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The Boston Phoenix Deja Vu

Martin Short and the Emmys

By Robert David Sullivan

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999:  The frenetic Martin Short gets on a lot of people's nerves, often intentionally, which makes him an odd choice as host of yet another celebrity talk show. He begins each episode of The Martin Short Show (which premiered last week and airs weekdays at 10 a.m. on Channel 5) with a schmaltzy musical number, usually a tribute to the absolute wonderfulness of life that makes you want to fast-forward to the inevitable pratfall at the song's end. As an interviewer, he seems determined to home in on his guest's personal connection to the off-stage "Marty" Short -- searching for an anecdote about the time they met, or the time that the guest was fooled by Short's uncanny impression of Katharine Hepburn. As a player in the show's frequent comic bits, he often returns to characters I wish he'd retired long ago, such as chain-smoking lawyer Nathan Thurm or ancient songwriter Irving Cohen, or impressions of celebrities who aren't distinctive enough to mock, like Janeane Garofalo.

Short's attempt to parody and praise pop culture on the same show produces some odd moments, as when he earnestly asked the audience to welcome "a true, true idol, by the name of Eric Idle." Maybe he was being purposely awful here -- channeling an old SCTV character, the sycophantic interviewer Brock Linehan. Or maybe he was just reaching for any clump of words to carry him into the next segment. Not that it really makes a difference to us at home.

The Martin Short Show does have the potential to become a smart counterweight to The Rosie O'Donnell Show (weekdays at 4 p.m. on Channel 5), sort of a Forbidden Broadway to Rosie's relentless "I Love New York" campaign. The show's first week had at least two moments that hit the mark. In one, Short played a new character named Jiminy Glick, a fawning but stupendously ill-informed reporter grabbing celebrities en route to the Emmy Awards. (He congratulated Dennis Franz on his nomination for Saved by the Bell.) The other hit was an appearance by Steve Martin, who sat down and solemnly told Short, "Please, no questions." Martin also slipped in a reference to Chevy Chase, whose failed attempt at a talk show must have reassured Short that his show probably wouldn't end up as the biggest flop starring an ex-member of Saturday Night Live.

The first week also cleared up the mystery of what happened to The Kids in the Hall's Kevin McDonald, who turns up in various comedy bits and usually plays a deranged audience member (much like Chris Elliott on David Letterman's original late-night series). Short and McDonald are both gifted, energetic actors whose talents are wasted in a talk-show format. In a perfect TV world, they would be injecting some life into Saturday Night Live scripts, and the cerebral, quick-witted Steve Martin would be the one with a talk show. For now, we can hope that the five-show-a-week grind will induce Short to move beyond mutual-admiration chats with Martin, Billy Crystal, et al. and to develop some new characters. (At least Jackie Rogers Jr. didn't show up during the first week.)

Last week's Emmy celebration was a disappointment to anyone hoping that innovative TV programs would receive some recognition: almost every award went to a program or individual that had won before. Well, an inside source has explained to me what happened.

Emmy voters are volunteers from the TV industry whose identities are kept secret. They are divided into panels, ranging in number from seven to 70, that vote for the winners in pre-assigned categories (this much is official info from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences). The problem is that most of the voters prefer to watch television with the sound off so as not to wear down the batteries on their hearing aids. Thus, courtroom dramas like The Practice and Ally McBeal win because the voters can follow the trials through the facial expressions of the judges and lawyers. Sadly, the voters never even watched most of the show that should have won for best drama this year, HBO's The Sopranos. Whenever they saw a scene of Tony visiting his mother in the nursing home, they panicked, thinking they were watching a surveillance camera in their own nursing home. By the time the Academy president coaxed them out of the bathrooms, the episode was over.

As for all the repeat acting winners, it's unfair to castigate the voters because they simply did not remember that Helen Hunt, Dennis Franz, John Lithgow, etc. had all won several times before. They went into deliberations with the vague recollection that Lucille Ball and Red Skelton had won already, and they were proud of themselves for recognizing hot young talents like Mel Brooks ("Uncle Phil" on that cutting-edge, saucy sit-com Mad About You).

The award to John Leguizamo (Freak) was an honest mistake. Leguizamo bears a striking resemblance to the guy who brings Emmy voters their daily tapioca pudding, and they were afraid that he'd spit in their food if he didn't win.

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