In the '30s, Hollywood was able to laugh at itself. Fitzgerald and West and other stylish cynics were not there to lionize ironies and puncture pomposities. Even in movies, stars could be heard to sing. "Hooray for Hollywood, where you're 'terrific' if you're even good, where any office boy or young mechanic, can be a panic, with just a good-looking pan . . . "

That kind of sardonic self-ribbing and seen the ovation turned into a spectator sport. Through an insufferabler excess of tributes, salutes, award shows and eulogies to the living, TV has becoem Hollywood's Wax Museum of the air, and tonight Henry Fonda is the one to get the paraffin poured over him on "The American Film Institute Salute to Henry Fonda," a CBS special at 9 o'clock on Channel 9.

Charlton Heston, AFI board chairman, tells the crowd at the party that the Fonda salute is part of the AFI's efort "to advance the art of film and television in the United States."

Har Har HAR-dee Har Har.

No offense to AFI or to Fonda (AIR, From B1> (whose arm reportedly had to be twisted, by AFI Director George Stevens Jr., to get him to accept the Lucite star in the first place), but this show doesn't advance any arts but those of the hapless hype and the uneventful non-event. And these are arts already so perfected by television that it's doubtful and more advancement is possible.

While walking down Hollywood Boulevard in L.A., one may be approached by production personnel recruiting studio audiences for "The Merv Griffin Show" or "The Price is Right." Pretty soon they're going to have to start recruiting honorees the same way, because they are fast running out. We know that the first rule of television is over-do it "til it dies, but sureley the millions for tribute that the networks have been paying reached the diminishing returns point 60 or 70 salutes ago.

Memory lane is being trampled into quaqmire. It's become Memory Swamp.

Ratings for the AFI special probably will be poor. Fonda is a capable and enduring actor but he doesn't light bonfires in the imagination; he's respected but not cherished. The question is, will programmers learn anything if the ratings are low-that perhaps viewers are tiring of communal show-biz back-pattin orgies? Watching them is like sitting through hours of congressional debate in which legislators do nothing but refer to each other as "my distinguished colleague."

"Ladies and gentlemen, Jimmy Stewart!" Standing ovation. "Ladies and gentlemen, Lucille Ball!" Standing ovation. "Ladies and Gentleman, Barbare Stanwyck!" Standing ovtion. You wonder what the'll do when it's time for Fonda's remarks - a jumping ovation, maybe

The sad fact is that all this tributizing ends up trivializing the very myths and personalities it endeavors to exalt. The chummy humorlessness of the affairs, the generousness with which the stars applaud one another - only so that they'll be suitably applauded themselves - give the whole production the creepy and corrupt aura of a Mafia Wake.

It's if the Pompeii Chamber of Commerce were tossing a banquet to extoll the volcano as a tourist atraction. Film clips that should trigger happy memories turn bitter as you watch them because the whole tribute ritual with phoniness.

The real curse of shows like the AFI's is the fact that they're recorded and edited in a dvance so that nothing unexpected or delightly embarrassing can happen.Goofs and gaffes go directly to the cutting room floor, unless they have been planned in advance. The producers apparently don't realize that zillions of people tune in the Academy Awards each year partly on the optimistic assumption that one movie star or another will show up stewed to the gills an proceed to make a big fat spectacle of himself.

"This isn't another awards show, thank goodness," Peter Fonda says in the AFI salute, but it really is another awards show and nothing more. And by the time it is over, one has been so bombarded with plaudits and applause and good will among stars that the thought to one more clip, clap or kudo is positively sickening.

Nostalgia has become an industry unto itself, and as a gross national product it's clearly gotten too gross. Television is primarily to blame. It has proven out you can remember the past and still be condemned to repeat it. And repeat it and repeat it and repeat it . . .