So you're in the limo with Paul Williams, Mr. Talk Show Guest, singer-songwriter-schmoozer, America's hobbit -- and remember, kids, a hobbit is tough to break -- and it's the next-to-last afternoon of a seven-week tour, that's seven weeks of Snickers and Heinekens, seven weeks of doing your songs and your short schtick, and listen gang, three more days of this and you'll be buying a rifle and looking for that tower, got it? And it's giggle time. You and Paul in the back seat of the stretch, him wearing a pink shirt and purple pants and hooker-red shades, and his feet are barely touching the drop seat, and the damn drop seat can't be more the three feet away.

"I gotta tell you about my favorite cartoon," he says. "There's these two seals, and one is balancing a ball on his nose, and the other is playing the horns, right? So the one playing the horns turns to the other and says, 'What I'd really like to do is direct.'"

Giggles.

So, what would Williams really like to do?

Stright-faced. "I'd like to direct."

Giggles.

"Fantasies, huh? Fantasies? I'd like to club a baby seal."

Laughter.

"Fantasy? A 26-inch waist. Looking good in Jordache jeans. Getting that Jordache look. Just once I'd like to wake up in the middle of the night really starving for a carrot or a piece of celery . . . It's my only generalization, but it's a beauty. I'm a total bigot about this. I hate everyone that can fit into Jordache jeans."

He is just like the picture you had of him with Johnny or Mike or Merv or Dinah. Maybe 5-foot-2. Kind of chunky. Sort of an amalgam of a duckpin, the Pillsbury doughboy, Miss Piggy and R2-D2 with a Goldie Hawn wig. You look like that and you learn to talk fast or you're going to be eating a lot of knuckle sandwiches. He's 39 now and he's not wearing anybody's diamond ring on his nose. So he's learned.

"I was a construction brat," he says. His father was an architect and the family moved around a lot, starting in Omaha, ending up in California. "I was always the new kid in town as well as the littlest. New kid. Smaller -- hey, let's whack him." Pause. Take glasses off. Wipe eyes. Make contact. Go. "Now as a pugilist, I never mastered the art of being punched in the nose. My eyes still water. Maybe the jokes started there. Maybe I did them to save my a--. I figured two things worked -- be funny, or have a runny nose. Nobody likes to get snot on their fist. I was always beaten up less in winter than summer."

The jokes were there even before the composing, even before the singing, even before the acting and the movie scoring and the production company. The jokes were there from the get-go.

"Hey, I just got back from Manila. It was incredible, man. Everybody's my size. Walked down the street, and for the first time in my life I say faces."

The short schtick. Instant acceptance.

"I guess when I started it seemed like I did an incredible array of short jokes," he says. "But they served a purpose. They made people laugh and they made me relax. I needed to relax to get through to an audience. Look, there are a lot of people in the business my height. Paul Simon, he's five-two. But he never mentions it. I've heard he's sensitive. I use it. It's the reverse of what's happened to Anita Bryant. You say 'gay,' you think of Anita Bryant, which is what she deserves, that idiot. But to be in Bob Hope's monologue, to watch people do impersonations of you -- you know, get down on their knees and sing something in that scratchy voice, that's a great honor.

"When I was getting started, Bill Bixby said I should do 'Hollywood Squares.' I said -- why? He told me it's because your face and your name are right there on the screen. Plus, when Peter Marshall says, 'Hello, stars,' there's an assumption that you're a star -- even if your show has just gone into the toilet. I took it one step further. I did every talk show there was, from the morning to late at night on 'Midnight Special.' I hit every demographic. I'm told I have the most recognizable face of anyone who ever walked through an airport. Lee Majors calls me a poster child. He says I'm a poster that says "There are celebrities in this area. Watch for them. Here's one."

Quickies from Paul:

On Brando -- "I thought he was taller."

On Redford -- "I worked with him and Brando on a film. He was incredibly quiet. I thought he was aloof. I realize now he was just shy."

On Streisand -- (long pause, some grunts) "Most difficult person I ever worked with in my life, probably the most demanding . . . She expects people to be as good as she is -- and I am. I have no intention of ever working with her again."

On Pacino -- "Excellent actor. Excellent actor. Talent."

Deniro -- "You talkin' to me? You know, 'Taxi.'"

Dylan -- "Never met him. Always wanted to."

Jagger -- "Met him once in a hotel in Paris. I said something stupidly midwestern like -- 'How does it feel to be married?' I was carrying a guitar case, and he said to me -- 'How's it feel to be a guitar player?' I said, 'Oh, there's no guitar in here. My brother's in here. He has no arms or legs, and this is how I carry him around.'"

He is very successful now, and he has been for several years. It's been a long time since he worked in an Albuquerque insurance office, since he was a stunt parachutist, since he came to Hollywood to be an actor and only drifted into song writing out of boredom. Some of his songs have been recorded by such people as Sinatra, Presley and Streisand -- the king of heavyweight performers for whom two names are unnecessary. Paul Williams is a very rich man. You can hardly ride an elevator without hearing one of his tunes, like "Old Fashioned Love Song," or "Evergreen" or "The Rainbow Connection." Maybe it's the commercial success that has made him such an easy target. Maybe it's the porky persona. Whatever. The fact is that the guy got dumped on so often, he might as well have been declared a landfill.

"They're not doing it so much lately, but there were times when it absolutely crushed me. Killed me. The critics didn't see what I was all about, what entertainment I was giving. It really hurt me. I'd memorize the bad reviews and not be especially affected by the good ones. I couldn't believe it. I'd be getting standing ovations and still get dumped on by the critics. My friends used to try and hide the reviews from me. Now it's turning around. Now I get reluctant praise. Something like, 'Paul Williams wasn't as utterly vacuous as I thought he'd be. He was less vacuous than I anticipated.'"

They're killing him softly now.

After a while, it hurts less.

Williams' most recognizable genre is the talk-show couch. Lately he's been talking about his production company -- Tugboat -- and the films he's working on, including a collaboration with Johnny Hart, the creator of the comic strips "B.C." and "The Wizard of Id." Williams and Hart are going to make a swashbuckling adventure based on The Wizard, with Williams playing the mean little King. On the talk shows, he's a guest star. He never has to sit between the diet doctor and the chimp. He never has to listen to the young woman with the Cosmo clevage who believes in solar energy, white wine with fish and roller disco. The trick, he says, is to come on first. He comes on first.

The talk show circuit labels tend to be somewhat exaggerated, much in the same way that the sizes of toothpaste tubes are exaggerated, from giant to super to extra super to Venezuela. But Williams has gone from personality to star rather quickly. He is not in the superstar category (not real superstars, of course; real superstars don't do talk shows. When was the last time you saw Dylan schmoozing with Dinah about her new neat recipe for tuna a la orange? Or the last time you saw Merv ask DeNiro, "So uh, Bobby baby, how's you topspin lob?"). The superstar category is reserved for people like Wayne Newton, Shecky Green and Ann-Margret. The giants of Vegas, a deposit slip in Nevada where the tourists think a Stanley Kubrick is a new kind of power tool.

But right under that category are people like Williams. Guest stars. People like Hal Linden and Suzanne Somers. Most of the people in this category are television stars who are constantly trying to convince the public that the full breadth of their talents isn't being realized. Williams is much more attractive a performer than most nonthreatening person on the panel. And that may be why he has vaulted over the bottom three fights of talk-show habituals. Like ordinary stars: Connie Stevens; Robert Blake; J.J. Walker; Bruce Jenner; Valerie Harper. Or personalities: Zsa Zsa Gabor; Loretta Swit; Jamie Farr; Meredith Baxter Birney; Orson Bean. Or mere guests: Zippy the Chimp.

"I know what you're saying. I know where you're going," Williams says. "You get some of these people, and it seems they exist to be on the panel. Like, 'What does Orson Bean do for a living anyway?' Okay, that won't happen to me. Because I'm a good enough actor to do a credible performance as Vladimir in 'Waiting for Godot,' or Don Quixote in 'Fantasy Island.'"

He said it.

But for all his versatility, it is the talk show that defines who he is for the American public. He has guested -- he once came on Carson in full ape make-up from "Battle of the Planet of the Apes" and sang a love song in the most saloonish Sinatra style imaginable -- and he has hosted -- "I had an actress on who was boring me so much I almost nodded out. She said something about her grandmother, who was 92, getting up and cleaning the house by 9 a.m. and then baking pies, and I cut in and said that the whole family was in the amphetamine business." He thinks he knows what makes a good one.

"Paul Williams is not oppressive," he says.

"Paul Williams is a good listener," he says.

Again, in the limo, on the way to the talk show where he would promote today's Wolf Trap gala (he'll be there), and Williams is talking about how high the prices of houses are back home in California. Most people, he says, like to talk about their houses and who lived in them previously. "You always hear people say -- 'I live in the old Gable house.' 'Well, Peter Lorre died in my living room.' How's that?Nice touch, huh?" Now, Williams is looking to buy what he calls "a spread." He and his wife are expecting their first child, and maybe he wants room to grow. A kiss for luck and they're on their way. Start out walking and learn to run. Only just begun.

"They see me coming and double the price," he says.

So, uh, Paul, Paulie baby, why don't you go incognito?

"Okay. Next time I'll go as Jo Stafford."

Giggles.