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'The Gong Show' (NBC)
Premiere date: June 14, 1976
Plenty of people dismiss "The Gong Show" as the nadir of TV culture, and that's an entirely justifiable perspective. Still, I think of the show as something else -- a loosey-goosey, gleefully lowbrow moment that was quintessentially '70s (though it ran until 1989) and irresistibly fun. No one went on the show to be discovered, really, which immediately separated it from more earnest talent contests. No, "The Gong Show" gave people -- both celebrity judges and contestants -- a place to goof around, plain and simple. There was no pretense of being politically correct (a midget would run on stage tossing confetti when host and producer Chuck Barris announced the winner) or of following the rules. Sometimes an act would win, sometimes no act would win, and winning was never the point anyway. Many have tried to replicate the show's madcap, freeform style, but few have. Whether or not Barris was a spy, no one can argue that he was savvy enough to capture TV lightning in a bottle more than once.
- Liane Bonin Starr