. The reason the show worked so well was because Chuck was like an amateur host himself. So you had this amateur host introducing all these crazy amateur acts. It wasn’t as insulting to the acts. And then when I did the show and came out and insulted him, it gave him more vulnerability. It made him look like part of the party rather than just insulting everybody. … That was part of the writing. Everybody was equal. “
After his run on Gong Show and appearance in Barris’ movie version (which tanked), Langston, or rather his alter ego, became famous; he parlayed the notoriety into more TV appearances and a Vegas stage show (his dancers were called “The Bagettes”). But the shtick had a shelf life, and he hung up his sack a few years in.
Years later, George Clooney decided to make a movie out of Barris’ autobiography, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Clooney contacted Langston to play himself in the film, thereby introducing the character to a whole new generation. Repeats on the Game Show Network also helped him stay “known.”
The film and the book got a lot of attention for Barris’ claims that he led a double life as a CIA assassin, but Langston, who says the pair stayed in touch over the years, calls that fantasy conjured up by Barris’ desirous mind. He says Barris wanted to pursue a profession of intrigue before he got into TV and decided to inject that into his book to make it more titillating.
Barris had a gift for titillation, that’s for sure, but he also saw magnificence in the mundane, brilliance in badness and beauty in the bizarre. Not many remember it, but Barris also created a lowbrow pageant for women called The $1.98 Beauty Show, hosted by the one and only Rip Taylor. Yeah that actually existed. He was the John Waters of '70s TV, and on The Gong Show, Langston was kind of his Divine. Well, actually that might have been “Gene Gene the Dancing Machine.”
For giving average Joes (and Joannes) the chance to be famous for nothing (or close to nothing) before it was the shameful cultural norm it is today, Barris will remain one of entertainment’s most influential groundbreakers. In fact, The Gong Show is coming back to TV with a reboot this year.
“It was really the first reality show,” Langston says. “Anybody could get on and do anything crazy. It didn’t matter if you read poetry backward or just sucked on a popsicle. It was like a party. Chuck was the host with the most and I was the guy with the lampshade on his head.”
Murray Langston's autobiography, Journey Through the Unknown, is available on Amazon.