Being a Contestant on The Gong Show and What It Taught Me About Storytelling
Updated: Nov 28, 2018
Alright, get ready for a wild ride where nothing truly makes sense. This story covers one of the weirdest experiences of my entire life. Thank goodness I have journal entries of the events, or I would’ve filed away these memories next to the bizarre dreams I’ve had while under the influence of NyQuil. Either way, I was on the reboot of The Gong Show a few months ago, and it actually taught me a valuable lesson about storytelling. Here’s the full story from the beginning.
I had a crush on this girl in high school. She loved to laugh, so I tried to find ways to induce said laughter. I came across the concept of “chin singing”. You’d put googly eyes on your chin, hang upside down, and sing a song. It was bizarre, which I thought would be perfect.
One evening I was driving her home, and I mentioned the idea. She thought it sounded hilarious and that she wanted to try it. The plan was working! We recorded a video of it that night and posted it to Instagram. The video was of her, as being upside down was making me dizzy that evening (Remember that, it comes into play later).
I was friendzoned by her a few days later. Note to self: chin singing does not attract women.
With that valuable lesson learned, I left the video alone to live on my Instagram account amongst the other posts we later realize we should've deleted a long time ago. The video was posted in April of 2014, and now we’ll flash forward to April of 2018. I received a message on instagram from a stranger saying she’d like to talk about my chin singing video. She later told me they wanted a chin singing group (that’s a thing?) on the second season of The Gong Show on ABC.
She asked where I lived, and since it’s a wonderful idea to give your location out to a stranger on the internet (I’m kidding. Don’t do that.), I thought I’d bite and play along. I was asked to get a few friends together and record a video for her. I was going out of town for a wedding, and recorded a minute long video with some friends I was staying with to send in to her. At this point I still didn’t know what was happening. I was expecting Ashton to come out at any moment saying we were being punk’d.
They absolutely loved the video, and we scheduled a Skype call with a casting director. He asked us questions of how we met, what we did for a living, and how we felt about getting “gonged”. We told him we either wanted to win the competition, or lose so badly that a video of us would go viral on Facebook. He loved that.
We then interviewed with two producers from the show. They had sat around a table in a meeting and were presented with all the acts. They chose us! We worked with them to find out which song to sing, costumes to wear, the whole shebang. We also spoke to multiple departments about travel, boarding, and all the other fun details like contracts and such. I'm really hoping I’m not breaking any of those contracts with this story.
Rehearsals for the 2018 Playmill season had just started, but we were able to get a taping date early enough in the process where we’d only miss a few days of rehearsal. Since every member of management watched the show religiously growing up, they helped us make it work!
Two of the three of us were sick right before the trip with ear infections (Again, remember that for later). Perfect timing, right? We stopped by the doctor on the way to the airport to get some shots. Anything that could help us survive the upcoming flight. The doctor asked why we needed to fly to LA, and I told him about being contestants on The Gong Show. His face lit up. Suddenly I was a celebrity. He immediately left the room and told every coworker around the office. So much for doctor-patient confidentiality.
Los Angeles welcomes the most famed chin singing group: CH*NSYNC.
We had the better part of a day to kill in Los Angeles before taping. We arrived on a Friday afternoon, and the taping would take place the entire Saturday. We spent the day near the Hollywood Walk of Fame, seeing museums, and visiting the Griffith Observatory (I especially loved the latter). After rehearsing in our hotel room (not without a call from the front desk regarding a noise complaint), we were ready to take the world by the chin.
We were driven from the hotel to the studio in a bus full of other contestants. This was our first time seeing everyone, and we felt completely out of place. It was quickly learned that these people do this for a living. These acts and routines are their lives. For us, our act was, quite literally, an act. Contestants were walking around with suitcases full of unique props, elaborate costumes, everything they needed to wow the judges. All we were asked to bring was black clothing. The producers had arranged everything for us: costumes, a small stage with working lights, and even a sign for an audience member to hold. We were being treated like sideshow royalty. Sure, that’s a thing.
Driving through the studio lot was a really cool experience. Seeing ginormous posters of shows currently being filmed definitely made me feel like a tourist from Southern Idaho. Before the performance that evening, we had to go over ground rules of the competition. They announced our judges, and everyone was very excited. The panel would consist of Will Arnett, Fred Armisen, and Rita Wilson (I only knew her for being Tom Hanks’ wife. But that's okay, she didn’t like us anyway). One performer had to leave and return for a later taping because she had recently met one of the judges before and that was against the rules.
We were then shown our costumes. They had described them to us over the phone and through emails, but wow, we were not expecting those. What a fun time the costume department must’ve had putting our costumes together. And good thing they did, because we would’ve never been able to come up with something as elaborate as those.
We then did a technical run of the show where they fitted our microphones, showed us where to stand, exit, and other pieces of information we’d need to know for later. Not long after that, we had a dress rehearsal. They used mock judges during this section, but Mike Meyers- or, erhm, Tommy Maitland, was there to rehearse. None of us were able to see him, since we had so many costume pieces covering our eyes.
Remember how I said I got dizzy trying this in April of 2014? I also got dizzy in April of 2018, and in May of 2018 during the shooting. I can handle the most extreme of thrill rides, but leave me upside down for more than 10 seconds and apparently my subconscious thinks the world is ending. Add that to the sickness I was still trying to overcome and multiply it by the unsettling meal I ate before the show; and the result was genuine terror.
Most people would be really nervous when about to perform on live television. The potential for thousands upon thousands of viewers was lost on me. My only fear was not stagefright, but vomiting into a costume that wasn’t even mine. They pushed us out for the recorded performance, and it began.
I imagine I would’ve been more nervous about the cameras if I had been able to see a single one of them. We stayed on our stage the entire time. The technical team pushed us out, over to the judges, and back off stage after we were done.
Even though I was feeling sick, the performance was fun! The audience really liked our act, and it was great to improvise and interact with the judges. I think Tommy Maitland even shook my puppet’s hand... Never washing that again.
Fred gave us a score of 6 (which Tommy advised against since we’d think it was a 9). Will was still kind and gave us a 5. Rita said we struggled with pitch and gave us a 1 for a whopping total of 12 out of 30. Receiving that score probably would’ve been a great cue for the comedic spew I had been holding in, but fortunately I was able to withhold the hurl.
We got off stage and I thought I was in the clear until the producers in the holding area wanted us upside down on the couch to do a post performance interview. Within five seconds of sitting down, they called frantically for a member of the medical personnel to come take a look at me. Having seen so many war dramas, I never thought I’d hear “We need a medic!” called for a 22-year-old dweeb that'd been upside down too long with an ouchy-ouchy tum-tum.
They stopped the interview, but not before we had drawn quite the crowd of other contestants. I went outside with the medic and he gave me some water and Emergen-C. Once I returned inside, the other performers asked me if this happened often. I said, “Not since 2014.”
Since we were the only contestants not performing these tasks for a living, we didn’t care about the 12 out of 30 score. When others heard what we had received, they tried to console us, promising great publicity regardless of the talley. I don’t think any of them truly understood our stance on the matter.
The bright side of being such a nauseated dweeb was getting to stand for the finale when the winner was announced instead of laying back down on the stage. We were finally able to see what the studio looked like! It was a lot smaller than we had expected, but it was still the coolest thing. During the end credits, Fred Armisen came up to me and stroked my chin in order to determine whether or not the beards were real. That was the highlight of my entire day.
We returned to the hotel wondering what in the world had just happened. Exhausted and ready for the next day at Disneyland, we went to bed and dreamt of things that made much more sense than our day.
What It Taught Me About Storytelling
I’ve always been very fascinated by reality television. It’s interesting seeing the credits of writers at the end of these types of show. And there is one overall job of a writer; to tell a story. Now I will never claim to know exactly what “story” The Gong Show is trying to tell, but I’m 100% positive that there is such a story. The way they reordered, cut, and edited all of the performances shows that there is a clear beginning, middle, and end to each episode.
When we were chosen to be on the show, they said we could be placed in two of the ten episodes. This leads me to believe that they were searching for specific people to fill slots for certain episodes. With the mentality of “these acts can’t go with these, or this act complements that one”.
Then there’s the subject of a good sob story. We’ve all seen it on a talent show. This person has this disease, was born with this defect, etc. I’m not trying to downplay their personal trauma, but rather point out that they are used in a show’s overall story. We had one ready, too. Without giving away personal details, we had an interesting story of how we all met, and a saddening story that could’ve easily given us more views. The interesting part is that The Gong Show never used any of that. Why not? Because it didn’t contribute to the story of the episode or series.
Hearing a story of a contestant gives them sanity, which makes it harder to laugh genuinely at the impending insanity The Gong Show is famous for. Every contestant, musical cue, and camera shot needs to support the style and theming of the show.
The best principle of storytelling this experience taught me was to never attempt to make your story something it isn’t. Everything needs to complement the goal you’ve set out to reach, and the story you’ve decided to tell.
Okay, enough about The Gong Show. It’s making me dizzy and I need to lie down.