The Henson Rarities site on YouTube keeps giving and giving. Not only has it given us access to some of Jim Henson’s earliest (and delightfully violent) commercials, but it has discovered this: a pilot of The Orson Welles Show from 1979. The show was never aired, and you might be able to discern why from checking it out.
It’s the height of ‘70s excess with wide collars, polyester shirts, various forms of pre-show indulgences, and it’s all underlit like a nightclub, not a talk show set. Orson Welles doesn’t interview his first guest Burt Reynolds, but instead immediately throws the questions to the audience, turning the first half of the show into an ur-Actors Studio episode. (An eagle eyed YouTube commentator points out a young–but unverified–Joe Dante in the audience.) And the entire show has the feeling of very, very rough footage saved by editing and heaping on tablespoons of canned laughter.
Eventually Welles introduces “a little company of cloth headed comedians” that was already in its third season of the Muppet Show and about to premiere its first movie. (That first Muppet Movie, by the way, features Welles near the end as a movie executive.)
Welles, who calls himself a magician more often than a director in this episode, no doubt loves the magic behind the Muppets. Even when the lights are fully upon Henson and his frog puppet, we never question that Kermit is not real. In the 50th minute, Welles introduces both Henson (“picture Rasputin as an Eagle Scout” says the director) and Frank Oz (“A man who truly fits his name.”)
The show peters out with a magic trick, an appearance by Angie Dickinson (more tricks!) and a final Welles monolog, who reads Jenny Kissed Me by James Leigh Hunt. Like the poem, there’s a shadow of maudlin mortality hanging over all of Welles’ lines throughout the show. Six years later Welles would pass away with his final movie unfinished, still waiting for the cash that he hoped programs like The Orson Welles Show would bring.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.