The camera pan over ballroom tables ringed by applauding glitterati. The orchestral swell. The cheery celebrity host wafting onstage to emcee yet another black-tie evening thickly perfumed with self-congratulation. Welcome to yet another show-biz award ceremony, an entertainment sub-category so thick with burgeoning entries that it may soon earn its own cable channel.
But, as one of the last entries of the year, "The First Annual Comedy Hall of Fame" (at 9 tonight on NBC, Channels 4, 36 and 39) is among the best. Carol Burnett, George Burns, Walter Matthau, Jonathan Winters, Red Skelton and Milton Berle are the recipients, and Burt Reynolds, Glenda Jackson, Jason Alexander, Jack Lemmon, Paul Reiser, Richard Lewis and John Ritter are among the hosts.
One of the things that distinguishes this show is that it manages to offer proper tribute without dipping into ceremonial prostration. It feels more like a big party where everyone more or less knows everyone else, and is free, within the bounds of a generous propriety, to cut loose (Jason Alexander does a song-and-dance number that demonstrates a robust theater talent that can't get play on "Seinfeld").
The hosts entertain, the honorees take their tribute, and then they give back a bit of the charm and spirit that's brought them where they are. All of these figures have been around long enough to have gained a residual affection that goes beyond nostalgia. There's scarcely anyone among us who hasn't had a hard night whose sole rescuing light was a few laughs with one of these comics, and there are generous film clips of each to bring us a rush of satisfaction, not only of memory, but of seeing that these talents aren't laminated in history: They're just as funny as ever.
And classy. Burnett cautions us not to forget Lucille Ball. Skelton tells us he thinks the purpose of life is to build, not destroy. A commendably restrained Uncle Miltie sings a song about what being an entertainer has meant. And lest we forget that this is a comedy show, 97-year-old George Burns hopes aloud that the second half of his life will be as rewarding as the first, then turns to Sharon Stone and says, "You keep the award; I'll take you home."
And Winters asks, "Did you ever undress in front of a dog?"
Producer George Schlatter has found a good balance between giving these talents their generous due, yet keeping the show on pace. When John Ritter intones, "Comedians have never gotten the respect they so richly deserve," you want to say, "And it's a good thing too." Otherwise we wouldn't have so much fun, even at an awards show.