Each Gong show presented a contest between amateur performers of often dubious talent, with a panel of three celebrity judges. The program’s frequent judges included Jaye P. Morgan, Jamie Farr, Arte Johnson, Rip Taylor, Phyllis Diller, Anson Williams, Steve Garvey and Rex Reed. If any judge considered an act to be particularly bad, he or she could force it to stop by striking a large gong, a trope adapted from the durable radio show Major Bowes Amateur Hour. Most of the performers took the gong with sheepish good grace, but there were exceptions. Barris would then ask the judge(s) in question why they gonged the act.
Originally, panelists had to wait 20 seconds before they could gong an act; in short order this was extended to 30 seconds and then 45. Some performers deliberately ended their acts before the minimum time had elapsed, but Barris would immediately disqualify them. In other cases, a judge would gong an act before its minimum time was up; Barris would overrule the gong, and the act would be obliged to continue with its fate already sealed.
When an act was on the verge of being gonged, the laughter and anticipation built as the judges patiently waited to deliver the strike. They would stand up slowly and heft their mallets deliberately, letting everyone know what was coming. Sometimes, pantomimed disputes would erupt between judges, as one would attempt to physically obstruct another from gonging the act. The camera would cut back and forth between the performers onstage, and the mock struggle over their fate. Some acts were so bad that they were “Gang-Gonged”, with two or even all three judges striking the gong at once. On rare occasions, judges found an act so terrible that they would go onstage, hand a mallet to the performer, and lead him/her back to the table to gong him/herself out.
Any act that survived without being gonged was given a score by each of the three judges on a scale of 0 to 10, for a maximum possible score of 30. On the NBC series, the contestant who achieved the highest combined score won the grand prize: a check for $516.32 (a “highly unusual amount”, in Barris’ words; reportedly the Screen Actors Guild’s minimum pay for a day’s work at the time) and a “Golden Gong” trophy. The syndicated series’ top prize was originally $712.05 (the first episode was $996.83) and later increased to $716.32. In the event of a tie, three different tiebreakers were used at various times during the show’s run. Originally the studio audience determined the winner by applause, but this was later changed to a decision by the producers and (later still) the celebrity judges.
When Barris announced the final score, a midget in formal wear (former Munchkin Jerry Maren) would run onstage, throwing confetti while balloons dropped from overhead. On rare occasions, two acts that tied for highest score would each receive the check and trophy. No prize was awarded if all of the acts on a particular episode were gonged.
The daily Gong Show also gave out a “Worst Act of the Week” Award (later changed to the “Most Outrageous Act of the Week” Award), where the producers and that week’s judges decided which of the show’s bad acts for the week stood out the most. The winner of this award was announced following the trophy presentation on the Friday show, and the performer received a dirty tube sock and a check for $516.32.