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December 27, 2017 8:48 AM   Subscribe

The Improbable Time When Orson Welles Interviewed Andy Kaufman (1982) In case you need to see Orson Welles guest hosting the Merv Griffin show, wearing a leisure suit, and incidentally, interviewing Andy Kaufman in front of a live studio audience.
posted by mumblelard (17 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
What a blast from the past—thanks for the post!
posted by languagehat at 9:14 AM on December 27, 2017

Who is that sitting next to them? It looks like a young Neil deGrasse Tyson, but I don't think that's who it is.
posted by willnot at 9:35 AM on December 27, 2017

At this point in his career Andy Kaufman was all in on his performance art/comedy persona, and yet I sense that he couldn't quite go there with Orson Welles. There was something about sincerity of Orson's praise that short-circuited Andy's irony filter, and I sense he truly respected Welles (who at the time was the butt of late night jokes for his weight and his tv commercial work).

Faced with this unusual (for the time) combination of sincerity and respect, Andy played the game straight and answered the questions honestly. This manages to flip the superficial talk show conceit on it's head and we get some actual insight as a result. Fascinating.
posted by jeremias at 9:39 AM on December 27, 2017 [11 favorites]

Who is that sitting next to them? It looks like a young Neil deGrasse Tyson, but I don't think that's who it is.

That is the late actor Ron Glass, of Barney Miller fame. (MetaFilter obit post)
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:39 AM on December 27, 2017 [5 favorites]

I have to admit I was at first completely distracted by Ron Glass, who was a very beautiful man.
posted by JanetLand at 10:03 AM on December 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

Thanks for that moment of zen.
posted by mondo dentro at 10:20 AM on December 27, 2017

Orson seems to have a general contempt for television, and thus has an unease about him in hosting the show. He also seems more interested in having a conversation with Kaufman than having an entertaining 'zany' bit with him, and it's pretty wonderful that Kaufman obliges.

It does seem like a bit of a wasted opportunity though, as Orson doesn't seem particularly well prepared for the interview, and his questions aren't that deep, particularly given that Kaufman seems ready to deliver the goods 'we can talk about anything you want to talk about'.

In a way there feels like there's a bit of a subtext that Orson is giving - 'we are both better than what we are doing right now,' and he's right.
posted by el io at 10:27 AM on December 27, 2017 [4 favorites]

If that's how you're defining a leisure suit, then all the men in my dad's newsroom in 1982 wore leisure suits.
posted by pxe2000 at 11:06 AM on December 27, 2017

These are two of my favorite guys.

Orson Welles had more "serious" cred, of course, and he never was really comfortable embracing pop culture the way Kaufman did,* but he wasn't completely gormless, either.

I can't imagine Welles had any real interest in trying to get Kaufman to break character for a talk show interview. I'd like to think they both respected each others' work and wouldn't exploit or undermine each other. (Of course, part of the reason I like to think that is because they're two of my favorite guys.)

* He was comfortable doing it for the money, of course, but he never seemed to really enjoy it, and for good reason.
posted by ernielundquist at 11:11 AM on December 27, 2017

I love Welles's description of Taxi as a Catherine Wheel rather than an ensemble, because of the nature of the set - people coming in and then going out on their taxi rounds.

And Andy Kaufman seems completely stunned by that high-falutin' praise coming from Welles.
posted by maggiemaggie at 11:20 AM on December 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Orson was much more interested in telling Andy what he thought of him than asking him anything, which seems like a waste of Andy being there.
posted by greermahoney at 11:57 AM on December 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

When Orson told Andy that he thought Andy was a one trick pony who only had the Latka schtick, that blank Kaufman expression broke for a moment and he started to plead. Orson continued and it became clear that he had really considered Andy's work, he had really thought about it. Kaufman realized that he was being paid a sincere compliment. It wasn't just a talk show compliment, but a considered reflection from one of the greats. Orson Welles' mind was still agile enough to appreciate someone like Andy Kaufman and Andy Kaufman showed some genuine humanity unmediated by performance. I loved that moment.
posted by mumblelard at 1:54 PM on December 27, 2017 [4 favorites]

Latka Gravis and Welles gravitas.
posted by Splunge at 3:48 PM on December 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

That's a wonderful observation, mumblelard, but for my own peace of mind, I will point out that Orson Welles is only in his mid-60s there, which isn't default faculty losing age, and he was, of course, Orson Welles. His mind was more agile than most people's ever are.
posted by ernielundquist at 4:54 PM on December 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

"I'm on my mark. Yes, always."
posted by Chuckles at 5:47 PM on December 27, 2017 [3 favorites]

That's a fun interview. With Welles being such a accomplished schmoozer, it leaves a lot of what he says open to perhaps some interpretation.

Welles draws people in by personalizing much of what he says and then will turn to the listener for assent, asking their opinion, even if that opinion has, effectively, already been spoken for by Welles himself. He adds to this with some burnishing of accomplishment and flattery linked to association with something of greater literary or historical importance, something "high brow", than would be expected showing his knowledge and raising the comparative value of the person being talked to.

The association flatters because there is some truth to it, because it is so singular and it seems personal since it's only Welles who'd say it. So the Catherine Wheel analogy holds some truth in the cabs/cast do indeed fly from a center like the firework, but it doesn't actually say much else as it isn't a measure of value just attention. (That the Catherine Wheel was also a torture device is something I ponder given my feelings on Taxi, but that's likely a separate issue>0

What luck for Welles that he happened to have two actors from the only shows that kept television from being a "criminal felony". Maybe that is what he felt, maybe not. Who knows? The flattery and attention is its own reward. Welles keeps up a mix of high praise and possible insult turned to praise throughout the interview. That dynamic keeps the subject a little off balance, drawing them in to Welles own perspective all the more. He dominates the proceedings, but does it without seeming too overbearing since he's talking about the subject. That he's Orson Welles of course is meaningful too, bigger than life, especially to those who know his work or history.

Kaufman seems pleased and eager to please in having Welles interview him, and somehow does seem to give a little more of himself than in his interviews with his more usual hosts like Letterman, even as he doesn't actually say that much at all. It's the openness or maybe receptiveness to showman Welles that is endearing here. Seeming to want Orson to do well more than being concerned about his own interests in the affair. It's pretty charming in its offbeat way, where the match of the two really works since I'd suspect a number guests wouldn't know what to do with Orson at all.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:14 AM on December 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

Having watched it again, it struck me how much Welles praised Taxi. To think that Orson Welles and I were watching Taxi at the same time... Kinda blows my mind. It would have been even more blown at the time, because I almost always watched Taxi stoned out of my mind.
posted by Splunge at 10:52 AM on December 29, 2017

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