The Gong Show
|The Gong Show|
|Created by||Chris Bearde|
John "The Fox" Dorsey|
Chuck Barris (1976–80)|
John Barbour (1976)
Gary Owens (1976–77, nighttime)
Don Bleu (1988–89)
Johnny Jacobs (1976–80)|
Charlie O'Donnell (1988–89)
|Country of origin||United States|
|No. of episodes||501 (NBC)|
Burbank, California (1976–80)
CBS Television City
Hollywood, California (1988–89)
18 minutes (early NBC episodes)|
Chuck Barris Productions (1976–80)|
Chris Bearde Productions (1976–78, 1988–89)
Barris Productions (1988–89)
Barris Industries (1988–89)
Firestone Program Syndication Co. (1976–80)|
Barris Advertising Sales (1988–89) (ad-sales)
Barris Program Sales (1988–89)
|Original release||June 14, 1976 – September 15, 1989|
The Gong Show is an amateur talent contest franchised by Sony Pictures Television to many countries. It was broadcast on NBC's daytime schedule from June 14, 1976, through July 21, 1978, and in first-run syndication from 1976 to 1980 and 1988 to 1989. The show was produced by Chuck Barris, who also served as host for the NBC run and from 1977 to 1980 in syndication. The show is best remembered for its absurdist humor and style, often awarding participants ridiculous and worthless prizes.
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, 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.
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.
The two biggest Gong Show-related show-biz successes were Andrea McArdle and Cheryl Lynn. Twelve-year-old McArdle appeared on an early show in 1976, shortly before winning the lead role in the hit Broadway musical Annie. Lynn was signed to a recording contract as a result of her performance, and recorded the Top 40 disco hit "Got To Be Real".
Among the other true talents that appeared on the show were singer Boxcar Willie; comics and actors Paul Reubens and John Paragon (best known as Pee Wee Herman and Jambi the Genie); Joey D'Auria ("Professor Flamo", later WGN's second Bozo the Clown); impressionist/comic Michael Winslow; novelty rock band Green Jelly, and a band called The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo which evolved into Oingo Boingo, led by future film and television score composer Danny Elfman. Crip founder, and executed murderer, Stanley Tookie Williams appeared on the show in 1979 as a bodybuilder. In 1976, future Academy Award nominated actress Mare Winningham sang the Beatles song "Here, There, and Everywhere". Future Super Bowl XXXV winning head coach Brian Billick also made an appearance, performing a routine known as the "spider monkey". Dancer Danny Lockin, who had played Barnaby in the film Hello Dolly!, was murdered hours after winning the show taped August 21, 1977.
The show had many running gags and characters who appeared as regular performers.
- The Unknown Comic (Murray Langston, formerly of the Sonny and Cher TV stock company) was a stand-up comedian who told intentionally corny jokes while wearing a paper bag over his head. "You've heard of a boxer?" asked Langston. "This is a bagger!" Eventually, Langston would beckon to "Chuckie" and tell insulting jokes at his expense ("Have you ever made love to your wife in the shower?" "No." "Well, you should, she loves it!"). Barris would then feign anger and eject Langston from the show. Langston (as The Unknown Comic) later made appearances as a judge on the show.
- Gene Gene the Dancing Machine (Gene Patton) was a heavy-set, middle-aged black man wearing a warm-up suit and flat hat. Gene-Gene's arrival would always be treated as though it were a glorious surprise to everyone on the show, especially Barris. Upon hearing the opening notes to his theme music (an arrangement of "Jumpin' at the Woodside", a popular Count Basie song), Barris' face would light up and he would stop the show, yielding the stage to Gene-Gene. Members of the crew would toss random objects from the wings, littering the stage while Gene-Gene danced on, seemingly unaware of the activity around him. Barris and the panelists would enthusiastically mimic Gene-Gene's dance moves, which consisted primarily of a slow-footed chug-chug motion, punctuated by an occasional, exultant fist pointed skyward. Typically, the dance break would be interrupted by a commercial or by the show's promotional announcements. In reality, Patton was an NBC stagehand whose backstage dancing caught the attention of Barris, who moved him out in front of the curtain when time ran short during an episode. He added membership in AFTRA to his existing IATSE membership. Occasionally, Gene-Gene filled in as one of the three mallet-wielding judges. Patton's popularity was such that his retirement from NBC made the national news wires in 1997, unique attention for a stagehand. In a bitter irony, Patton's legs were amputated in the early 2000s due to complications from diabetes. He died in 2015.
- Scarlett and Rhett were Chuck's dresser Jefferson Beeker and Costume Designer Peter Mins dressed as Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler from Gone with the Wind. Their act always began with Rhett bellowing, "I don't give a damn!" and the shocked Scarlett gasping, "You can't say that on television!" Rhett would respond by asking, "Well, can I say this, Scarlett?" and launch into a vulgar riddle along the lines of "Why are pool tables green?" Scarlett would answer, "Why, Rhett?" "Because if someone was--" and the off-color punchline would invariably be bleeped out. After two or three jokes, and the same number of shocked reactions, Barris would stop the act and close the curtain.
- Larry, The Evil Villain, played by the show's writer Larry Spencer, wore an old-fashioned black cape and top hat; the audience was encouraged to hiss at him as if he were a villain from 19th century melodrama.
- "Larry And His Magic _____", an alleged musician (also portrayed by Spencer) whose various appearances featured a series of different instruments. His call-and-response act featured him proclaiming, "I'm gonna play my (trumpet, fiddle, xylophone, kettle drum, accordion, etc.)" and the audience shouting back, "Whatcha gonna do?" This exchange would be repeated twice, after which he would announce, "I'm gonna play my (instrument) nowwww!" Instead of playing, though, he would merely repeat his audience-punctuated declaration. After a few verses of this, the skit would inevitably end with Spencer failing to play his instrument. Either time would run out, the instrument would malfunction or be booby-trapped, or he would manage to produce a few inept notes before being permanently interrupted by Barris.
- Chuckie's Fables, featuring "The Mighty Gong Show Players", an alleged acting troupe (in actuality, members of the production and stage crews). Barris would flop into a rocking chair and read a narrative from an oversized storybook, while the Players, in whimsical costumes by Peter Mins, would pantomime the action behind him, including mouthing words of the dialogue that Barris would be reading. These stories always ended with a convoluted moral. The name was a takeoff on the "Mighty Carson Art Players" from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, which in turn was a copy of Fred Allen's "Mighty Allen Art Players".
- The Worm, a supposed "dance craze" consisting of three men who flung themselves to the floor and wriggled on the ground. At the end of each of their performances, Barris would come out and say "One – More – Time!" The Worm would often be performed four or five times in succession before the commercial break interrupted the men's performance.
- The Whispers, a female trio who "whispered" popular songs.
- BORK, a/k/a Johann Sebastian Bork, a performance artist who was dressed in 17th Century wig and suit, holding an unlit cigar, and carrying an upside-down children's book which he would place on the music rack of a piano and start playing.
- The show's air of spontaneity was abetted by various comic appearances by supporting staff, technical/stage crew and house band members.
- Holidays — The show celebrated many holidays such as Christmas, the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving, but invariably did so by singing the Irving Berlin standard, "Easter Parade". (When Easter was feted, the cast and crew would sing Berlin's "White Christmas".) The annual Christmas episode also featured a major rule change – in honor of the holiday spirit, judges were not permitted to gong contestants. Predictably, Christmas shows were heavily loaded with the most unappealing acts available.
Barris as emcee
An established game show producer (The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game), after years of writing and producing hit popular records, Barris was originally the show's co-producer but not its host. He was an emergency replacement host for eventual Real People host John Barbour, who objected to the show's satirical concept and tried to steer it towards a traditional amateur-hour format. An NBC executive who had watched Barris rehearse the show suggested that Barris replace Barbour. Barris accepted but resisted the requirement that he wear a tuxedo, only caving when NBC threatened to drop the series altogether. Even then, Barris usually ended an episode with undone bowtie and disheveled tails. In time, mandatory tuxedos gave way to more casual attire. Also, Barris began wearing a variety of silly-looking hats on stage, which were eventually seen on a rack at stage right. He would frequently change hats during a show.
Barris was ill at ease before the camera; he had a nervous habit of clapping his hands together and pointing to the camera while talking. He did this so often that, by the show's second year, it had become a running gag. Audience members began clapping their hands in unison with Barris whenever they saw him doing it. Barris caught on, and would sometimes pretend to clap, deliberately stopping short to fool the audience.
Producer Chris Bearde, formerly of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, clashed with Barris over the show's content, favoring scripted comedy over chaotic nonsense. (Bearde's "new talent" segments on Laugh-In had featured oddball performers, the most famous being Tiny Tim.) Bearde eventually withdrew from The Gong Show, leaving Barris in full charge of the show. Before long, Barris was working so loosely that some viewers assumed he was drunk – or worse. He would pull his hat down over his eyes, totally obscuring them. His monologues, never exactly crisp or slick, occasionally rambled. Barris later recounted in an interview that he was never drunk, and that he would not allow drugs in his production company.
If Barris enjoyed an act, it was obvious – he would stand there beaming, clapping his hands, or even dancing. For the losers, no matter how bad, Barris was unfailingly positive about their performances, often consoling them afterward with allegedly comforting words of encouragement like "I don't know why they did that! I loved your act. But then again, I love rancid milk." The celebrity who had gonged the performer was typically asked "Why'd you do that?" and was expected to provide an explanation, joke, or further insult. Typically, Barris would lead into commercial breaks with the cryptic promise "We'll be right back, with mor-re stuff – right after this message!"
Milton DeLugg, the show's musical director, was a popular musician and bandleader during the 1940s, and got the Gong Show job by default. As musical director for the network, he was responsible for any NBC project that required special music (like the annual telecasts of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade). Barris initially regarded DeLugg as "an anachronism", but he soon found that DeLugg was very much attuned to the crazy tone of the show; his band, which Barris introduced as "Milton DeLugg and the Band With a Thug", included top jazz players like Bob Findley, Joe Howard and Lanny Morgan, and kept the show's energy level high. The band even led into station breaks, with Barris's enthusiastic "Take me into the commercial, Milt!" Barris often joined the band on guitar when a good singer was performing. DeLugg remained associated with Barris for many years after Gong ended.
Veteran composer Joey Carbone provided musical arrangements for the late 1980s revival with his own lineup of studio musicians, known as "The Gong Show Guys".
Johnny Jacobs was the main announcer from 1976 to 1980; due to an extended illness, Jack Clark substituted from October 3, 1977 through December 23, 1977. Charlie O'Donnell served as announcer for the late-1980s revival.
In 1976, Carol Burnett (who did a skit on The Carol Burnett Show where her character Eunice Higgins, of the recurring The Family sketch, performed – and got gonged – on the show) introduced Barris with this quote, "And now, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce a man with the charm of Cary Grant, good looks of Robert Redford, and the acting skills of Laurence Olivier. I'd like to meet that man, but until then, I'm stuck with Chuck Barris." That same year, actor Dick Van Dyke also introduced Barris; later in that episode, Barris promoted Van Dyke's short-lived NBC series Van Dyke and Co..
NBC decided to take the chance on Chris Bearde's talent show to fix a scheduling problem at 12:30 PM (11:30 AM, Central). This was NBC's least important time slot, as whatever program that ran in the slot at the time had to share the half-hour with a five-minute newscast anchored by Edwin Newman. As a result, the first six-plus months of Gong featured approximately twenty minutes of program content in a twenty-five-minute episode.
Many NBC affiliates in larger Eastern Time Zone markets opted not to run network programming during the Noon hour at all, preferring to broadcast local news and talk shows instead. Thus Gong made its debut mainly on medium-market and smaller stations or on large-market rival stations that picked up the program from the NBC affiliate that had rejected it, such as in Boston, where then-affiliate WBZ did not run the series; instead, local UHF independent outlet WSBK-TV aired it.
Gong's timeslot was given to a new soap opera, Lovers and Friends, on January 3, 1977, and the show was relocated to replace the cancelled Another World spinoff Somerset at 4:00 PM. The timeslot change allowed Gong to expand to a half-hour. However, Gong moved from one problem timeslot to another as the 4:00 PM network slot was also prone to preemptions (in fact, NBC was not far away from handing the slot back to its affiliates). This left Gong unable to gain a ratings advantage over CBS' hit game show Tattletales and ABC's struggling but still popular soap opera The Edge of Night, as well as the popular syndicated programming on other stations. By early December the network decided to return Gong to 12:30/11:30, but this time the show was able to run for a half-hour as NBC ended the five-minute newscast at 12:55.
NBC aired a one-hour primetime special on April 26, 1977, featuring in-studio special guests Tony Randall, Alice Cooper, and Harry James and his Orchestra. The winning act on this primetime special was The Bait Brothers. The panelists for the special were Jaye P. Morgan, Jamie Farr and Arte Johnson.
Popsicle Twins incident
Barris was well known for his run-ins with the censors, bringing in risque acts as bait to allow some of the less risque acts to slip by. In 1978, one of these bait acts, two teenage girls referring to themselves as "Have You Got a Nickel", made it onto the show. Their act consisted of the girls sitting cross-legged on the stage floor and they began silently eating popsicles in a manner that suggested they were performing fellatio on the frozen treats. The nature of the act led to the two girls being known as the "Popsicle twins".
While they were able to complete their act without being gonged, two of the judges gave them low marks (Phyllis Diller gave them a zero, while Jamie Farr awarded them a marginally better 2). The third judge, Jaye P. Morgan, would award them a 10, quipping, "Do you know? That's how I started." (She was rewarded with a popsicle from one of the girls before they left the stage.)
The girls' act was let through by the censors, who did not see anything wrong with it in rehearsals. However, once the episode aired in Eastern time zone markets NBC pulled the act from the Central, Mountain, and Pacific airings of the day's episode immediately after it ended. The act was not cut from all the tapes, and the Popsicle Twins incident has aired in reruns. Barris said in a 2001 interview with Salon.com that this particular act began making him reconsider his career.
Despite fairly respectable ratings for a non-soap-opera midday show, NBC cancelled Gong, with its final episode to air on July 21, 1978. Much speculation occurred as to the network's true motivations for dumping the show. Barris himself has commented that the official reason he heard was that NBC acted in response to both "lower than expected ratings" and a desire by the network to "re-tailor the morning shows to fit the standard morning demographics" (the move coincided with the arrival of new NBC president Fred Silverman, who was well known for such programming overhauls). America Alive, a magazine-style variety program hosted by Art Linkletter's son Jack, replaced Gong.
Following the cancellation, many critics and industry analysts – including Gene Shalit and Rona Barrett – reported having heard comments from within NBC's programming department from "sources preferring anonymity" that the true reason behind the cancellation was Barris' refusal to tone down the racy nature of the show. According to the sources, after the "Popsicle Twins" incident (see above) and Morgan's "breast baring", Barris had been given an ultimatum by NBC's Standards and Practices department to deliver cleaner shows, with a particular eye to the potential children and youth watching the show. Barris, however, continued to deliver shows with the same amount of supposedly questionable content, apparently in an effort to call the network's bluff.
NBC allowed Barris to continue the show for the rest of the contract, and Barris made no perceptible change in preparation for the finale. On the finale, staff member Larry Gotterer appeared as "Fenwick Gotterer" to host the show, after Barris started the show doing a "Chuckie's Fables" sketch. The rest of the show was done in sort of a way to explain the life of the show, and its cancellation. Barris managed to have the last word on the show's demise, appearing as a contestant. Playing in a country music band called "The Hollywood Cowboys" with the house band's rhythm section, Barris sang a slightly modified version of Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job and Shove It", giving NBC the finger during the song to accentuate his point. NBC censored the gesture, with the word "OOPS!" superimposed over a still shot of the set. Barris was gonged by Jamie Farr, who quipped, "Because that little fella's been saying that I've been a long a nose, I'm also long a gong, fella."
The group "Lobster Repair" (who sang Harry Belafonte's song "Day-O") won the last $516.32 and trophy for the NBC era. Gene Gene the Dancing Machine then came out after a few more skits, and said that the moral to the episode-long "Chuckie's Fable" was "Never bet against the Minnesota Vikings, at home, in the wintertime!" Following that, he did his famous dance. The rest of the cast, including staff members, people who participated, and even Jaye P. Morgan (who had been banned from the NBC series some time earlier) all joined in at the end to dance with him.
The decision to cancel The Gong Show was a two-pronged one by NBC. In addition to the removal of the show from its schedule, the network evicted the show from its Burbank studio. Since the syndicated Gong hadn't been canceled and Barris was already using studio space at Golden West Broadcasting to tape The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The $1.98 Beauty Show, production of Gong was moved there.
Gong continued in syndication for two years after its daytime counterpart's cancellation, often airing on weekends and at night. The entire syndicated run from 1976 to 1980 was distributed by Firestone Program Services. While the series eventually met its demise in syndication as it had on NBC, according to Barris, the problem did not lie with any outrageous acts, but instead the controversy and public outcry over another series he produced.
In September 1979, Barris launched the game show 3's a Crowd, which was a spin-off from The Newlywed Game. The difference was that as opposed to recently married couples, a married man joined forces with his wife and his secretary to see who knew him better. Religious activist groups and feminist groups protested against 3's a Crowd and its ratings eventually plummeted to the point where the show was cancelled at the midway point of the season.
In fact, the backlash was so bad that in Barris' autobiography "The Game Show King", he wrote that "the public backlash from Three's a Crowd not only caused the program to be canceled, but it took three other TV shows of mine with it. I went to my house in Malibu and stayed there for a year." Gong was one of those shows to be canceled, and Barris hasn't emceed since. His next two series, revivals of the 1960s game show Camouflage (the replacement for 3's a Crowd) and his 1973-77 series Treasure Hunt (which Barris had little to no say in this time, according to host Geoff Edwards), both failed to find audiences and Barris went further into his self-imposed exile from television. (It wasn't until 1985, when The Newlywed Game was revived in syndication, that Barris had another hit series.)
Reruns of the NBC version (with filler material inserted to pad out the 25-minute episodes) began in syndication in fall 1979. Both NBC and syndicated episodes were rerun on the USA Network and Game Show Network, although by the time GSN picked up the series many episodes had become unairable due to performance clearance issues.
A syndicated weekday revival of The Gong Show, hosted by San Francisco disc jockey Don Bleu, ran during the 1988–89 season, but lasted only one year. Each winner was paid $701.
The Gong Show was later revived on the Game Show Network as Extreme Gong, in which viewers could call in and vote on whether or not the act was bad. It was hosted by George Gray and ran from 1998 to 1999, with reruns continuing for another year. Winners received $317.69. This version was well known for two known incidents: one episode featuring "Cody the Talking Dog" for which he tried to say things like "I love you" and "ice cream" but did not succeed in talking, and another featuring a Village People parody as The Village Little People where they sang a cover of "YMCA", taking the "Young Man" literally. Orange County comedy punk band The Radioactive Chicken Heads (then called Joe & the Chicken Heads) made their national television debut on Extreme Gong, though they were gonged midway through their performance.
Comedy Central debuted a new incarnation called The Gong Show with Dave Attell, which lasted for 8 weeks in the summer of 2008. The show's format was similar to the original, but its scoring was based on a scale of 0 to 500, and winning acts received $600. The $600 was shown as paid in cash on the spot, rather than being paid by check as in earlier versions, but in reality (because of contestant eligibility regulations by Sony) was paid as a check from Sony Pictures. In place of a typical trophy, winners were awarded a belt in the style of boxing championship belts.
A live stage version of The Gong Show took place at B.B. King's Blues Club, in the Times Square district of New York City on August 12, 2010. It was produced by The Radio Chick, and is the Sony authorized stage production. This production went into development in 2011–12 and now runs regularly in New York City, with engagements in other U.S. cities.
In 1980, The Gong Show Movie was released by Universal Pictures to scathing reviews and was quickly withdrawn from theatrical release. Advertising proclaimed it as "The Gong Show that Got Gonged by the Censor". It is seen periodically on cable TV but has never been officially released on VHS or DVD. The film was released on Blu-ray on March 29, 2016 by Shout! Factory.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, a film directed by George Clooney and written by Charlie Kaufman, was based on the autobiography of Chuck Barris. Part of the film chronicles the making of The Gong Show, and features several clips from the original series.
Following the success of the print and screen versions of Confessions, GSN produced a documentary called The Chuck Barris Story: My Life on the Edge, which included rare footage from the Gary Owens pilot.
|Country||Local Name||Host||Network||Year Aired|
|Australia||The Gong Show||Tim Evans||Network Ten||1976 (lasted for three weeks)|
|Germany||Die Gong-Show||Paul Kuhn
|India||Sabse Badhkar Gong||Sony TV||mid-1990's|
|Indonesia||Gong Show||Arie Untung & Fenita Arie||Trans TV||2006-2012|
|United Kingdom||The Gong Show||Frankie Howerd||Channel 4||December 1985 (Pilot)|
|United States||The Gong Show||Chuck Barris||NBC||1976–78|
|Extreme Gong||George Gray||GSN||1998–99|
|The Gong Show with Dave Attell||Dave Attell||Comedy Central||July 17-September 4, 2008|
At the height of the show's popularity, NBC gave Barris a prime-time variety hour, The Chuck Barris Rah Rah Show. This was played somewhat more seriously than the Gong Show, with Jaye P. Morgan singing straight pop songs as in her nightclub and recording days, and bygone headliners like Slim Gaillard reprising their old hits for a studio audience. Spinoffs include The $1.98 Beauty Show hosted by Rip Taylor and The Gong Show Movie.
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