During the late 1970s, every commentator who wanted an illustration of the end of civilization and the rise of barbarism used The Gong Show (1976-80).
Actually, similar contests were performed as early as Vaudeville, where performers tried to avoid getting "the hook" and being dragged offstage.
Some performers who later became famous include Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman), Danny Elfman, and Andrea McCartle. Stanley Williams, founder of the Crips gang, who was later executed for murdering four people, did a bodybuilding act.
But the fun was in watching the bad acts, in the same way that today, we prefer watching the horrifyingly bad performances to good performances on American Idol.
Remember, this was the late 1970s, an era of recreational sex, casual drug use, disco dancing, and silly jokes, an era of fun and frivolity. What was the harm in laughing at bad performances?
There were also recurring features, such as appearances by the Unknown Comedian, aka Murray Langston, who appeared with a bag over his head (in the top photo, he also has a bag over his penis).
The Gong Show Movie (1980) purports to be a week in the life of the Gong Show, with Chuck Barris playing himself, negotiating with outrageous contestants, censored acts, and miscellaneous craziness.
Many recognizable faces of the 1970s appeared, including Ed Marinaro, Rosie Grier, Tony Randall, and Danny DeVito. There was female nudity, of course, but also ample beefcake.