'The Gong Show': TV Review

The Gong Show Still Tommy Maitland - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of ABC
Keep the acts, gong the host.

The venerable variety-show format gets good judges and talent for its opener, but Mike Myers' performance-art host, Tommy Maitland, adds nothing.

ABC's new version of The Gong Show, premiering Thursday, is hosted by Tommy Maitland.

Tommy Maitland is a reasonable enough simulacrum of a human.

Tommy Maitland adds almost nothing to the pleasure of watching the Gong Show premiere, which otherwise is at least moderate.

Fortunately, Tommy Maitland doesn't exist.

I get completely why Mike Myers would think that hosting The Gong Show as a latex-entombed relic of British game shows past was a performance-art hoot. And I get completely why ABC would be willing to let Myers do whatever the heck he wanted in exchange for hosting The Gong Show.

Having now proven his ability to host the show incognito, a gimmick original host Chuck Barris surely would have appreciated, my advice/hope going forward would be: Don't. Stop. Move on. [Since The Gong Show has presumably pretaped its first season, I have no expectation that my recommendation will be taken.]

Continuing ABC's mania when it comes to resurrecting beloved game-show brands, the new incarnation of The Gong Show operates on the same basic principle as the original series. A variety of unique acts take the stage, performing for a panel of three celebrity judges. If the talent is able to complete its song/dance/disgusting-food-act, the judges offer scores (that really don't matter). If, however, one of the judges is unable to tolerate a second more, he or she can jump off their couch, scurry to a different part of the stage and bang a gong, forcing an abrupt end to the performance.

Will a contemporary audience be able to cotton to the weird vibe that The Gong Show nailed in its heyday, to which the remake also aspires? It's unclear. The show's premise demands a mixture of oddities displaying actual and incontestable skills and oddities reveling only in their own oddness. The goal for the celebrities is all about distinguishing between the performers in need of being shamed for television opportunism and those whose efforts should be lauded or at least complimentarily derided. And the challenge for the viewer is also in recognizing the difference.

The season's first contestant, for example, is a bagpiping unicyclist wearing a gorilla suit. He also pops balloons. He's reasonably good at several of these things and entertainingly ridiculous at all of them. Is this a person worthy of honor or mockery? Other figures of note in the first episode include a woman whose act includes a tarantula and a harmonica, plus a pair of Asian country singers who acknowledge the show's central cultural appropriation presumably in the hopes that we need never acknowledge it again.

Freaks and geeks are an important part of America's TV talent-show culture, and the trick to The Gong Show as a format, separating it from disastrous American Idol auditions or more frivolous America's Got Talent contenders, is the idea that there are no clear-cut star acts here. Nobody's just gonna come out looking like a model, wailing "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" and pick up 10s from the judges. "Begrudging respect" and "bemused admiration" are more common reactions than "unqualified adulation." That's just what the show is.

Some 40-plus years after the original, America has even less of a thriving vaudeville/variety theatrical tradition, and I confess to some wonderment at where these acts have come from or honed their craft. But the contestants on the pilot episode mostly do what one would want Gong Show contestants to do. Some are funny. Some are awful. And there's laughing to be done.

The celebrity judges are very important to the formula and the premiere has a good, albeit somewhat collectively similar, trio in Will Arnett (also an executive producer), Ken Jeong and Zach Galifianakis. Arnett's perplexed deadpan, Galifianakis' giggly admiration and Jeong's hammy desire to play along are all energies the show can thrive on. The three men banter well together and you can tell they understand the show. ABC has done well with its Match Game celebrity wrangling, so I have some confidence that future Gong Show judging panels will be more effective than not.

Where I lack confidence, to bring us full circle, is in Tommy Maitland, who comes across as either a tertiary Austin Powers sidekick or a quaternary Saturday Night Live sketch character. He has a shrine to Queen Elizabeth, he likes double entendres and he enjoys saying "cheeky monkey" (over and over again) — and that's about all I can say about Tommy. He doesn't get any real laughs, and none of his gabbing with the judges particularly works.

It would be one thing if Myers were doing some Andy Kaufman-style anti-comedy bit, perhaps playing off of Chuck Barris' own discomfort as host. But there's little evidence that's what he's doing. The shtick isn't, "Here's some horrible, random British guy who lucked into hosting The Gong Show and is failing miserably." It's, "Here's a venerable British comic who has been handed the robust institution of The Gong Show." The former might work. The latter does not.

In conclusion, with its judges and talent, the first episode of ABC's The Gong Show has potential; with its host, however…


Premieres: Thursday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (ABC)