Will Arnett: ‘The Gong Show’ Reboot ‘Allows for a Lot of Insanity’

Greg Gayne/ABC
(L-R): EP/judge Will Arnett, with judges Ken Jeong and Zach Galifianakis on The Gong Show

The strange and unusual talents you’ve dismissed as a kid at the school talent show are welcomed with open arms on ABC’s reboot of the classic variety series The Gong Show. From a woman who plays the harmonica while a tarantula sits in her mouth to a married couple performing a choreographed banana spitting routine, The Gong Show features acts that you can be sure you’ve never, ever seen before.

Contestants will perform their routine in front of three celebrity judges in hopes of not being “gonged” before their act is finished. Each episode will feature a new panel of judges alongside host Tommy Maitland, British comedy legend.

Thursday’s series premiere’s judges include Ken Jeong, Zach Galifianakis and Will Arnett, executive producer of the show. Adding judge to his loaded holster of roles on TV, Arnett explains how the show follows its original and what viewers can expect in this burst-out-in-laughter, amateur talent show.

How did the reboot of The Gong Show come to be?
Will Arnett:
Well, we were thinking about what would be a fun show to do given that a lot of the news these days is very serious, as news often is. We wanted to do a show that was kind of freeform and allows for a lot of insanity. The Gong Show came up, and we were like, “Wow, imagine if we brought that back,” and we started talking about what that would mean and how we would do it. We went out and pitched it to everybody and put it together. It’s one of those things that when you say The Gong Show, it’s hard to say it without smiling, and it makes other people smile too. It elicits fun and good times.

Will the show keep the crazy antics from the ’70s?
We want to live up to the legacy of the original show, which was the first of its kind: a show that really embraced the bizarre and the weird and the unusual. Chuck Barris, the host and producer of the [original] show, was not a TV personality. In fact, he hosted it by default because they couldn’t find anybody else. That ended up being a stroke of genius, because it gave the show a kind of unpolished vibe. The judges seemed like they were having a lot of fun, and for the viewers, it felt like they were in on the fun with the judges. That was really important to us. I wanted to reach out to people I knew who were fun and funny and bring them on and let them be a part of the show so that the audience could feel like they’re in on the joke with these judges, people that they know, actors and comedians that they’re familiar with and love, and they can kind of have fun along with them.

What makes a better show: good talent or the terrible, laughable acts?
You have to have a balance. We had people who had an actual talent, but it wasn’t that they had a great singing voice and we saw potential for them to be a pop star. Whatever they did, my barometer that I always used as a judge was, “Was this entertaining?” And that doesn’t necessarily mean, “Were they good at what they did” but “Did it make me laugh and was I entertained?” That was what we went for; that’s the vibe of the show.

And sometimes you’d have people that would come on and do something that was bad but it was entertaining. Or you’d have people who’d come on that were bad and you got the feeling that they didn’t do anything. It was just kind of lame or they were barely trying. And then you’d be like, “No, this is terrible. You’re not even doing anything.” So it’s really about a balance.

If you were a contestant, what would your talent be?
Boy, I don’t know. I’ve thought about that. I’m a mediocre juggler. It would probably have something to do with juggling. I cannot ride a unicycle, that I’m aware of. If I could train myself to juggle and do something else at the same time I’d be pretty stoked, and I’d definitely want to bring that on to the show.

So American Idol’s judges set a precedent for judges, establishing “the nice one,” “the mean one,” etc. What kind of judge are you?
I try not to fall in any particular category. We didn’t have a formula when it came to that. Like I said, it’s so free-flowing, and the judging really depended on who else is on the panel and involved that kind of natural chemistry. There would be times where I would be tough and gong somebody pretty early on in their routine or their act. There would be times where I could be like, “All right, I’m going to give this person a little more leeway.” It really depended on who else was on the panel and what the act was.

How did you and the other producers choose the line of judges for the season?
For the most part, I just reached out to people that I knew, friends of mine that I thought would have fun in this environment. That was kind of it. There were a few people that I didn’t know but for the most part, it was people that I said, “Hey, come do this, and have a good time with us.”

How did you meet the show’s host, Tommy Maitland? What’s it like working with him?
I met Tommy in the U.K. I saw him do some comedy there a few years back, and I’ve always been a fan of his particular brand of comedy. So I had the opportunity to meet him, and he and I discussed the idea of working together someday. When the show came about, I thought that Tommy would be perfect for it. I reached out and was able to drag him out of his semi-retirement. It’s such a thrill, I’m just honored to share the stage with him. In my books, he’s such a comedy icon and legend. It’s really just a thrill of a lifetime.

So there are rumors going around that Tommy Maitland is actually Mike Meyers, can you confirm or deny that?
That’s so funny, I’ve heard that too! I know Tommy, and Tommy Maitland is a comedy legend. I guess I put it down to the fact that maybe Tommy is so talented that people just can’t believe it.

Will we see a 2017 version of the Popsicle Twins?
[Laughs] No, but one of the things we sort of wrestled with was that the original was such a great show and we wanted to make sure we lived up to the legacy. So with the Popsicle Twins and Gene Gene the Dancing Machine, we didn’t want to try to re-create necessarily what they did, we wanted to leave that intact. We have our own things that make our show unique. But at the same time we’re trying to honor the original and hopefully not sully or tarnish the image.

Turning to one of your other shows, what’s in store for the Bluth family in Season 5 of Arrested Development?
Well, I can’t tell you what’s in store, but I can tell you that we’re going to start shooting soon.

The Gong Show, series premiere, Thursday, June 22, 10/9c, ABC