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You Asked, We Tell

A small chalkboard leans on an easel just inside the door of the Crucible Steel Gallery, a cavernous warehouse space on Bryant at 19th Street. Scrawled in drunken script across the elementary-school green are the significant words: Gong loud as hell. Not responsible for ear damage. Earplugs $1. A glance into the foyer, where a small crowd is perusing a display of ceramic hands in prayer, suggests that the warning should not be taken lightly.

Tonight is the final installment of You Asked for It!, an underground live-action game show that has been held in this space every Sunday for the last five months. Folks have taken care to look their best for the occasion -- sparkling pink-sequin dresses, boas, top hats and tails, bolo ties, sharkskin pants, and velvet vests -- but there is no attempt to disguise their true industrial inclinations, made evident by these colorful alterations to the eveningwear: candy-striped tights retailored and worn as opera gloves, ten-gallon cowboy hats made entirely of tinfoil, and French twists and delicate braids dyed shades of racing car purple, orange, and electric green. Of course, the heavy-duty earplugs that nearly every patron grips in hand add to the effect.

“If you don’t have any,” says a spry girl with pigtails and a third eye, “I suggest you buy them. Mark Pauline [founder of Survival Research Laboratories] made the gong, and you know the things he can do with a jet engine.”

She opens a little plastic box that dangles off her belt loop, revealing two custom-made jelly beans she inserts in her ears before flouncing off into the main room. The “staff” informs latecomers that the earplugs sold out an hour ago; in lieu of protection, the unprepared are offered a waiver that must be signed before they are allowed beyond the large, green-screened television that flickers with warped images of Dana Scully and Fox Mulder going places they shouldn’t.

In the main room, a couple of hundred people recline on old couches, on living room chairs, and on the floor. The din grows; 40-ouncers and pints of whiskey are passed from hand to hand; cigarettes are smoked with guiltless abandon; and bags of cookies and salty snack foods seem to crowd-surf as they make their way from one end of the warehouse to the other. It’s strictly BYO -- the staff can offer only chai, water, and Hansen’s sodas -- but everyone has come prepared.

There are very few game-show neophytes among the crowd. You Asked for It! is a regular stop for the local proponents and creators of retrieved art and experimental theater. The show itself is a culmination of those mediums, mixed together with pop culture, nostalgia, and vaudeville. In a very real way, it is the art freaks’ answer to Sunday night television: Crowd participation is encouraged and everyone has his favorite show -- American Gladiators, The Price Is Right, The Dating Game, San Francisco Squares, Steal Geekboy’s Likker. Tonight’s manifestation takes the form of a Chuck Barris classic, The Gong Show.

“Nothing can top American Gladiators,” quips a fierce-eyed blonde. “It was larger than life. There were injuries and bungee chords and pummeling batons. It was wonderful.”

Steal Geekboy’s Likker was an exercise in voluntary hazing,” says Stan Farr. “I’m surprised anyone made it out alive. Puking is not a good way to avoid alcohol poisoning, but it was funny.”

For some, the game show is more than an entertaining outlet for sadistic humor.

“People here are tolerant of each other. Everyone is looking for a voice and we acknowledge each other’s common struggle,” says 25-year-old Daniel Freed, a fetching performance artist wrapped in red and burgundy leather. “The game show is a thinly veiled excuse for a Sunday family gathering.”

A thinly veiled excuse that involves custom-built sets, unwitting contestants, a slew of urban-fringe luminaries, and ornate neon-work that changes weekly. An excuse that is the labor-intensive brainchild of Chicken John, a former ringleader who gave up his traveling circus (until the stinky men in his troupe can be replaced with nice-smelling women) to host and produce the game show.

Dr. Reverend Howlin’ Owl Robbins, co-founder of the Church of the Sub-Genius, takes his position in an easy chair on a platform at the back of the hall, his soft, round face illuminated by a neon pyramid that hangs over his head. His velvety announcer’s croon fills the room as he introduces the celebrity judges, who take their places on another platform that towers 15 feet over the stage.

There is Sebastian Melmoth, main instigator of the San Francisco Cacophony Society; Lisa Leather Tongue, owner of Leather Tongue Video and founder of the Internet provider Phatnet; and Pauline, “the man with the biggest heart (and fewest fingers) in San Francisco,” who grasps a little black box, which will sound the gong when truly appalling talent reveals itself.

Chicken John -- “that circus Svengali, that light-fingered lady-killer, that swiveling hipster, and the man without whom none of this would be necessary” -- enters wearing a bad wig, red and white plaid pants, and a yellow jacket with black velvet lapels. The gong -- a massive iron saucer attached to a hydraulic arm -- dangles ominously overhead. Someone is told to “check the duct tape” holding it to the rafters. The crowd is pleased.

The first contestant -- a lanky, sincere-faced ukulele player -- barely opens his mouth before a crushing metallic wail overpowers the crowd’s grumbling. Audience members look at each other and then take out their earplugs. “That wasn’t so bad,” they say as the rafters shimmer. The gong rings again and the ukulele player is dragged offstage by a large cane.

The next contestant is a crowd-pleaser -- a stout, balding man who sings “Light My Fire” while standing on his head. He is followed by a typical succession of talent-show hacks: a non-double-jointed contortionist; a superfly BMX-bike-riding team; a limbo dancer with a small wheeled dolly attached to his back; a knife thrower who punctures his blow-up doll; a rubber-faced girl; a fat guy who BA’s the crowd; a pair of wannabe rock stars who thrash a makeshift hotel room; and a relentless monologuist.

Audience favorites are easy to predict -- the Rollerblading lunatic who jumps through a flaming hoop while wearing a straitjacket; the “Siamese twins” who wrestle and smear themselves in chocolate until one is left writhing topless in the slimy mess as an expression of separation anxiety; and the school-girls-sucking-popsicles routine that caused The Gong Show to be canceled in the late ’70s.

But there are some surprising, great moments, too (even for Chicken, who booked the talent). There are the Blue Canaries, a handsome flamenco duo whose musical skill inspires audience members to clap along and dance, and the beautiful Sadie Masochistic, whose impressive rope work performed high above the concrete floor of the warehouse makes critics forget that she resembles Scary Spice.

“This is really coming on!” says Freed, clearly impressed with the night’s elaborate production. “I hope that the game show goes somewhere else after this. I need it.”

“I’m just looking for some yodeling squarehead to underwrite it,” says Chicken John, whose elaborate show has been canceled to make way at the Crucible for ... yoga classes.

“I’m ready to go as soon as I find a new space.”

By Silke Tudor

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