An office wag who tuned in Tom Snyder's interview with Charles Manson said he had trouble telling which one was the psychopath. Just kidding, of course.

But Snyder's interview with Manson -- "the first network encounter with Charles Manson in almost 13 years," as Snyder billed it on NBC's "Tomorrow" show -- made for a pretty fabulous and stupefying 90 minutes of television. Appalling, yes, but deplorable? It may have been a deplorable idea to do the interview in the first place, but once having committed to it, Snyder and his producers did a sensational job.

It was, for television, another trip around an increasingly thorny mulberry bush. Not only has the distinction between news and entertainment crumbled on TV, but the line between fame and infamy, celebrity and notoriety is also becoming a blur. Incredibly enough, Snyder apologized at the end of the show for his "belligerence" in questioning a convicted murderer.

Earlier, he tried to rationalize the Manson appearance with a lot of prefatory hooey about how we can't know ourselves unless we know Charlie Manson too. A good case could be made for never needing to know ourselves that well. Besides, we knew why Charlie was there. He was there to help Tom Snyder get his ratings up.

The occasion may seem to call for cries of alarm and disgust from the usual quarters. Snyder didn't exactly help matters when he said in his introduction that Manson's murder trial became "a media circus." It hardly behooves a sideshow barker to criticize the entertainment in the center ring.

But before anybody slips a disc in denouncing Snyder, the great American viewing public ought to be considered, too. The "Tomorrow" show has never been a ratings smash, but it's been in worse shape than usual since Johnny Carson shortened his "Tonight" show to an hour. The Manson interview was clearly a ploy to boost the ratings.

It worked. An ABC spokesman said the ratings in New York Chicago and Los Angeles for the Manson interview were triple the usual numbers for the "Tomorrow" show. All the competition was leveled.

NBC admitted ahead of time that to get Manson to sit still (or pace around the room, as the case may be) for an interview, $10,000 was paid to Nuel Emmons, a free-lance writer working with Manson on a book. Snyder even interviewed Emmons on the program -- indisputably its low point -- and said on the air that NBC had hired him as a "consultant."

But the gandy dance between Manson and Snyder was worth enduring almost anything for. This really was not so much an interview as a match of dueling egos -- two performers each trying to outperform the other. Snyder's questions were so mock tough and blunt that they were practically self-parody:

"How do you feel about dying?" "Are you happy when you found out you weren't going to the gas chamber, Charles?" "Do you miss women?" "Don't you think you belong in the nut ward?" "What does it feel like to kill someone, Charles?"

It was a theatrical performance. The baiting and taunting were designed to make this a good show, not to elicit information.But a lot of what Mike Wallace does on "60 Minutes" is theatrical, too, At least Snyder was amusing about it. "Get off the space shuttle, Charles," and "Get mad, get angry, come over here and hit me if you like." How many viewers quietly hoped Manson would do just that?

It would have meant Snyder and Howard Cosell both getting bopped in the same night -- sure-fire crowd pleasers. And dynamite show business.

Manson's responses ranged from cheap pulp swagger to degenerate derangement.

Sometimes he made a twisted sort of sense:

"I've been an outlaw ever since I was born." "Living is what scares me. Dying is easy." "James Earl Ray's got his problem, I got mine." "I never whipped my old lady [but] I punched out my mother once." "Pain's not bad, it's good. It teaches you things."

At one point Manson quoted from Shakespeare's Machbeth: "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day." When Snyder referred to that elusive quality called innocence, Manson shot back, "Innocent? Innocent? "Let's get back to that work innocent. You're so white and pure?"

Among the more than 30 separate commercial spots scattered through the 90 minutes were ads for breath fresheners, mouthwash, toothpaste, diet pills, a movie that glorifies drug taking ("Nice Dreams") and a gum that promises its users "the ultimate bubble." Millions watched the Manson interview. Sponsors paid thousands of dollars to hawk their goods on it. So if it was all a disgusting spectacle, whom does one blame?

In five or 10 years, when the number of program choices available to viewers has substantialy multiplied, so will the number of seemingly deplorable events designed to lure audiences by time-tested, if sleazy, means. The information explosion will inevitably also be a misinformation explosion.

So Tom Snyder's session in the nut ward with Charles Manson was perhaps only a mild preview of things to come, pointing the way toward the ultimate bubble, or the ultimate babel, just down the road. To continue from Sharespeare: "And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death."