In an old New Yorker cartoon, an author, pitching his book to a talk show host, is interrupted when a technician strides onto the set and says, "You might as well cool it, guys; Nielsen just called and it turns out nobody is watching."

One had that kind of feeling yesterday from the Iran-contra hearings, as Edwin Meese faced his second day of questioning and steadfastly refused to become interesting. Here was the attorney general of the United States, a close pal of the president's, summoned to account for his department's investigation of the scandal, making history, and it just didn't seem to matter.

Was the whole world watching? Was anybody? "Am," one might have asked oneself, "I?" There were times there when it seemed even the pundits must have wandered off.

Things were getting so grievously tedious that in the afternoon, the director of the CBS pool coverage grew restless and began calling for random camera shots around the room. There was a shot of the court stenographer busily taking down the testimony. There were shots of Sens. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and William Cohen (R-Maine) huddled together and chatting, as if telling jokes or swapping golf scores.

There was a close-up, artfully shot through his glass of water, of Edwin Meese's doodles on the note pad in front of him. He appears to favor squares and rectangles. No surprise there. What would be next -- a zoom-in on the ornamental filigree festooning the Senate Caucus Room? Pans of the spectators and press sections lately have revealed a growing number of empty seats.

The Bolshoi it ain't.

Oh, they had lined up to see a once-obscure Marine lieutenant colonel, and millions clung to their TV sets for Oliver North's every whimper and bleat. But the attorney general was bombing. People in the hearing room were all but burying their noses in Racing Forms.

Surely the CBS eye moisted over in sorrow when, at 6:16, chairman Inouye announced that things wouldn't be wrapped up by 6:30 as hoped, and that if the remaining questioners took all their allotted time, there was still "two hours to go" -- a prediction that proved just five minutes off (the hearings adjourned at 8:25).

What had seemed increasingly to be an exercise in futility now was bidding to become a marathon of futility.

Behind the scenes was where the action was. CBS had to move heaven and earth, in a manner of speaking, in order to continue feeding coverage of the hearings (mainly to time zones that weren't ready for nightly newscasts yet) while simultaneously transmitting, at 6:30, the first of two nightly feeds of "The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather."

A CBS News spokesman said it may have been the first time that a commercial network like CBS was sending out two simultaneous network transmissions (not counting regionally targeted sports events). It was accomplished by detouring the hearings to another satellite transponder. When prime time began at 8, CBS stations could take the hearings or the regular entertainment schedule.

In a commendable spirit of public service, Channel 9 (WUSA) here returned to the hearings after its local news.

Rather turned the hearings over to correspondent Bob Schieffer at 6. Lucky for Dan he was still on duty when Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) began his pedantic questioning of Meese designed to show, as Hatch's questions are always designed to show, that what happened with the Iran-contra affair was wrong and unfortunate but that worse things have happened and, gee, let's not be so picky.

Hatch quoted John Jay, Henry Kissinger and Robert Jackson, once attorney general. What a great time for a national nap. But Hatch has nothing on The Reader, The Dread Reader, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), who last week read at tremendous length from a book about politics and yesterday read from depositions and testimony or something. Whatever it was, it was a bedtime story.

Maybe Hyde has heard that PBS might be looking for a replacement for Alistair Cooke. Poor Meese could be seen browsing through volumes of evidence, meanwhile, as he tried to look up this date or that occurrence. It was kind of sad to see him thumbing, thumbing, thumbing. This was a day of thumbing and doodling.

Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.) had brought his reading glasses, too. He read a legal definition out of a law book. Lord have mercy! And just before 8, Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) started plugging books on terrorism that he liked. Bill's Bookmobile had arrived. The New Yorker cartoon was coming true.

Throughout, Meese kept the calmest of demeanors. He just could not be provoked, not by Rep. Peter Rodino (D-N.J.) on Tuesday, nor by Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine) or Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) yesterday. You could see Meese's temperature rising slightly, but then some kind of fail-safe mechanism would kick in and he'd cool down again.

He was so placid, he was a regular Lake Meese.

It must have been frustrating for the committee members. They knew not only that they were getting nothing out of Meese but that it was time to board the circus train and move on to another town. Schieffer said on CBS that the proceedings were now "clearly on the down side" and, of the members, "they're ready for it to be over."

Some of the senators and congressmen were level-headed enough to surrender at least part of their questioning time, but others persisted in droning on. Rep. Jim Courter (R-N.J.) said the Justice Department's investigation shouldn't be compared with anything as neat and tidy as Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express" and Meese said in response he was no "Herculee Perot." Herculee Perot -- that's H. Ross' Belgian cousin, right?

It was sort of a literary kind of a day at the Iran-contra hearings.

Just before 5, CBS enlivened the production with an appearance by former network commentator Eric Sevareid. Lane Venardos, ever-alert CBS special events producer, had the bright idea of bringing Sevareid in, and Rather gave him the kind of reverential treatment normally accorded the pope or Katharine Hepburn.

And no wonder. Sevareid looks more senatorial than most of the senators.

Of the National Security Council, Sevareid said, "It should be cut way back, way back," and of President Reagan, "I think he's pretty much had it." A president "spends" his popularity to get his programs through, Sevareid said, "but he mustn't just throw it away in a fit of absent-mindedness."

It was very, very good to see Eric Sevareid again. He made a half-joking reference to having said something in the past over "the sacred air of CBS." Perhaps Sevareid's appearance was at least partly political. He was there as an avatar of CBS Newsness, a reminder to CBS boss Laurence Tisch not to trifle any more with the division. Tisch has been babbling aloud again recently about more budget cutbacks.

That even Rather was getting tired of the hearings became evident in little details of his coverage. He could hardly say of Meese's appearance, as he had of Secretary of State George Shultz's, that it was "heavy, megaton testimony" that detailed "a pit-bull struggle for power inside the Reagan administration itself." No, not a chance.

Rather appeared a touch too sarcastic, however, when, discussing the money from the Iran arms sale, he said, "It doesn't belong to Secord, Oliver North, John Poindexter or any of these other characters." These "characters"? In a sort of Damon Runyon sense? A bit too much spin on the ball, perhaps, but when it gets to be the 17th inning of a scoreless game, the pitcher may well get cocky.

Inouye remained attentively in charge throughout, but as dusk settled around the Capitol, about the only suspense left was whether he, too, would crack a little. Instead of his familiar mantra "You may proceed," mightn't he perhaps look soulfully into the camera and ask the not entirely rhetorical question, "Hello? Hello? Is anybody out there? Hellooooooo?"