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It is OK to laugh again. That's the message from NBC, which is kicking off its new season Sunday with a two-hour special, "50 Years of NBC Late Night" (9 p.m., Channel 2).

While we're told early on that the program shows all those viewers who can't stay up late what they've been missing all these years - that really isn't true.

Many highlights have been seen on primetime anniversary shows, featuring the best of Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Conan O'Brien. There also are the Carson videos.

Some of the best moments of their late-night talk predecessors, the late Steve Allen and Jack Paar (who were both "Tonight Show" hosts), also have been featured in specials. And the best moments of "Saturday Night Live" have been available on Comedy Central reruns.

So, you won't see anything new, just some classic footage that is so old that it may feel new again.

O'Brien, who replaced Letterman when he left "Late Night" for "The Late Show" on CBS, is our tour guide through the decades. Most of his introductions are as unfunny as the first year of his program. But that really isn't the point.

The purpose of the program is to see the famous Tomahawk scene with Ed Ames, to see Bette Midler serenade Carson on his final show, to see Letterman play along with some stupid pet tricks, to see Allen give Zsa Zsa Gabor his glasses and to see Paar take a stand against censorship.

There also is the joy of seeing young stand-up comedians Drew Carey, Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres and Steve Martin performing for Carson before they became stars.

And you'll see some black-and-white footage of some of the forerunners of "The Tonight Show," as well as clips featuring two guys who really were on late - Tom Snyder of "Tomorrow" and Bob Costas of "Later." They often had the most unusual guests. Among those who appeared with Snyder were Bono of U2 and convicted mass murderer and cult leader Charles Manson.

So get out your videotape and get this all on record.

You'll only be disappointed if you expect it all to be put in more serious context and for there to be more discussion of what NBC's late night television programs have meant to Americans.

One of the more memorable moments occurs when Seinfeld and the late John F. Kennedy Jr. make an appearance on the same late-night show and have a brief discussion of New York restaurants.

Kennedy, of course, died in a tragic plane crash that rocked America. That clip is just another reminder that life goes on and we can all laugh again.

Rating: 3 stars out of 4


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