But tune in anyway, says Bruce Fretts -- the "SNL" and "SCTV" veteran has a real winner on his hands

By Bruce Fretts
Updated September 16, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Martin Short’s talk show debuts with modest ratings

One man may singlehandedly make it safe to watch TV during daylight hours again. No, it’s not Jerry Sheindlin, Judge Judy’s hubby, who’s just taken over “The People’s Court.” He’s certainly a step up from dull ex-New York City mayor Ed Koch, but somehow scolding jeremiads seem less charming coming from a cranky old man than they do coming from his feisty better half.

I’m talking about Martin Short, whose syndicated talk show has made a creatively auspicious bow this week. (Its ratings, however, were modest: 2.35 million viewers, down 17 percent from the show’s lead-in.) I’ve never been a huge Short fan; on “SCTV” and “SNL” and in films like “Father of the Bride,” he always struck me as slightly smarmy. Yet that quality works well for him in the schmoozy arena of showbiz chat.

He’s called in chits by booking old pals Steve Martin and Billy Crystal (“Thank you for jumping in after Scott Baio canceled at the last minute,” he goofed with Crystal). Short riffs comfortably with these comic peers, and his show has an uncanned feeling rare for a genre usually burdened with preinterviews and scripted banter.

Clever sketches have peppered the first few episodes (e.g. “The Falsettos,” a high-pitched spoof of ”The Sopranos”). While he’s leaning on his greatest hits — he reprised his defensive-lawyer character from “SNL” on the premiere — he’s also creating promising new personas. I’m already fond of Jiminy Glick, the jowly, effeminate entertainment reporter Short impersonated at the Emmys. (“I’m a big fan of your Disney work,” he told ”Freaky Friday”’s Jodie Foster. “What have you done since?”). Short has also wisely enlisted erstwhile Kid in the Hall Kevin McDonald to be part of his mighty comic ensemble.

The show still needs to work out a few kinks. Sidekick Michael McGraw seems to serve no purpose other than to suck up to the host (“You killed at the Emmys!”), which makes him even more superflous than Ed McMahon or Andy Richter. And isn’t it bad talk-show mojo to hire a holdover from Magic Johnson’s 1998 late-night fiasco (Peter Michael Escovedo, Sheila E.’s drummer brother) as your bandleader?

Still, one thing’s for sure: When it comes to Canadian syndicated chat hosts, Martin Short sure beats the hell out of Howie Mandel.