Bang a Gong: master of ceremonies Barris

Question: Who was the woman on The Gong Show panel? I think she was a singer at one time. Thank you.


Answer: I'll take a wild guess here, assume you don't have Phyllis Diller or Dr. Joyce Brothers in mind and answer with jazz singer Jaye P. Morgan, often introduced by cocreator and host Chuck Barris as "juicy." And I'm sure the lady would object to your "singer at one time" classification, since she told the Los Angeles Times in 1997 that despite her various entertainment credits (movies, TV, stage, comedy), "[W]hen I get up in the morning, I get up as a singer."

Morgan, born Mary Margaret but dubbed J.P. when she took the job of class treasurer in high school, started her entertainment education at the age of 3 or 4 in a family act and eventually worked her way up to hit records ("The Longest Walk" and "That's All I Want from You" in the mid-'50s), work in stage musicals, numerous appearances on The Tonight Show and The Merv Griffin Show as well as her Gong Show panel efforts, for which she is best remembered by those too young to know her from her earlier credits. "It paid good money and it was great exposure," she said of those days in the Times.

But there's a better story in Barris, who created such game-show hits as The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game and wrote a best-selling novel before creating The Gong Show with partner Chris Beard. The idea was born in 1975 when the two men, who put together The Bobby Vinton Show, began reworking Beard's concept for a talent show, which he'd given up on because it was too difficult to find enough real talent. "I had this insane idea, so crazy I was afraid to mention it," Beard told TV Guide in 1978. "No good acts? So capitalize on the bad ones. Then I thought, wouldn't it be great with crazos? Fill your show with crazed talent. Then put in a panel of celebrities and when things get too heavy, the panel gongs them. Like the hook in vaudeville."

After shooting a pilot with Arte Johnson, Joanne Worley, Richard Dawson and Adrienne Barbeau as judges and Gary Owens as host, Barris managed to sell both a daytime and a nighttime version. The show premiered on NBC's daytime schedule in June 1976 and the syndicated evening take on it showed up in the fall. Barris hosted in the daytime, replacing Owens as host of the evening show after its first year and then buying out Beard's share of the property (two shifts that generated considerable acrimony between the latter two men and the guy the Unknown Comic called "Chuckie"). By the time The Gong Show ceased production in 1980, such noted B-list personalities as Jamie Farr, David Letterman, Rex Reed, Pat Harrington, Steve Garvey and Scatman Crothers were given gong command.

The canny but wacky Barris, whose biographical details changed practically every time he told the story, wrote Confessions of a Dangerous Mind: An Unauthorized Autobiography in 1984. In it, he claimed he'd been a CIA assassin, but that recollection disappeared by the time he wrote 1993's The Game Show King: A Confession, which makes no mention of it.

As for Barris' cultural influence — Survivor, Fear Factor, Big Brother and countless tell-all talk shows owe him a great debt — the man himself summed up the buttons he pushed in TV Guide's 1978 Gong Show story. "Sure you relate to people on stage," he said. "People always like to see other people fed to the lions. To get out there and be tormented, that takes guts. It's reassuring to find there is somebody unhappier than you are."