Now, as Comedy Central revamps the variety spoof, they’re adding digitized fire to the logo, altering the scoring system to a possible 500 points per judge, throwing in some cursing and forcing Attell to wear a shiny blue sport coat. They’re also flying in, putting up, shuttling about and overfeeding the hopefuls who will face a panel of celebrity judges and in-studio audience of 112 during the eight half-hour episodes making up the series’ inaugural season. Vegas has its fair share of singers, dancers, magicians and comedians, but never before have its assorted oddball talents been gathered in one place, all with the same goal of not completely blowing it.
“It’s too bright and shiny out there. I want it to be dark and dingy,” host Dave Attell grumbles in his debris-strewn dressing room in Stage 6 of Hollywood’s Sunset Bronson Studio. “I like bringing out the acts and giving them their moments, especially the quirkier ones, and defending them against the judges. But I think the set should read that this is not a talent show, it’s more of a bar show. It looks like a gay bank.”
Questionable aesthetics aside, Attell is correct in emphasizing that the new incarnation of The Gong Show rides on its talent pool, a sizable chunk of which hails from Vegas. Most survived the open auditions at Planet Hollywood’s V Theater back on May 13, but the opportunity was far longer in the making. Not only were countless hours spent practicing and refining each one’s unique art, but it’s been nearly 30 years since the original Gong Show courted both controversy and high ratings. 1980’s reviled The Gong Show Movie, a 1988 syndicated revival lasting a year and two seasons of the Game Show Network’s Extreme Gong in the late ’90s have risen and fallen in the meantime. And the 2002 film version of creator, producer and host Chuck Barris’ Confessions of a Dangerous Mind “unauthorized autobiography” garnered far more attention for Barris’ claims of working for the CIA and George Clooney’s first-time directing than its reenactments and interviews with Gene Gene the Dancing Machine, the Unknown Comic and panelist Jaye P. Morgan.
At 55, James Brewster “The Rope Master” Thompson is one of the older contestants, but as he philosophizes, “It gives you a lot of motivation to get up each day if you have a lot of things you want to do in this life.”
As a kid he was a class clown and gang member before turning to ventriloquism and athletics. During his junior year of high school he began jumping rope as part of his basketball regimen, continuing through college wrestling and judo. “When I was training for the Olympics in 1980, I started jump-roping with one person on my back, trying to correlate how bodies would feel on me when I was throwing people. They were filming a TV series called The Road to Moscow with Steve Garvey, the baseball player. After they saw me on that show, a few other talk shows asked me to come on and jump rope with someone on my back.”
Thompson responded to the Craigslist audition ad and (old) schooled the V Theater competition, warranting a LasVegasWeekly.com blurb that read, “Best Richard Simmons-evoking Tank Top: Rope Master, muscular and bald, who, though he jumped rope with a volunteer sitting on his shoulders, promised he would also have a blonde hanging on each leg when he performed on television.”
In addition to his June taping, he tried out for his fifth and final Olympics (in judo), took third in the light heavyweight division of the Sumo Nationals and landed a teaching job in a dojo (he is also active in Just Say No and anti-violence programs around the country), but he’s thankful the experience didn’t hurt him where it counts. “I didn’t think it was as tough as it used to be in the ’80s. The old Gong Show used to really put down the talent and cut you down. This show was nicer to the talent.”
The Sure Things
A little person in an Evel Knievel jumpsuit recreated the legendary daredevil’s leap over the Caesars Palace fountains—albeit hopping a bowl of Caesar salad on a skateboard—and then Alex “Lady Diabla” Kaminski was up. “This next act has got it all: Brains, beauty and a wicked sense of humor,” Attell introduced as she emerged through the twin sliding doors at rear stage. Her hair may have been shockingly orange and yellow, but it was the swollen belly beneath a stretched “Baby on Board” tee that raised audience eyebrows. “I am one of eight female sword-swallowers in the world,” she announced before slowly inserting 27 inches of steel down her gullet. The gasps were audible from backstage.
The judges, however, were charmed. “If you would have swallowed in the first place, you wouldn’t be in this situation,” said Jim Norton, holding up a 421.
“I love your hair,” gushed Ron White. “I wish I could just hop over this fence and give you a big whatever.”
“Be careful, you’re swallowing for two,” cautioned J.B. Smoove, adding 431 to White’s 421.
Unlike the majority of her Vegas counterparts, Kaminski bypassed auditions when The Gong Show contacted her. “A couple people had called and said that they’d referred me, and they shot me a message. They were looking for a female sword-swallower, and I said, ‘That’s great!’ Then they asked, ‘So how do you feel about dressing pregnant?’ I was a little hesitant, but I thought it was really funny. It was just a gag, but a few people were offended. They actually thought it was real because it was such a real-looking belly they got me; it had a belly button and everything. When I went outside to smoke a cigarette people were disgusted … I took pictures for my mom because that’s the closest she’s ever going to see me to being pregnant.”
She may not be passing it along, but her genetic love of performance runs deep. Born into a circus-loving family, the future Diabla spent hours poring over her mother’s Modern Primitives books (tattooing, piercing and more graphic methods of body modification) and Human Freaks & Oddities trading cards. Expecting to rid her system of the impulse after one season, she joined a traveling carnival at 18. Instead she learned the stunts that would hook her for life; an affinity for nails, broken glass and industrial grinders has translated to successful busking, club shows, television and even films. A full-time entertainer, she travels nonstop, developing her own show during her scant downtime.
“I really liked how friendly everyone was, and Dave Attell actually took time out of his day to come by and make sure everything was going good,” she enthuses of her time on the Gong set. “It was a pleasant experience, an overall circus vibe.”
Contortionist Stephanie Castellone agrees. “I thought it was a great experience and the people there were very supportive. I’m really glad I did it,” she says. “Dave Attell was very nice to me. He came up to me a few times, wished me luck and said I’d do fine.”
Like Kaminski, Castellone bypassed auditions when producers contacted her directly. But there was a catch: “We’d seen a Russian contortionist perform a pool trick, but we needed an American,” explains casting producer Hedda Muskat. With no others answering the challenge, Castellone stepped up and learned the trick in a single day. “The original one didn’t even involve a cue ball; it was just hitting a ball into a pocket. I made a video real quick of using a cue ball to hit another ball in, but then they were like, ‘Let’s up it. See if you can get four balls in at once.’ I’m not really that great of a pool player, either.”
Following Attell’s intro—“My next act, she is a Swiss Army Knife of skills. So entertaining. Please welcome Stephanie”—she entered in a midriff-baring, black, white and silver leotard and settled, stomach down, legs bent backward up over her shoulders, atop a billiards table. She stationed the cue, aimed at four clustered balls, and sunk them all. “Oh man, if ever there was a commercial for tequila, that’d be it,” Attell shouted.
The judges were similarly impressed. “I don’t know how to score it, but this is my phone number,” offered Dave Navarro, holding up nine digits before settling on a perfect 500. Greg Giraldo awarded “a hundred for the pool and 300 for her vagina.”
“Of course they have to make comments,” Castellone says. “There’s a million derogatory comments you can make about a contortionist. They went there a few times with me, but I expected it. It’s all in good fun. Everyone’s thinking it anyway, so it’s not a big deal.
“I think it was mostly adrenaline that got me through it. I’ve never contorted that much in one day. I started at 9 in the morning and went straight through until 7. I didn’t even take the break that they gave us because I wanted to practice. All I was thinking was, ‘I’m going to look pretty stupid if I don’t get this in.’ So I wanted to make absolutely sure that I was going to get it in or at least give myself the best chance possible.”
Originally from Rhode Island, a 5-year-old Castellone learned floor tumbling and acrobatics in New York from a Canadian ex-Cirque du Soleil member, whose studio specialized in the circus arts. Though she dropped gymnastics in high school, she picked it up again later in life through specialized yoga. She’s performed in a handful of shows since moving to Vegas on a whim in 2004, but her immediate goal is to land a Cirque-caliber gig within the next few years. “I think me being in this field, how I got back into it and with the events that have gone on, it’s like, ‘Yeah, this was definitely meant to be.’”
The Duo That Deserved Better
The first morning Adam Carolla returned to the airwaves after a break from his KLSX radio show, he recalled his recent adventures on the Gong Show set. “It’s kinda like the old one except a little bit edgier,” the panel judge offered. “Like the gal who put the straw under her skirt and fired darts at her partner who had balloons taped to his bare chest … It was funny when the first one missed and hit the guy in the stomach … Had a nice uncomfortable moment where, when I was giving the critique of it I looked in the camera at a certain point. She was covered with tattoos and aggressive piercings, and I said, ‘Stepdads, this is why you don’t molest.’ And there was a little silence, and the guy with the balloons still strapped to his chest said, ‘Wow. You got that one right.’ I’m sure it’ll be cut out of the show.”
“He misquoted me, but he was close,” corrects Andrew S (Stanton) of Swing Shift Sideshow. “Dave Attell said, ‘The judges are going to give you hell; give it right back to them.’ It was Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, two girl comics no one knew and Adam Carolla, and when Adam said that, I said, ‘Hey buddy, I think you’re hitting too close to home.’ I didn’t say, ‘You’re right.’ I just hope everybody doesn’t think that Kellie [Christopher, aka Kelvikta the Blade] was molested by thousands of people.”
During Andrew’s own time in front of the camera, as his Swing Shift cohort Kelvikta assures, “I was taking pictures [of the television screen] in the back room of their faces, and they were in absolute terror.”
Andrew brought his tray of props onto the stage, with only one coil visible. As he inserted it through his right nostril and the end began snaking out of his mouth, Andrew says, “I look around, everybody’s like, ‘Okay, that’s a little freaky, buddy.’ I reach into my tube and I pull out my coil that’s about twice as long. Then I undrape my power drill and start spinning [the second coil with the drill]. Everybody’s getting even more and more freaked out, but when I actually put it in my face [Andrew puts the other coil through the other side of his nose while spinning it], that’s when everybody loses their shit, when they see my face being distorted by these two coils. I said, ‘Fuck it,’ and let all the saliva start dripping out of my mouth. The two girl comics got to their feet together and gonged it. But I can’t just be like, ‘Poof! It’s gone!’; so when they gonged me, I proceeded just to slam the drill into my face at full speed.”
Attell’s take: “His act got gonged, which I thought was ridiculous because that was the most interesting thing I’ve seen.”
The One with Recurring Potential
Toward the end of the five-hour V Theater auditions, the producers hit a dry patch. Far too many Elvis, Jack Sparrow and Willie Nelson impersonators, not enough somethin’ extra. And then Todd Simmonds walked onstage. He was original, funny and a little twisted, and Attell would love him. The producers just didn’t, at that point, know how much.
“I want to bring him back right away,” the host confirms. “He comes out and sings ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot,’ rips off his dress and we hit him with stuff. I want him to be like our Gene Gene the Dancing Machine. I thought he did great; everybody had fun throwing stuff. It was very Nickelodeon.”
Though execs cut his backing music in ways he wasn’t expecting, Simmonds dug meeting Attell and joking with judges Steve Schirripa and Andy Dick. “As part of the act I threw one of the balls at Andy Dick,” he laughs. “I said, ‘This one’s wet; who’s been sucking my balls?’ and he grabbed it and stuck it in his mouth.” Not that Simmonds’ character, Mona Lott, is necessarily an overly sexual extension of the man under the dress: “To me, I’m not a drag queen; I’m an actor, and it’s just another character I play.”
As for becoming the next Gene Gene the Dancing Machine or Unknown Comic, he remains realistic. “They originally wanted me to be a recurring character on the show, and I guess there was some legal issue that said because I was a contestant it wasn’t fair to the other contestants to bring me back, or something like that,” Simmonds explains. “But Dave actually said to me that yeah, he wanted me on every episode—they were talking about throwing different things at me, stuffed animals and I don’t know what else—but it didn’t happen that way. If they want me back at any time, I’ll go in a second.”
The Gong Show with Dave Attell debuts July 17 at 10:30 p.m. on Comedy Central.