Everybody’s a comic for CableAce affair

Larry King showed up for the 15th annual CableAce Awards telecast wearing a tuxedo (though perhaps with his sleeves rolled up under the jacket); Tony Bennett sang the same song he’s sung on virtually every cable and broadcast TV show during the last couple of months with the possible exception of “Ren & Stimpy” and “Nightline”; and Paula Poundstone dazzled the crowd with what may have been her first-ever public performance wearing a clingy black dress instead of her traditional pants.

All of this helped prove that cable, as co-host Sinbad rather defensively put it Sunday night, is coming of age.

All that was missing was Cubic Zirconia table favors at the posh after-show party.

The ceremony, first of three aired under current deal with TNT, came in at a bright 2 1/4 hours, with only 17 awards and nine commercial breaks (another 75 awards were handed out at non-aired Friday ceremony and noted briefly at end of telecast).

TNT chief Ted Turner and wife Jane Fonda were featured prominently in audience clips. Sinbad’s remark that Fonda “taught women they don’t have to have flat butts — they can be strong and firm” drew a look from the exercise vid queen that might be described as somewhere between puzzled and aghast.

Other sweethearts on hand as presenters were Bruce Boxleitner and Melissa Gilbert; and Harry Connick Jr. and supermodel/director Jill Goodacre.

Upside of cable’s place in contemporary TV was reflected by all-star turnout — of all winners, only Larry Gelbart and Gary Oldman weren’t present.

Downside resulted in stream of jokes referring to medium’s low budgets, abundance of non-mainstream programming (several noted the possibility of 500 cable channels as an opportunity for everyone to have his own network), and remarks deriding the CableAce trophy itself.

Having moved uptown last year from the 2,300-seat Wiltern to 2,700-seat Pantages Theater, awards pulled blue-ribbon crowd of cable movers and shakers, augmented by 70 firefighters who, producer Anthony Eaton explained before airtime, had helped save his Malibu home in the recent fires.

Presentations themselves tended toward dullness, with honorees quick to point out how much more they could accomplish artistically on cable than on broadcast TV. Audience may have enjoyed surprise appearance of Billy Crystal and Robin Williams during presentation of special Governors’ Award to HBO chairman Michael Fuchs more than Fuchs himself seemed to; while honoree was thanking behind-the-scenes types, Williams warned, “Please, do not listen to this speech and operate heavy machinery.”

Comedy clips host Poundstone threw away script and ad-libbed, noting that cable has “hardly any butterheaded suits bullying us into dull conformity.”

In the press room, Poundstone suggested that her improvised speech was an improvement over “whatever” was in the prepared script. Speaking of her ABC variety series, canceled after two shows (only one in L.A. due to preemption by fire coverage), she noted, “Thank God the ‘Matlock’ reruns (that replaced it) didn’t do better. … I was doing what I wanted to do; I think it would have developed.”

Larry King affirmed that his Albert Gore-Ross Perot show was his best ever; “Larry Sanders Show” director Todd Holland revealed that guest star Howard Stern was “a sweetheart … like a kid in a candy store”; and Brian Dennehy, who’d received his trophy for actor in a movie or miniseries within the first 15 minutes of the show, allowed that he’d be able to go to an early dinner.

Louis Gossett Jr. mentioned an upcoming NBC pilot, produced by Dean Hargrove for Viacom, called “Ray Alexander,” in which he’d play an investigator who doubles as a cook in a restaurant owned by B.B. King.

Melissa Gilbert, another presenter, said she and Cicely Tyson are working on an NBC series in which they’d portray attorneys in the present-day South.

Kathy Najimy conjectured that there’d be a “Sister Act 3” only “over Whoopi’s dead body,” conceding that that had been the conventional wisdom about “Sister Act 2.”

A reporter for a weekly magazine queried each female celeb on who designed her outfit (“My editors insist on it”), though dress winning most backstage attention was co-host Mariel Hemingway’s nearly transparent black number. “If I’d paid for mine what she paid for hers,” quipped one female scribe, “I’d be showing them off, too.”

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