Twitter Gong Show Takes Toronto (A Case For Social Media Marketing)

When Mark DeBonis was asked by a talent booker to think up an idea for an entertainment show at the last minute, DeBois spit out the first thing that came to his mind: a Twitter Gong show.At the time, DeBonis—a stand-up comedian—was half joking; he wasn't really sure exactly what a Twitter Gong show would look like, or if the concept could work, but he suggested it anyhow.

When Mark DeBonis was asked by a talent booker to think up an idea for an entertainment show at the last minute, DeBois spit out the first thing that came to his mind: a Twitter Gong show.

At the time, DeBonis—a stand-up comedian—was half joking; he wasn’t really sure exactly what a Twitter Gong show would look like, or if the concept could work, but he suggested it anyhow.

Uncertain, the talent booker said no, and nothing happened of it. Now there was just this idea idea stuck like gum to the back of DeBonis’ curly-haired head.

It wasn’t until later, when he mentioned the idea to friend and fellow comedian Garrett Jamieson that things started to take off.

The two organized and promoted the event through Facebook and Twitter, using their social media skills to make things happen. “The internet makes the world small” Debonis told me in a Facebook exchange.

Debonis and Jameson wanted to take all the elements from gong shows past and combine them with the spontaneity and reactiveness of social media. “We wanted to put together a fun night” he said, so we booked a time slot at the Rivioli in Toronto and tried it out.”.

[left]: Mark Debonis & a judge from Toronto’s second TwitterGong show

More  than seventy people showed up to the first Twitter Gong show, which took place in early September. “There were hundreds of tweets that night.” Eytan Millstone told me. He would know—Millstone won the first Twitter Gong show with the rap skills he’d honed as a regular on Toronto’s open mic circuit.

Millstone, who performs and tweets under the name Eytan Crouton, was invited back to the second show as the feature performer. He told me that the first gong show generated so much buzz that the hashtag #TwitterGong was a trending topic in Canada. Not bad for a passion project.

While Gong shows aren’t new, the concept of a Twitter Gong show is certainly unprecedented. Gong shows were popularized in the seventies with the NBC program “The Gong Show,” which ran from 1976 to 1989. The program’s main staple was Jonny Jacobs, who hosted  from ’76-’80. Charlie O’Donnell was later brought on for The Gong Show’s revival in the late ’80s.

The program featured a line-up of unique and quirky guests: you had your traditional talents (think musicians and magicians) as well as your not-so-traditional talents (think a man who manipulates his face into ugly and bulging expressions).

In the show, if an act was particularly bad, the judges could strike a gong, forcing the performer to stop. The gong was a trope adapted from the long-standing radio show, the Major Bowes Amateur Hour.

The Gong Show featured celebrity judges (Steve Martin, David Letterman, and Steve Garvey, to name a few) and regular guest personalities, such as The Unknown Comic, Gene Gene the Dancing Machine, and Larry Spencer.

Unlike other variety shows of the time (The Ed Sullivan Show, The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, The Hollywood Pallace), The Gong Show sought to entertain audiences rather than showcase exceptional talent. As blogger Gravy Beard explains, “a bad act on the Gong Show was just as likely to win the prize as a good one. In fact, some talented people were gonged off the stage while some truly awful acts evaded the boot”

Fast forward forty years, and the same tactics—a charasmatic host, guest judges, unlikely prizes, and of course, at the center of it all, a gong— can be seen in DeBoin’s show, only now we have the added flavour of new media.

A Twitter Gong show operates like a regular gong show, only the audience can tweet their opinion of the performers from their smartphones, iPads or laptops. Tweets are screened behind the performer, so the everyone can read what the audience is tweeting—everyone except the performer.  The whole event hinges on Twitter’s hashtag function, which allows tweeters to group conversations together: