Everybody Is a Star
How Talent Shows Have Proved the Hoariest Clichés True Since the Dawn of Time and Will Continue to Do So After We’re All Dust
Stranger Flickr / Flckrd1
One biblical truth I'll defend to the end: Hiding your light under a bushel sucks. It doesn't matter if your light is a bell-toned singing voice or the ability to store shocking quantities of quarters in your nostrils. Standing up before your fellow humans—all of us makeshift gut-sculptures forged of the same basic stuff—to share your individual gifts is a sacred privilege, one rooted as deeply in humanity as the drive to protect infants and to poop in private, and one that has inspired countless acts of life-affirming brilliance, from the cave paintings at Lascaux to the next belting of a show tune by a homely middle-aged British cat owner.
I first began trafficking in human talent in 2000, when I curated and hosted the first Pizzazz!, The Stranger's citywide, all-ages talent show. Acts gained entry into Pizzazz! through auditions, from which we assembled The Show, the goal of which was not so much to create a Seattle-based Star Search but to put together a good old-fashioned talent show—gathering people of varying degrees of skill and experience (for every professional belly dancer there was an adolescent pianist audibly keeping time with her foot) into a cumulative extravaganza that would effectively function as a one-night-only installation artwork entitled Talent Show.
And Pizzazz! did end up looking pretty much like a regular old talent show, albeit one blessed with swanky digs (after its premiere at Consolidated Works, Pizzazz! moved to Bumbershoot and the glamorous Bagley Wright Theatre) and genuine stars (along with first-year underdogs/second-year champions the Trachtenberg Family Slideshow Players, there was perennial Special Guest Dina Martina, who annually opened the show with her self-penned Pizzazz! theme song). Then came 2002 and American Idol—and before long, talent-show-shaped entertainments were everywhere, a fact Pizzazz! addressed by committing assisted suicide in 2003.
Still, the bushel-defying drive to shine our lights—and gawk at the shining lights of others—cannot be vanquished by one reality-TV juggernaut, and before long we at The Stranger were angling for another way to harness the crowd-pleasing power of the pro-am talent show. The guiding reference point was, of course, Pizzazz!, but not the show itself—rather the auditions, a mind-bending parade of unfettered freakery that my outsider-art-loving friends came to relish as much as the far tidier curated final show.
Thus was born the Stranger Gong Show, an audition-free cavalcade of talent open to anyone who showed up. Anyone over 21, that is—all Stranger Gong Shows have occurred in nightclubs (first the Croc, then Chop Suey), and what we've lost in 6-year-old blues singers, we've made up for in drunken rambunctiousness. Keeping everything in check: the mighty gong, which hangs over performers' heads like an appropriated Asian guillotine. Why a gong? Because the original Gong Show's Chuck Barris said so, and good for him: There's no sweeter rejection than a gong, which wraps failure in a deep, regal shimmer.
Despite the name, the point of a gong show is to avoid getting gonged, preferably through skill and talent, though wit can be equally effective. Case in point: Miss Peggy Guy, who in 1976 lit up TV's original Gong Show with a performance for the ages, ostensibly coming onstage to sing, but then spitting out her dentures, becoming entangled in a folding chair, losing her wig, and collapsing to the floor, all in 40 seconds. The judges gave her what she deserved: straight 10s. The moral is another passel of talent-show-verified clichés: To thine own self be true. Quit while you're ahead. Less is more. God don't make no junk.
On Friday, May 8, the third-annual Stranger Gong Show will unfold at Chop Suey, as dozens of secret and not-so-secret superstars shine their lights before a howling crowd and a gong-mallet-wielding panel of judges. One lucky winner will leave with a slew of life-enhancing prizes (including passes to Sasquatch!, Bumbershoot, HUMP!, Northwest Film Forum, and SIFF) and $300 cash. Hundreds of lucky witnesses will never forget what they've seen. Anyone over 21 can sign up to compete at thestranger.com/gongshow. See you there.