You remember the high school play, when people would say the funny lines very loud and then grin at the audience? And everybody used their hands a lot?

Well, that's "Melba," a half-hour situation comedy premiering tonight at 8 on Channel 9. Starring singer Melba Moore, Gracie Harrison, old trouper Lou Jacobi and the most obnoxiously braying laugh track heard in years, the show is remarkable if only for demonstrating that something so slight can be so irritating.

The gimmick is that Melba's mother raised as her own the orphaned daughter of the white family for which she was the housekeeper, giving Melba a white "sister," Susan, played by Harrison.

The plot is about finding dates. Melba, recently divorced and the mother of a 9-year-old girl, and Susan are both preoccupied with finding a man, a notion that the writers seem to feel is hilarious in itself.

Apparently even funnier is the notion that the women are not merely preoccupied but desperate. Susan approaches a stranger at a singles party (she is giving the party herself, but that's another story) and asks, rapid-fire:

"You married?"




"Busy tomorrow?"

She has already signaled that this is to be one of those shows where gays are unseen but automatically funny, like Martians.

"Most of my female friends," she says, "are looking for their own men. A lot of my male friends are, too."

If that line made you laugh your dentures out, this may be the show for you.

Wives are another great gag here. Wives are almost as funny as chickens.

"I have the same problem," Jacobi says. (You don't need to hear the rest of the skit.)

"What about your wife?"

"That's the problem."

"Melba" has a middle-aged black woman, Melba's mother, who rolls her eyes just like my sister used to do when she sprinkled talcum in her hair and played a mom in our senior play. It also has the 9-year-old daughter, who gets lines like this:

Susan: "There's a shortage of good men around."

Nine-Year-Old Daughter: "Tell me about it."

The laugh track almost had a heart attack over that one.

The thing about the television sitcom is that just when you think it has finally beaten a particular cliche' into the ground never to rise again, a new sitcom goes on the air -- and here comes the cliche' again, just like new.

On "Melba" we have: the single woman obsessed with dates; the wise-guy kid; the droll middle-aged mom; the gruff but kindhearted coworkers. In this world, politicians are dull ("If the mayor's speech is long enough, no one'll be awake to notice" her dress, etc.) and men want just One Thing.

"I'm looking for a guy who won't embarrass me in public."

"Maybe we should look in Massachusetts."

Some half-hour shows, like "Cheers," have a charming, easygoing atmosphere, with dead spots and throwaway lines. On "Melba" nothing is thrown away.

Every line has to be a one-liner. Every line has to get a laugh.

And it does, thanks to the studio audience. Even when the line is something like, "My biological clock is clanging like Big Ben."

Maybe the laugh track is a good idea after all.

If the show cracks itself up and applauds itself at the end, then who needs to watch?