Short People

Why won't you kiss my prosthetic fat? Martin Short and Janeane Garofalo

I'm not sure that I get Martin Short. I'm not sure anyone, Martin Short included, gets Martin Short. He has always struck me as playing a game of his own invention, gauging his progress by standards only tangentially related to humor--the timid man's Andy Kaufman, say. Think about the pinheadesque Ed Grimley: Was he satirical (of what?), interestingly weird (maybe), or just irritatingly off, like a fifth grader singing endlessly in the back of the car?

Still, Short has shown a degree of stick-to-itiveness that would be more admirable if anyone had a solid idea what "it" was. Most of his baby-boom peers who have passed the half-century mark have "grown up," to the extent comics ever do, and settled into personas, be that Billy Crystal's bittersweet nostalgist or Steve Martin's renaissance humorist. Heck, even Dennis Miller has a steady job these days. (Ex-hippies like George Carlin, on the other hand, keep fighting the power, years after their battles have been won.) Their angry-young-man fires tamped down by habit and compromise, the boomers are settling into easy chairs, fine-tuning suburban jokes for suburban folks.

Whereas Short still bounces around, a little kid trying to attract the attention of grownups whose interests in the world mystify him. At first I thought his new series, Primetime Glick (9:30 p.m. Wednesdays on Comedy Central), had finally created a fitting context for him--a guerrilla assault not just on talk shows, but on all the crutches that have come to prop up the celebrity culture. (The show also represented, not incidentally, a victory for Short's own Edward Hyde: Jiminy Glick was a recurring character on Short's, uh, short-lived talk show who has now assumed dominance.) But after a promising start, the program has subsided into the usual antics, with Short falling over chairs, choking on food, and sneezing into his drink when things get slow.

In design, Short's program recalls every other talk show. Band vamps; host dances, spars with bandleader, free-associates. Guests come on, try to plug whatever they're supposed to be plugging, get the treatment. Though the satiric vision doesn't seem to cohere in any meaningful way (that's if it is meant to be satiric; maybe it's just Short's usual weirdness for its own sake), some of its parts repay your attention. The band, led by Spin¨al Tap's Michael McKean as leathery Me Decade remnant Adrien Van Voorhees on harp, wears oddball haircuts and ill-fitting suits that suggest a late-Sixties, Eastern European attempt at a hip glimpsed only in snatches. Adrien himself mugs just like G.E. Smith used to on SNL. Sometimes Glick reads a group of children a bedtime story. One of these involves Eddie Murphy's late-night pickup of a transvestite hooker, another the murder of Sal Mineo (both dramatized with stick puppets), and a third devolves into accusations that the kids have stolen Glick's Matt Damon and Ben Affleck cufflinks. Too often, though, we endure unfunny parodies: Whoever came up with You've Got Mao, featuring Conan O'Brien, Anne Heche, and Jackie Chan, should be sent for reeducation at U.S.C.

Jiminy Glick himself looks like a Cabbage Patch doll with a drinking problem. Heat-sealed into waxy makeup and a fat suit that is said to take two-and-a-half hours to put on, he hikes his pants halfway up his chest, slides from growl to purr and back in three sentences, and lunges at his guests with the painfully obvious neediness of the hanger-on striving desperately to inch those fingertips a little further into solid ground. (Part of the joke is that his guests are A-minus-list celebs like Miller, Crystal, Bill Maher, and, weirdly, former NBAer John Salley--soon to run his own talk show--whose clout doesn't stretch nearly as far as Glick would like.) His customary smarm--"wonderful!" and "I LOVE HIM!" represent the basic currency of praise--skips inevitably into resentment of his failures: to be better known, to get invited to the best parties.

He's a horrific interviewer, uninterested in most standard questions and rarely paying attention long enough to allow his guests to reply (in this he most recalls Letterman, whose total lack of rapport with guests suggests a lack of familiarity with basic American conversational norms or a social disorder). A long rumination on Frank Sinatra's lamentable marital choices ends in Glick asking Rob Lowe what he thinks of Barbara Sinatra. In another interview, Glick asks Janeane Garofalo her age four times in ten minutes, each time excitedly discovering that she is the same age as was Marilyn Monroe when she died. He seems to miss most current movies and has only a shaky grasp on anything not featured in People or Variety: "A 'veteran' is someone who...?" he inquires of Steve Martin. A link on the Web site has him confusing Buster, Diane, and Michael Keaton at the Warner Bros. studio. Other favorite locales include the La Brea Tar Pits and Forest Lawn Cemetery.

The running joke is that Glick is a closet-era gay man, rife with useless four-decade-old gossip about people like Ava Gardner and not much else. Despite the presence of his fragile wife Dixie (Jan Hooks), a Tennessee Williams curio who skates shakily through the day on cigarettes and drink, and his four sons (Morgan, Mason, Matthew, and Modine), almost none of Glick's guests can resist a crack about his somewhat ambiguous sexual orientation. Again, I'm not sure why, except that the bit struck Short as funny and stayed in the act.

But then, jokes about homosexuality have long been considered safe on the small screen. When it comes to other targets, the show simply isn't mean enough. Not just to its guests, necessarily, but to the shameless toadying that now passes for interviewing, the unquestioning acceptance of star prerogatives as some sort of inalienable royal principle. Were it more merciless in its treatment of Glick himself, Primetime Glick would be the acid-drenched vision we need of a child raised by Entertainment Tonight. Unfortunately, Short hams it up when he should snarl, lending Glick more sympathy than he deserves. In his mind, this probably means that he's winning--in whatever race it is that he's running.

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