Each 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 and Rex Reed. If any judge considered an act to be particularly bad, he or she could strike a large gong, thus forcing the performer to stop, a trope adapted from the durable radio show the Major Bowes Amateur Hour. Most of the performers took the gong with sheepish good grace, but there were exceptions.
Originally, panelists had to wait 20 seconds before they could gong an act; this was extended to 30 seconds and then to 45. Knowing this, some contestants deliberately stopped performing just before the 45-second rule kicked in, but Barris would overrule this gambit and disqualify them. On other occasions, an act would be gonged before its minimum time was up; Barris would overrule the gong, and the hapless act would be obliged to continue with the full knowledge that their fate was 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 coup de grace: 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 celebrity 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. Sometimes an act was "Gang-Gonged," meaning it was so bad that it was gonged by two or even all three judges at once. Barris would then ask the judge(s) in question why they gonged the act. If that wasn't bad enough, some acts were subject to an even worse fate: one of the judges would go onstage and hand a mallet to the performer, lead him or her over to the judges' table and, in the ultimate insult, force the performer to have to gong him or herself.
If the act survived without being gonged, they were given a score by each of the three judges on a scale of zero to ten, for a maximum possible score of 30. On the NBC series, the contestant who achieved the highest combined score won the grand prize of what Chuck Barris referred to as the "highly unusual amount of" $516.32 (reportedly the Screen Actors Guild's minimum pay for a day's work) 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 would each receive the check and trophy. No trophy 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(s) was given a dirty tube sock and a check for $516.32.Originally, the show was advertised as having each day's winning contestants come back after a few weeks (this is also mentioned in the pilot episode) to compete in a "tournament of champions", with the winner being given the chance to appear in an unspecified nightclub act. However, only one of these tournaments was ever held. The winners on the NBC version became eligible to appear on the syndicated version for a chance to earn that show's prize.