Can Keith Fly Solo?

EVER THE WISE GUY, KEITH OLBERMANN will tell you he's really taken his new job with all-news MSNBC to be closer to the bright lights of the big city. Up until last June, he may have reigned as the nation's smartest, sassiest sportscaster around, as co-anchor of ESPN's ""Sportscenter.'' But he had to do it in the boonies of Bristol, Conn., ESPN's world headquarters. ""From the window of my house,'' Olbermann recalls with mock wistfulness, ""I could look out on the whole Farmington Valley. And there on the horizon was Interstate 84, with all the taillights blending into one.'' Then he'll mention the cows and horses he counted as neighbors, along with the place being ""ideal'' for raising kids and ""cleaning a swimming pool.'' Hasta la vista, Nutmeg State!

Today the 38-year-old Olbermann sits high above midtown Manhattan in his new, million-dollar apartment, content amid his 35,000 baseball trading cards and seats from such relics as the Montreal Forum and Ebbets Field. To the south there's a view of the Statue of Liberty, to the north a view all the way up the Hudson, in the elevator Al Pacino and Goldie Hawn! On the street are restaurants galore and always a cab. Olbermann is single, doesn't drive and dislikes farm animals--life is good. Plus his $350,000 salary is doubling.

Yet Olbermann's departure from ""Sportscenter,'' ESPN's flagship program, is hardly an obvious career move. This Wednesday he becomes America's newest talk-show host. ""The Big Show With Keith Olbermann (8 to 9 p.m. Monday to Friday) is MSNBC's answer to Larry King on CNN--a news-driven discussion program that relies on the host's star power. Mostly, there will be traditional interviews and a few gags. (While he'll also do occasional work for NBC Sports--which has an opening as of last Thursday--he vows his show will go out of its way to avoid sports.)

Olbermann has the tools. He's glib, quick and, by TV standards, deep: he's well versed in the careers of his heroes, Churchill, Laurel and Hardy. His voice is strong: the baritone is sweet and full of range. His writing can be lovely: his tributes to Mickey Mantle and Curt Flood were poetry. But apart from the issue of MSNBC's obscurity, the challenge for Olbermann will be flying solo. At ""Sportscenter''--a scores-and-highlights show--he and straight man Dan Patrick bounced their one-liners, puns and movie references off great videotape. Like during highlights of a hockey fight when Olbermann exclaimed, ""Saracen Pig, Spartan Dog!''--taunts from Woody Allen's classic sendup ""What's Up, Tiger Lily?''

Olbermann also has to worry some about how his irreverent act will play with studio guests and a cable audience more used to perky Soledad O'Brien. It's one thing to poke fun at Michael Jordan's bank wad, quite another to go after the Queen Mother. ""I'm not here for the tabloid details of Marv Albert,'' he says. ""Tell me what it means. Stop about the panties! Give me some context--remember that Grover Cleveland once fathered an illegitimate child.'' On Marv himself, Olbermann predicts a return to TV in a year. ""If all this happened to Dennis Rodman, he'd be on his way to a third book.'' The part of the show most resembling the Olbermann MO will be at the end, when he riffs on the ridiculous.

Off the screen, Olbermann may actually try to get along better with his latest employer. His intensity and honesty is admirable, but Olbermann is a problem child, going back to his early days in local TV. At times he seems to take on the character of ""Seinfeld's'' George Costanza--finding dilemmas or dilemmas finding him. ""George's mistakes are inadvertent,'' says Olbermann. ""Mine are more advertent.'' It's not an industry secret that Olbermann couldn't wait to escape ESPN for reasons beyond its isolation. Earlier this year management suspended him for two weeks after an unauthorized appearance on Comedy Central; it didn't help that he referred to Bristol as a ""Godforsaken'' place. Then, during the summer, ESPN gave him grief for planning to use the ""The Big Show'' title (the nickname Olbermann and Patrick gave to ""Sportscenter'') on MSNBC.

Even now, on the eve of ""The Big Show,'' Olbermann's animosity hasn't waned. With little prompting, he offers that ESPN was ""unsophisticated,'' ""had no idea what went into writing 15,000 words a week,'' ""didn't have a floor director or even someone to get you a cup of water'' and, worst, subjected him to the indignity of ""a kid at the TelePrompTer who asks, "Does anybody here, er, know how to turn this thing on?' '' His friend Patrick urges Olbermann to ""let it go'' and get on with his life. ""I want Keith to be happy.'' Of course he'll be--MSNBC says he can keep doing those Boston Market commercials. Keith, eat something!