ConstantCommentary® Vol. 1, No. 9, **Greatest Hits** 1997-1999

So Sue Me . . .

by Mike Jasper

Chuck Barris can't play guitar for shit

In 1977, June I think, I won the Gong Show. The real one. The one with Chuck Barris, Gene-Gene the Dancing Machine and all the midgets. Are you impressed? No? You should be. Have you ever met a Gong Show winner before? I didn't think so. Well... you have now. And nobody -- I mean nobody -- can ever take that away from you.

It gets better. My brother met Kevin Bacon. You're now three degrees away.

For the last 20 years, I've been reluctant to admit that I'd ever been on the show at all. But recently I've changed my mind, for two reasons: 1) It's a singularly unique experience, as unique as getting the girl on the Dating Game. 2) It's turned out to be the high point of my music career. Who knew?

How I Got On The Show

I knew the Unknown Comic before he was unknown. His real name is Murray Langston and he still does stand-up. He used to run an open mike featuring up-and-coming comics and singer-songwriters at a club on Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood. I met him through my girlfriend at the time, Claire, an up-and-coming comedian.

One night she and Murray ganged up on me.

"You should do the Gong Show," Claire said. "You've got funny songs. A funny song will always win." Claire knew her schlock, since her father had been featured in a National Enquirer article. Apparently he had rescued a little German boy from the Russians in World War II, and when the little kraut grew up, he gave Claire's dad a Mercedes. True story.

Murray agreed with Claire and added an extra incentive. "If you do one of your own songs, you don't have to win. You'll get royalties from BMI or ASCAP (song licensing organizations) just for being on national TV."

Hmmm. National TV. It had a nice ring to it. Royalties. That sounded good too. I thought it over. After all, a comedian friend of mine, Argus Hamilton, had gone on Jeopardy and won a shitload of money. He still worked in the business and no one ever said, "Oh, look, it's the comic who did Jeopardy." I figured I could go on the Gong Show, get the royalty money, resume my singer-songwriting career and no one would be the wiser.

Think about it. Can you remember even one name of a former Gong Show winner?

So Murray gave me a phone number and I scheduled an audition for the next Saturday. I took a friend, Don Springer, and went to what looked like an abandoned office building off Hollywood Blvd. Inside was a makeshift studio, where I auditioned for two production assistants and a video camera. I remember thinking, "Is this really the Gong Show audition or one of Murray's practical jokes?"

The audition went well. My song was exactly what they were looking for -- 90 seconds long to the second. All the acts had to be EXACTLY 90 seconds long. After all, they had a TV show to do, and they weren't going to be jerked around by artistic bullshit.

I wrote the song specifically for the Gong Show. It was called "Gotta Little Soul" and was a talkin' blues song about a white guy who finds out he's part African-American. To celebrate his newly found ethnic background, he conforms to the stereotype. (Hey, give me a break. Cartman did the same thing on South Park.) More or less, it was a spoof on "Roots."

Here's the lyrics to the song:

Gotta Little Soul

Gotta Little Soul, Gotta Little Soul
Well, my mother called me up on the telephone
She said, son I'm awfully glad to get you alone, cause.
I think there's something you should know.
We checked your roots, you know your family tree
And I don't know, it's strange to me, but son
You're 1/32 and a half part Negro.
Gotta Little Soul, Gotta Little Soul
Well, I wondered how I should act
So I started watchin' TV shows for blacks.
Learned to clap my hands and shout, "Dynamite!"
Ate watermelon every day, bought a Cadillac car, what can I say
People started thinkin', somethin' wasn't white.
Gotta Little Soul, Gotta Little Soul
Well now I wondered what I should do
So I started a religion, wouldn't you.
Changed my name to Bebe Abba Boo Boo
But I had to leave the fraternity
USC was cool but not hip, you see, and besides...
Those white boys were drivin' me crazy.
Gotta Little Soul, Gotta Little Soul.
(Copyright 1977 Santa Barbara Music)

There was only one problem: I'm not black. I soon learned -- and have continued to learn -- that nobody really believes in the concept of the unreliable narrator. ("IT'S REALLY YOU MOTHERFUCKER. IF IT ISN'T, HOW COME IT'S WRITTEN IN FIRST PERSON. HUH? HUH? HUH?")

A week after the first audition, I got a call from Chuck Barris Productions. I had passed the first round and now would play my song for the man himself. On the following Saturday, I went to some office building in Westwood and did my schtick for Chuck Barris. He loved it. He loved me, which is amazing because he was incredibly mean to everyone else. Why me? Three reasons: My song was funny, my song was 90 seconds exactly and my song was one he could play along with on guitar. Remember? He'd play that Gibson electric? Well, my song had three chords and Chuck Barris could play all three of those chords. Barely.

Barris scheduled my appearance on The Gong Show two weeks after the audition, a Monday. I had to be at the studio in Burbank at 6 in the morning, which meant I had to stay up all night till 5 a.m. and drive to Burbank. Getting up in the morning has never been one of my better skills.

Taping The Show

I made it to the studio on time, filled out some form listing my hobbies, hometown, name I wanted to use for the show and other showbiz bullshit. They served us doughnuts and coffee, thank god. We were hustled into a room filled with those multi-purpose folding tables and chairs. It looked like a high school gym, except for all the fucked-up people. Most of them looked like they were trying to be contestants on Let's Make A Deal. Two guys in some bizarre yet matching costumes tried to make friends with me.

"We're the dancing ovaries. You know, like that film you saw in grade school?"

"They never let me watch that film," I said. "Only the fifth grade girls were allowed to watch." I had to lose these eggs, I thought. "Well, got to get some more coffee."

"What are you doing on the show?" one of the ovaries asked.

"I'm singing a song I wrote."

"Ah, we're doing our own song too." He put his hand on my shoulder and said, "You really need a gimmick though, cause... only black singers win on this show."

Oh, I had a gimmick all right. "Yeah," I said, scratching my arm like a junkie. "I really need to get more coffee, though."

Irony rules my life, so it makes sense to me that the only contestant I liked was an African-American woman who happened to be a professor of English at San Diego State University. I forget her name. Maya Angie Lou, or something.

"What are you doing on the show?" I asked. That's what everybody asked.

"I'm singing a torch song," she said.

"Oh, you have a good chance to win then," I said. I immediately realized that I had been reduced to ovarian sensibilities. "I mean... you're a good singer, right?"

"Oh, I'm a pretty good shower singer," she said. "But I'm just doing this for fun. How about you? What are you doing on the show?"

"Ahhhh... I don't know. Some stupid song I wrote." I struggled to change the subject, on the outside chance that I could get laid at the NBC Burbank studios. "Want some coffee?"

The Game Show From Hell

Bummer. I found out I was performing for the daily daytime show, not the weekly prime-time show aired at night. Barris taped all five daytime shows in one long fuckin' day. The main difference between the daytime show and the one at night was money. You got a bigger check for winning the Gong Show at night and bigger songwriting royalties.

Most of the day was spent waiting. Waiting, waiting, and waiting. The show wouldn't be taped until 6 p.m, so we had to wait 12 hours just to go on. You drank coffee, gobbled doughnuts and schmoozed until they called you in for a technical rehearsal, where they checked sound levels, set lights, and made you stand at taped marks on the floor. Showbiz stuff.

There must have been at least 50 acts there, but some of them freaked out during technical rehearsal. Some missed their marks, some went overtime, and others just choked and froze when the camera's red lights went on. Chuck Barris would yell at them and they'd soon be shown the door. Brutal.

Me? I hit everything perfectly. Wish I could say the same for Chuck. He played his guitar a spit second behind me, so it sounded like a slap back echo.

After the dress rehearsal, a woman came into the big hall and announced, "Anyone who is doing an original song needs to come by my table and pick up one of these forms." About six of us went to the table and took a form. I read it. And then I reread it. It said, basically, that we'd have to turn our royalties over to Chuck Barris Productions. The form, in fact, was a publishing contract. Now what? Should I sign this? After all, I have put in all this time and I'd like to get on the show. I even told all my friends and my relatives I was going to be on TV. Maybe I should just sign it.

On the other hand... fuck this shit. Chuck Barris plays guitar for shit, I'm surrounded by dancing ovaries, I've got phony actors copping showbiz attitudes, and I'm tired, wired and pissed. I was staring at the contract in disgust when one of the ovaries approached me.

"Did you sign the form?" he asked. "You won't get on unless you do, you know."

"Man, I don't know if I want to do this," I said. "The whole point of being on the show was to get the royalties. I don't think it's worth it."

"Fine, but everyone else signed it and if you don't, you won't be on," he said, like the smug little ovary he was. That settled it. I wasn't going to sign the contract. I had been on the fence, but doing the opposite of what this ball-busting ovary said seemed like a good idea to me.

Besides, I'd just tell them that the song was already published. Yeah, that's it! And then I'd name the publisher -- I knew a couple -- and then I'd call him up tomorrow and work out some kind of deal. Yeah, that's what I'd do. I walked over to the table where the woman was sitting. I had my story all worked out.

"Look," I told her. "I can't sign this, cause the song's already published and --"

"That's fine," she said, snatching the unsigned contract from my hand. "No problem."

I couldn't believe it. It was an idiot box. It was Chuck Barris going for every dime. And if you were stupid enough to sign it, he got the extra dough. If not, no problem. Ha! Fuckin' idiot ovary.

My confidence changed drastically after that little episode. I smiled, struck up a conversation with Gene Gene the Dancing Machine (he was actually a production assistant) and I started thinking maybe I could win. It really hadn't occurred to me before. I was just in it for the royalties. But now I had visions of midgets with huge fuckin' checks.

At 6 p.m., we were summoned to the stage. We waited in folding chairs until we were told to go on. There were about 10 acts to a flight, and production assistants just grabbed whoever Chuck wanted to go on. Wouldn't you know it? The college professor and I were to appear on the same show. Great. Chuck must have loved it. A spoof on "Roots" and a black soul singer.

The first act to go on was phony. Barris hired actors to be gonged, just to keep the ratings up. People loved to watch an act get gonged. No one ever talked about the winners, just the losers. "Did you see the guy who tap danced on stilts get gonged?" People love watching losers get their due.

The second act was real, yet somewhat surreal. It featured a disturbed looking kid from the San Fernando Valley who did bird calls. He was a strange bird himself and didn't look much more than 16 years old. He had the angry scowl of a postal worker and he really wanted to fuckin' win. When he got gonged, he did not look pleased. (I would see that anguished look in a performer's eyes several more times in my life, after I started hosting open mikes.)

The next act was another phony. Ha! That left me and the professor. Fuck a duck, I could win this puppy. And if I didn't, I'd lose to the only person there I respected. Therefore... I couldn't lose.

I was next. All I remember hearing was, "And now, Mike Jasper," and I broke into the song. Chuck, fucking me up as only he could, played off tempo the whole way. Of course, you never heard this because they buried him in the mix on TV. Think about it. Could you ever hear that guitar or did you just see him playing guitar?

I finished, the audience applauded and the scores came in. I got a 9 from Jaimie Farr, another 9 from J.P. Morgan and a 10 from Anson Williams. "He sounds like the pride of west Texas," Williams said. "I'm giving him a ten." I had no idea what he was talking about, but I was grateful for the 10.

My final score was 28 out of a possible 30, so... I could lose. It was now the professor's game to win. She sang her song and was quite good. I didn't see much hope at that point (after all, she was a BLACK singer). After the commercial break, the scores came in. She got a 9 from Jaimie Farr, a 9 from J.P. Morgan and another 9 from Anson Williams, who posted his score last and looked embarrassed by it, as if he had just taken part in a lynching. Which in a way he had.

I had won by one point, 28 to 27. It was a less-than-perfect outing, but I had won.

Now What?

Chuck pulled me onstage, confetti fell from the sky, a midget handed me the huge fucking check (which was for something in the neighborhood of $712.39), the judges walked on stage, Anson Williams refused to talk to me (but then, he had done enough for me, right?), everybody clapped, balloons popped and then... it was dark. Actors and Chuck split and the midget snatched the phony check from my hand. I was marched down a short corridor, hustled to a side door and soon found myself standing in the summer heat of the Burbank studios parking lot.

"What the fuck is this shit?" I thought.

Claire came running up the parking lot to greet me. "You did great. You won. I told you you'd win," she said. She was with a couple of our neighbors, young kids really, a guy and a girl. "Man, some of the black guys in the audience wanted to kick your ass," the guy said.

"Really?" I was surprised and disappointed by that. Are they going to take this seriously?

Claire confirmed the kid's observation. "Yeah, that's why they got you out of the studio so fast. Someone threatened to beat you up." I noticed I was the only contestant in the parking lot and it didn't look like the winner's circle. I decided to leave while I was ahead.

Fame and Fortune

A month later, the show went on the air. To my surprise, I looked pissed and hostile. But I was on key, so what the fuck? A friend of Claire's -- a school teacher -- was going to tape the show, since he had access to the school's video recording equipment (VCRs were not around in those days). I called him up the day after the broadcast to check on my tape. "Oh, man, the waves were breaking and I went surfing. Sorry dude. How did it go anyway?" Fuckin' asshole surfer geek.

About a month later, I got my Gong Show check for $712.39 in the mail. I also got the famous Gong Show trophy, a Hibachi, coupons for free root beer and other nice parting gifts. I kept the check and gave the trophy to Claire. Haven't seen her or the trophy for years. In fact, the only proof I have of being on the show is an invoice from NBC and photocopies of the royalty checks I got from ASCAP. The royalty checks varied from a high of $600 for the original broadcast, to a low of $30 for a re-run in Canada. But I must have made $1500 from "Gotta Little Soul," the only song I've ever really made money on. It's also the one song of mine I refuse to sing anymore.

I haven't seen Chuck Barris since that summer day in 1977, but I hear that every five years or so, the former Gong Show winners get together for a reunion at Chuck's house. AND HE NEVER FUCKING INVITES ME!

Still Famous

Ten years after the show, 1987, I was drinking at a pub near Sonoma State University when a coed came up to me and said, "Are you Mike Jasper?"

I took a long swallow of my beer before I answered and eyed her suspiciously.

"Yeah, I'm Mike Jasper."

"I saw you last week on the Gong Show. They played it on the USA Network."

I looked at her, horrified. She actually remembered me from a fucking game show? "How did you recognize me?" I asked.

"You're wearing the same shirt," she said. I looked down and discovered she was right.

* * *

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: This column aims to be funny. If you can read anything else into it, you're on your own.