Times Staff Writer

At the beginning of Elayne Boosler’s comedy special on Showtime this month, David Letterman asks where her program will be shown. When she tells him it’s for cable TV, he laughs uproariously. “Cable?” he asks incredulously. “Cable is dead! It’s finished!”

Not quite.

True, it hasn’t delivered anything approaching the bonanza of innovative and high-quality programming that once was predicted. Misses far outnumber hits--just as in commercial television and the rest of the arts. But hits there are.

Showtime already has come up with the freshest, funniest new series on prime-time TV this fall: “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.” And now Home Box Office is presenting what seems likely to stand as the best comedy special of the season: “Robin Williams--An Evening at the Met.”


Debuting Saturday at 10 p.m. (and subsequently airing Tuesday, next Friday and on Oct. 23 and 27), the hourlong program is a glorious record of a master stand-up comedian at the top of his form. It was taped during Williams’ concert appearances at the cavernous Metropolitan Opera in New York last August.

“I wonder if Pavarotti is at the Improv going, ‘Two Jews walk into a bar. . . .’ ” he muses at the outset.

Within five minutes, he has made references to Robin Leach, Abraham Lincoln, the British Royal Family, Imelda Marcos, the Grand Ole Opry, “Deliverance,” “The Music Man,” ballet and pro football.

The pace never diminishes. You need a seat belt to stay with Williams’ wild, stream-of-consciousness ride through life in the ‘80s--from President Reagan to TV evangelists, from international politics to sex, from pollution to pop culture, from drugs to fatherhood.

“You don’t need drugs when you have a kid,” he observes. “You’re awake, you’re paranoid, you smell bad--it’s the same thing!”

It’s a dazzling display of comedic agility, sensibility and energy. And Williams’ growth as a performer is evident--both in the breadth of his subjects and concerns and in the impressive command he has of himself and the audience. Like a maturing professional athlete, he has taken control of what once were raw, unbridled skills and learned to channel them, to orchestrate them, to marshal them--to use them instead of simplying venting them.

What a pleasure to watch.

Elayne Boosler’s Showtime special, “Party of One,” isn’t in the same league as Williams’ HBO effort, but it is another refreshing change of pace from the staid, recycled programming on commercial TV.


Her stand-up routine, taped at the Bottom Line in New York City, is uneven, especially in the first half, but it’s funny more often than not and noteworthy in any case because of her female view of the world--a view still not given sufficient exposure in the male-dominated TV medium.

That doesn’t mean Boosler does feminist humor--she doesn’t, in a political sense. What she does is talk about things from a woman’s point of view--dating, one-night stands, waitressing, men’s magazines, feminine hygiene products. Her style is conventional and affable, so that while women probably will relate to the material more readily, there’s no reason that men won’t also.

“Party of One” will play Saturday at 11 p.m. and again Wednesday, and on Oct. 20, 24 and 30.

There is yet another reason to turn to cable this weekend (and not just because Letterman’s “Late Night” show isn’t on). Sunday at 8 p.m., Showtime is introducing the first of what it says will be a series of original movies based on the popular Harlequin romance novels.

Now, in the larger scope of things, this is no more a long-lasting contribution to television than the Harlequin series is to literature. But in terms of providing momentary pleasure and diversion, the books do have their place, and this film, “Love With a Perfect Stranger,” is a commendably sincere and surprisingly successful attempt to transfer that appeal to the screen.

Produced by Great Britain’s Yorkshire Television, it stars Marilu Henner as the widowed owner of a successful fashion business who, while vacationing in Italy, meets and falls in love with a charming, audacious and--naturally--mysterious Irishman, played very likeably by Daniel Massey.


You can quibble all you like with the idea propagated here that a woman is incomplete without a man, but it seems silly to bother. This is fantasy, that’s all, and there’s something very comfortable about a simple, old-fashioned romance where the man rents an entire restaurant so the two of them can dine alone, where they take long carriage rides together, savor the splendors of Florence and make love by candlelight--a story where true love conquers all.

We know it’s not true, but we want it to be.

The movie also will be shown next Wednesday and on Oct. 20, 25, 30 and Nov. 4.