Reubens expressed his affection for the producer, who died on Tuesday at 87, as he recalled his 14 appearances on Barris’ late 1970s hit “The Gong Show.” Before that, he appeared three times as a contestant — in his nerdy Herman persona — on Barris’ “The Dating Game.”
Reubens received AFTRA scale payments, $500 in prize money if he won on “Gong Show,” and even residuals for reruns. The money helped him focus on his craft as an actor and comedian with the Groundlings improv group.
In truth, contestants weren’t supposed to make repeat visits to “Gong Show.” Reubens had to disguise himself in his various acts lest the show run afoul of the FCC rules that govern game shows following the quiz show scandals of the early 1960s. But a number of actors, comedians, and fellow Groundlings members were semi-regulars on “Gong Show,” because Barris knew they would deliver, even if they didn’t win.
Reubens didn’t spend much time with Barris behind the scenes because FCC rules bar off-camera fraternization between producers and contestants. “You couldn’t talk to the judges and you had to be escorted if you had to go to the bathroom,” Reubens recalled.
But over time he became acquainted with Barris, and the two saw each other occasionally after Reubens’ career took off in the 1980s.
“He was always friendly and funny with me,” Reubens said.
In addition to the cash prizes from “Gong Show,” the “booby prizes” for losing were also memorable. One was a shrimp burger cooker, which came with a gift certificate to buy shrimp burgers. Another was a set of bowling balls. Reubens also received multiple cans of green paint, which were used to paint the green room at the Groundlings’ Melrose Avenue theater.
“Gong Show” taped at the NBC studio complex in Burbank. The show would plow through five episodes in a day. Reubens still remembers the chaotic atmosphere backstage.
“You were there with five shows’ worth of contestants — it was like a zoo,” Reubens said. “You’d be there with all these insane people who had driven across the country or taken a bus across the country for their shot at fame.”
For his first “Gong Show” outing in 1977, Reubens delivered a comedy routine about radio show sound effects with another actor-comedian, Charlotte McGinnis, a friend from his days studying theater at Boston University. They billed themselves as Betty and Eddie. After they won, Reubens and McGinnis took out a full-page ad in Variety.
“I sat by the phone and waited for it to ring. I fully expected my life was going to change and my career would take off,” Reubens said. “I think we got one phone call and we had a meeting with a manager.”
Having “Gong Show” on his resume didn’t land him much in the way of paying gigs. But the “Dating Game” appearances (Reubens thinks it was 1976) helped him hone the Herman character that would be his springboard to fame. He knew from his first “Dating Game” audition that Herman was destined for greatness.
“It helped me in terms of understanding the power of the character and how the outside world reacted to it,” Reubens said. “It made me realize that I was really going to be this person on stage.”