In 1971, the young television director Steven Spielberg was invited back to the scene of his first major directing gig, ROD SERLING’S NIGHT GALLERY, for another crack at bat. His second episode, titled “MAKE ME LAUGH”, told the story of a failing comedian (Godfrey Cambridge) who would give anything just to make people laugh. By chance, he runs into a self-described “miracle guru” (Jackie Vernon) who reluctantly grants him his wish after his pleas for caution fall on deaf ears. Sure enough, the comedian shoots to stardom off of his ability to make guts bust at the slightest of utterances.
But he soon finds that this dream comes at a price—no one can ever take him seriously. For a comedian, this would be all good and well, but his gift becomes a curse when he loses out on a serious dramatic part on Broadway and, subsequently, the career acclaim and reverence that he truly desires.
There are a few notable performers in the piece, led by Godfrey Cambridge, who excels at appearing sweaty and desperate as his dreams unravel before his very eyes. Tom Bosley, who previously appeared for Spielberg in his “EYES” NIGHT GALLERY episode, plays the comedian’s mild-mannered agent. Real-life comedian Jackie Vernon seems an odd choice to play a turban’d mystic/sage, but his goofy cadence brings an unexpected flavor to the proceedings. And finally, Al Lewis—who’s better known as Grandpa Munster—makes a cameo as a gruff nightclub owner with little patience for the comedian’s failings.
As far as NIGHT GALLERY episodes go, “MAKE ME LAUGH” is probably the most straightforward and non-surreal. Spielberg presents the story in a reserved manner with classical camera moves and non-distracting locked-off shots. Little of the New Wave flourishes that dotted his camerawork in “EYES” shows up here, but he does utilize the scale-generating power of a crane for his ending shot. I mention this crane shot mainly because it hints at Spielberg’s own internal ambitions and what was likely his nagging desire to graduate from TV into big-budget feature filmmaking. Even the most pedestrian of coverage angles, the close-up, possesses a strange kind of subliminal vocation in its composition. Spielberg was trying very hard to be noticed while simultaneously “coloring inside the lines”.
“MAKE ME LAUGH” doesn’t show much in the way of growth for young Spielberg, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. These were journeyman years for the director, whereby he cut his teeth over the safety net of a predetermined aesthetic and a support group of producers, supervisors, editors, and other craftsmen. The urge to get into features was growing stronger, but he was only midway through his television phase when he made “MAKE ME LAUGH”. I imagine that he felt like he was spinning his wheels, but with each successive television gig, Spielberg was growing stronger and more confident. When his day in the sun came, he would be ready.
ROD SERLING’S NIGHT GALLERY: “MAKE ME LAUGH” is currently available in high-definition on Hulu, as well as standard definition DVD.
Producer: Jack Laird
Writer: Rod Serling
Director of Photography: Richard C. Glouner
Production Designer: Joe Alves
Editor: Budd Hoffman, James Leicester