Johnny Carson finds he can go home again

Johnny Carson, sophisticated czar of late-night television, is a sentimental pushover -- especially when it comes to reminiscences about his own Nebraska background.

Even if you are not a Carson fan, ''Johnny Goes Home'' (NBC, Monday, 9:30-11 p.m.) should prove to be a delightful sentimental journey into the small-town roots of this seemingly cool man who never gets flustered on camera at midnight. But he even sheds a few tears of joy when his whole family appears on the high school football field to celebrate with him.

''Johnny Goes Home'' is a predictable exercise in nostalgia. The surprise comes in how charming, sensitive, honest, and totally winning it proves to be. It's a pizza-size slice of Middle Americana so slyly and expertly hokey that it apppears to be completely un-hoked up. Credit for that must go to producer-director David Lowe Jr. and Mr. Carson himself since it was done by Carson's own production company.

They have managed to give a fresh, vibrant, impromptu feel to what might have been an exploitive special. How they found more than 80 out of 147 graduates of the Norfolk, Neb., High School class of 1943 is a minor miracle itself. And some very obvious ideas that might seem gimmicky on paper somehow work wonderfully. Like the flashing on screen of the yearbook pictures of each of the graduates when they first appear, the handwriting class with his favorite teacher, the tour of the area in the actual old Chrysler owned by Johnny's father, the ride on the old bike with a local girl on the handlebar, the hanging from the trestle under the railroad bridge as he used to, and Johnny's tour of his old homestead with the young son of its current occupants.

All these exercises in what could have been cloying sentimentality are done with such taste and simplicity that they work wonderfully -- and perhaps even send you back to your own roots hoping to find the same neighborly warmth.

Viewers may even feel a sentimental lump in their own throats when, at the end, in a voice-over, Johnny Carson dedicates the special to his mom and dad.

The familiar glib and clever Johnny Carson is melded into the young and uncertain Johnny Carson with the aid of marvelous family album shots and 8-mm film footage taken mostly by Dad, who deserves a great deal of the credit.

Toward the end, the late-night Carson shines through when he reads a letter just received from a viewer who tells him she didn't like him when he was seven years old and still doesn't like him. She reveals that for 50 years she has nursed a resentment toward him because once when team sides were being chosen, he pointed to her and said: ''Don't pick her, she runs like a duck.''

Well, ''Johnny Goes Home'' floats like a swan.

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