Stars Who Got Their Start on the Gong Show


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In its original incarnation, “The Gong Show” was brought to us by Chuck Barris Productions and ran from 1976 to 1980. While you could technically call it a talent show, what most people remember from it is the absolutely terrible acts.

This included an act called “Have You Got a Nickel?” better known today as “The Popsicle Twins,” which producer and emcee Chuck Barris credited with making him want to get out of the television business and move to France. Since we don’t want to be responsible for linking to anything untoward, you can look it up on YouTube.

Despite this state of affairs, some genuine talent emerged from the show, and some people who are household names today got their start on the program. Here’s our rundown of the celebrities who first appeared as contestants on “The Gong Show” and went on to win legitimate stardom. We have included links to those performances where available.

Image Credit: Jean_Nelson/depositphotos.

1. Paul Reubens

The late Paul Reubens was best known for his iconic Pee-Wee Herman character, but before that, he was another struggling actor in Los Angeles, honing his craft wherever he could. This included “The Gong Show,” where he made 14 appearances. He said that he received AFTRA scale payments for his appearances and another $500 in prize money in the event that he won. He even made residuals off of the reruns. Reubens said that this money gave him the freedom to focus on the Groundlings, the improv group he was part of, which led to the development of Pee-Wee Herman.

Image Credit: Jean_Nelson/depositphotos.

2. Oingo Boingo

Oingo Boingo was a new wave band in Los Angeles whose frontman, Danny Elfman, had great success writing soundtracks for television shows such as “The Simpsons” and 1989’s “Batman” movie. Before shortening their name, they appeared on “The Gong Show” as “The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo,” and the all-star panel refrained from giving them the gong. Bill Bixby gave them a score of 10, putting them over the top and giving them the win.

Image Credit: Publicity Photo of Oingo Boingo, 1987 by MCA Records (CC BY).

3. Michael Winslow

Michael Winslow specialized in what could best be described as “making funny noises with his voice.” This landed him a role in the “Police Academy” movie franchise, but prior to that, he appeared on “The Gong Show,” where he won perfect scores from all three celebrity panelists for his uncanny impressions of the music of Jimi Hendrix and someone changing channels on a television set.

Image Credit: Michael Winslow, 2008 by Jan Rode (CC BY).

4. Rhonda Shear

Rhonda Shear has had a long and storied career as an actor, comedian, and entrepreneur. The former host of USA Network’s “Up All Night” and the creator of the Ahh Bra, she appeared on “The Gong Show” in 1979 to perform an impressive contortionist act to the musical accompaniment of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” You can almost hear her joints cracking as she twists her body into multiple impossible configurations, none of which look particularly comfortable.

Image Credit: Rhonda Shear.

5. Cheryl Lynn

Cheryl Lynn is singer who had a big hit in 1978 with the disco song “Got to Be Real”. Two years prior to that, she strutted her stuff on “The Gong Show” and sang a stunning version of “You Are So Beautiful” with stratospheric high notes. It netted her strangely mediocre scores from the celebrity panelists, including Jamie Farr, who said “I know very little about music” and gave her a six. She was robbed.

Image Credit: Amazon.

6. Andrea McArdle

Andrea McArdle is a singer and actor best known for originating the role of Annie in the Broadway musical of the same name in 1977. She appeared on “The Gong Show” in 1976, one year before winning the part. Video footage of her performance on the show has been maddeningly hard to come by, but hey, there’s tons of footage of her performing “Tomorrow” on “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1978, so play that, close your eyes, and listen to her win her way into America’s hearts.

Image Credit: Publicity Photo of Andrea McArdle as Annie From the Broadway Musical, Annie, 1977 by Photographer Martha Swope, New York (CC BY).

7. Mare Winningham

According to IMDb, original Brat Packer Mare Winningham appeared on “The Gong Show” in 1976 at the age of 16. Her act consisted of a performance of the Beatles’ “Here, There and Everywhere,” accompanying herself on guitar. While it did not win her any recording contracts, she went on to become the only member of the Brat Pack to receive an Oscar nomination, for the 1995 movie “Georgia”.

Image Credit: s_bukley/depositphotos.

8. Robert Schimmel

Robert Schimmel was a stand-up comic who “worked blue,” which is to say that many of his comic routines were overflowing with dirty jokes. Before finding success in the world of bawdy jokesterism, he appeared on “The Gong Show,” where he played the theme from “Love Story” with his nose. He lost, proving that there is absolutely no justice in the universe.

Image Credit: Amazon.

9. RuPaul

RuPaul is very likely the most famous drag queen in American history, which he’s parlayed into a successful career as an actor, producer, singer, writer, and most famously, the host of the television show “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” While footage of his appearance on “The Gong Show” is borderline-impossible to find, he did share on his X profile in 2015 that he had appeared on the show and lost to an Elvis impersonator.

Image Credit: Jean_Nelson/depositphotos.

10. The Unknown Comic

As time passed, “The Gong Show” began building a stable of regulars who would appear on the program, most notably Gene Gene the Dancing Machine and Murray Langston, better known as the Unknown Comic. He had been a standup comedian in Los Angeles since the 1960s but fell on hard times, leading him to perform on the show in the hopes of winning the prize money. Fearing that his appearance on so boorish a program would negatively affect his career, he put a bag over his head and was dubbed “The Unknown Comic.” Naturally, the thing he had been ashamed to do became his stairway to superstardom, and to this day, the act remains the thing he’s best known for.

Image Credit: RBArchives/YouTube.

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