Chuck Barris can't play guitar
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
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
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
- She said, son I'm awfully glad to get
you alone, cause.
- I think there's something you should
- We checked your roots, you know your
- And I don't know, it's strange to me,
- 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
- Learned to clap my hands and shout,
- Ate watermelon every day, bought a
Cadillac car, what can I say
- People started thinkin', somethin'
- 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
- 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?
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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!
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
"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.