That Time Orson Welles Had an Insane Variety Show

By  · Published on April 29th, 2015

Puppets are very ancient entertainers. They don’t just go back to the crib, they go back to the cave.

Every single thing about this Orson Welles talk show is diamond cut perfection. Praise be to the great Lars Nilsen for sharing it via Austin Film Society Viewfinders.

Filmed in 1978 and 1979, this would have been around the same time Welles was making a cameo appearance as the Rich and Famous Contract-wielding studio executive in The Muppet Movie and recording commercials for Paul Masson Vineyards that would later become the stuff of ironic legend.

In the pilot episode of The Orson Welles Show, Welles goes beard to mustache with Burt Reynolds on the Constipation School of Acting, does magic tricks with Angie Dickinson and discusses the cosmic importance of puppetry with Jim Henson. It’s all coated with Welles’ eccentricities and indecipherable profundity. Once again, it’s impossible to know whether he’s genuinely bizarre or wholly self-aware of the display he’s putting on. My money is always on the latter. Welles was a genius who (almost) always knew how to spin the meta elements of his fame into something more interesting than celebrity nonsense.

But just look at that disorienting introduction. The camera swings and spins around a hyper-reactive audience, as if desperately trying to find Welles in the crowd, and there are lengthy static shots of blinding studio lights. Ten bucks says the edits all line up with the opening scenes of Kane.

Granted, this show was assuredly not something that a broad-base audience would have watched week in and week out. It feels like Welles riffing on Howard Beale, complete with his twist on Sybil the Soothsayer and a gun being aimed at Welles by the end. In fact, it’s uncanny enough as a mirror that I’d swear it was a true attempt at Network-echoing satire. People are always going on about how Network predicted the future of television infotainment, but maybe Welles recognized that back in 1976, before anyone else did.

It’s easy to write this specimen off as a failure (I just did), but it’s also important to consider how wild the 1970s were in terms of what was happening on television. It was an era bookended by H.R. Pufnstuf and Mork and Mindy. So, who knows. Maybe this could have worked. At the very least it would have been different, and it would have been fun to see what Welles had up his sleeve if this had been a hit.

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