Frank Zappa may well be one of the most innovative and influential rock and roll artists of all time. The musician’s irreverent demeanour placed him as the royal rock court’s resident jester—but that didn’t stop him from staying straight-faced in this awkward television appearance.
The appearance is on the cheesy seventies TV show, Make Me Laugh, and sees Zappa confronted with perhaps two of the least funny comedians you’ll ever encounter. Zappa looks at them with an apparent and righteous modicum of disgust.
The creative pulse of the sixties was firmly out of the reach of any social defibrillator by 1979. The seventies had seen the free-thinking of the previous decade wiped out by drugs and debauchery. With it, many of the rock acts that had made their name in the sixties were beginning to see the end of the road on the horizon, Zappa included.
As the focus on legacy acts began to dwindle many artists went out on their own. That year, Zappa would release his album Sheik Yerbouti on his own Zappa Records and, without major label backing, was keen to promote the album wherever he could. It meant when he was offered the chance to go on TV, whatever the programme, the singer grabbed it with both hands.
“I don’t know whether it’s hard work because I haven’t done it yet,” replies Zappa dryly to a seemingly inane question at the beginning of the clip. “The most important thing that will occur from me doing this television show is that my mother will see it,” confirms a smiling but awkward-looking Zappa.
What occurs next can only be described as the ultimate in seventies cheese as he sits in a cream coloured console that wouldn’t look out of place in low budget sci-fi porn and awaits his fate. That fate is Bobby Van and, judging by the ludicrous laughter, a studio audience with the average IQ of a lemon.
Make Me Laugh was a simple show built on a simpler premise. It invited celebrity guests to be thrust out on to the stage via the aforementioned porn pulpit and be subjected to a comedy routine from US comic, Gallagher, as well as some other dowdy performers, in the name of winning audience members a prize. If they laugh they lose.
Now, we can’t be sure if Make Me Laugh gave away a lot of prizes, but judging by the comedians in the house on Frank Zappa’s evening, we imagine the reason the show finished after one season is that they ran out of gifts. Zappa has no problem navigating the first sketch as The Fairy Godfather, essential a Brando impersonation with a tutu and a wand. The second attempt to crack him fails miserably too.
It means that Zappa wins a studio audience member a host of household items including an ugly bedspread, some Samsonite luggage, a plush recliner and that classic game show trope, a washer/dryer combo. The footage is equal parts excruciating and hilarious. Though judging by his performance, we think Zappa wouldn’t crack a smile.
Watch the moment Frank Zappa appeared on Make Me Laugh back in 1979.