Comic Martin Short is an explosive talent. Too bad his brilliant brand of comedy is badly suited to the TV talk show. 

Coming Up Short

Martin Short is a brilliant sketch comic, a talented song and dance man, and an able actor. He's got two Emmys and a Tony to prove it.

What he isn't is a good talk-show host. But his failure in the conversation arena is something we're all familiar with in real life: He's the type that's always "on." We all know them, and we've all been bored nearly to tears by them. They monopolize the spotlight. Nobody else ever gets a word in edgewise. It's all about "Me! Me! Me!"

This is sometimes OK — rarely, but sometimes — such as when the rest of the people in the conversation have nothing much to say. It's not a good trait in a talk-show host, however, because the guests are presumably booked because the audience wants to see them and hear what they have to say.

Johnny Carson was the grand master talk-show host of our generation, gracious and skilled at putting the spotlight on his guests.

Short is not as bad as Arsenio Hall was, but he comes too close for comfort. It must be said, however, that there are elements of Short's show that are superb. They all involve another of his talents, however: the song-and-dance man part. And most of the bright moments come at the top of the show when Short makes his entrance on his art deco set that hearkens back to the golden age of Hollywood. (Credit designer Akira Yoshimura for that; he also designed the sets for Jay Leno's show and for "Saturday Night Live.")

On one recent morning, Short bounded onstage to the accompaniment of his show's five-member band, led by Peter Michael Escovedo, to belt out a highly charged version of the 1960s hit song "Do You Love Me." That three-minute segment would have stood up against the best of what TV variety shows once offered.

What Short doesn't seem to get is that he can't carry five hours of TV a week on the force of his personality alone. But he rarely gives his guests — and he's had some good ones — the chance to help. All you have to do is watch his eyes: You can see that his focus is not on what his guest is saying, but on what he's going to say next. It's a bad habit when you're talking to a friend in your own living room, and it's a colossal disconnect when you're playing to an audience of hundreds of thousands.

Of the guests Short had in one recent week, Jon Lovitz held his own more than any other. Diane Keaton got mauled by Short's attempts to go for a laugh every minute. Kellie Martin ("E.R.") actually managed to get a few ideas across, but Short didn't give her much of a chance. A good performance by the Harlem Globetrotters was weakened by Short's attempt to participate, and a segment with toy-expert Jim Silver turned into a confusing melee when Short spent too much time playing with the toys and running around the set chasing them.

There's no doubt that Short is an explosive talent. But an excellent three minutes at the opening of each show is a far cry from an hour's worth of morning

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