Phil Hartman Makes Like A Primo Pitchman

In what appears to be part of some master plan to wipe out the audience while leaving television sets intact, NBC has tried to reprocess ads into entertainment. The secret weapon is "A Word From Our Sponsor," a special airing tonight at 10 on Channel 5.

Since the show lasts an hour, the sponsors squeeze several hundred words in edgewise. Not counting real commercial breaks.

Love or loathe the idea of a show devoted to the greatest hits of Madison Avenue, who better to co-host it than "Saturday Night Live" primo parody pitchman Phil Hartman? We can't think of anyone.

On "SNL," Hartman has voiced make-believe ads for everything from a funeral home that promises not to have sex with corpses, to a super bran cereal called "Colon Blow."

You may also know him as the cast member who plays Phil Donahue, Frank Sinatra, Donald Trump, Bill Clinton and Unfrozen Cave-Man Lawyer.

"I'm not extremely cynical about commercials," he says. "In fact, sometimes it becomes painfully evident that a commercial got a lot more attention and budget than the show you're watching. They might be the best thing on TV any given night."

Some of the best commercials originated overseas: a Chilean spot for super adhesive; a British bacon "advert," as they call commercials; another English import for cigars, starring car-stripping baboons.

Hartman, 44, has many reels of experience as a larynx for hire. Before joining the cast of "SNL" in 1986 he had found regular commercial work in Los Angeles pushing automobiles, appliance, audio tapes and more. He still does commericals.

"One simple reason," he said. "It pays fantastically well."

Brace yourself for the zeros in Hartman's paycheck for appearing in a series of four Slice soft drink ads several years ago: $300,000, he said.

"As a straightforward spokesman, there are plenty guys more believable than me," Hartman said. "I've cultivated this quality where my tongue is planted firmly in my cheek. I will never get hired by someone who doesn't have a sense of humor, that's for sure."

Of course, one of Hartman's deadest-on "SNL" impressions is of that sultan of spokesmen, Ed McMahon. The opportunity could not be passed up to ask about his McMahon sketch - with Dana Carvey playing Johnny Carson - that was part of the recent, mostly heinous MTV Music Video Awards.

He hoped his sketch didn't "give the wrong impression" about McMahon. "I meant no disrespect. The man is obviously a true media icon."

Last season in a fact-meets-fiction twist, it looked like Hartman might inherit McMahon's title as America's biggest second-banana. New "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno approached Hartman about becoming his sidekick.

Comedian Garry Shandling also considered Hartman for the sidekick role on Shandling's HBO series, "The Larry Sanders Show," that takes a humorous look backstage at a late-night talk show. Now, NBC is exploring a late-night show for Carvey, where Hartman might also play a part.

For now, though, Hartman is happy his seventh season on "SNL" is under way.

"It's the greatest job for me. There's not a lot of other places in entertainment where they have much use for someone who can be Johnny Cash or do a great pirate voice."