When men watch Fred Astaire dance they think, "Gee, I wish I could do that." When men watch Gene Kelly dance they think, "Hey, I bet I could do that." Of course they're wrong, but Kelly helped democratize, and masculinize, dance on the screen. What comes through in the more than two dozen clips shown on tonight's American Film Institute tribute to Kelly is his most endearing quality, exuberance.

In his best dances, Gene Kelly is demonstrably too happy for words. He has to move. His whole being has to talk and laugh and shout "whoopee."

"The American Film Institute Salute to Gene Kelly," an unarguably entertaining CBS special at 9:30 on Channel 9, is at its most infectious when it is citing Kelly's work and at its most laborious when other people are extolling it. It's ironic that a program celebrating a dancer should be so word-heavy. Of course, these assembled celebrities have to say something, and the encomiums are kept, or edited, fairly brief. It's just that no matter how few words there are, you wish there were fewer, and no matter how much of Kelly's athletic and accessible art is unreeled, you wish there were more.

Frank Sinatra, a friend and former dancing partner, is conspicuous by his absence, but among those who were present at the AFI affair, at which Kelly was given the Life Achievement Award, and who pay tribute to him, are Leslie Caron, who danced with Kelly in "An American in Paris"; Cyd Charisse, Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds, who danced with him in "Singin' in the Rain" (and there, we have named the two best movie musicals of the '50s); Mikhail Baryshnikov, who is much cuter when he's not trying so hard to be cute; and a shy ex-hoofer named Astaire. "You know," Astaire says, "that Kelly, he's terrific. That's all there is to it."

That really is all there is to it, but her royal cloyness Shirley MacLaine, the host, is not allowed to let it go at that. She has to dole out dollops of gush, the kind of vive-la-dance talk we've all been inundated with ever since "A Chorus Line" first stepped in front of its own mirror. "A dancer can't lie," MacLaine says, in full twinkle. "To dance, you have to tell the truth."

Bring on the clips! The clips, the clips -- they are spectacular. Kelly dances with Jerry the Mouse, Vera-Ellen the bombshell, Sinatra the stringbean, Hayworth the heavenly. He neatly dissects a newspaper with his feet ("Summer Stock"), argues with his equally nimble alter ego ("Cover Girl") and magically takes the gimmickry out of the gimmick of dancing on roller skates ("It's Always Fair Weather").

There isn't a lot of warmth to the remarks about Kelly, and Kelly himself, in his acceptance speech at the end of the program, doesn't exude a lot of warmth back. You do get the feeling that when Kelly asks the musical question "Can it be I like myself?" the answer is emphatically yes, it can.

This AFI tribute is only 90 minutes long (some of the others, including Fred Astaire's, were two hours) and director Don Mischer has picked up the pace a little over previous years. Good idea. Producer George Stevens Jr., who does such a princely job with these things, wrote the script with Jeffrey Lane; it could have used a little more restraint in the gush department (writer Joseph McBride, who made solid contributions in previous years, has gone on to other projects).

But these shows usually hit or miss on the quality and variety of the clips included, and the Kelly oeuvre provided the producers with an almost foolproof trove, which is not to minimize the superb work of Gail Schumann, who put them together. The old MGM Technicolor gleams, the musical soundtracks glisten, and Kelly in full youthful bloom sails with rowdy elegance through a trouble-free world of pirates and clowns and sailors and living Utrillos. You know, that Kelly, he's terrific. That's all there is to it.