Tonight, "Lateline" will air only its fourth episode, so it might be just a little bit early to say this - but this half hour has the makings of a classic.

It's so absurd it almost seems real.If you haven't seen the NBC sitcom yet, it involves the staff of a late-night network news show that's more than a little bit like "Nightline." The goal of the fictional "Lateline" is to produce compelling TV - whether things turn out the way they plan or not.

Which they definitely do not in this installment, airing at 8:30 p.m. on Ch. 5. What's supposed to be a high-minded, issues-oriented discussion takes a bizarre turn when it is reported that comedian Buddy Hackett has just passed away.

The guests include former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt - really! - who put aside the issues to talk about how much they loved Buddy. Reich starts doing Hackett's routines, and he and Gephardt start singing along with clips of the comic's movie roles.

It's surreal.

Hackett himself is a darn good sport, showing up - as himself, of course - to dispute the reports of his death. And the executive producers of "Lateline," Al Franken and John Markus, admit they were a little bit surprised he agreed to play along.

"We decided it'd be best to tell Buddy in person why we wanted to use him on the show," Markus said in a recent interview with TV critics. "So we went over. We sat in Buddy's living room. Buddy poured a drink."

"He's known to have a temper," Franken said. "And before I told him the story, he showed us a little Torah that he had and he said, `Do you know why the Torah is the protector of our people?' And he lifted it up and there was a loaded .45 underneath it."

"So that set the tone for the meeting," Markus said.

Despite his trepidation, Franken launched into the story behind tonight's episode of "Lateline."

"I was a little daunted," he admitted. "So I told him the idea of the show and I basically said, `And you die.' "

But Hackett didn't take it badly.

"He looked at me and he said, `I take it you don't want me to be a series regular,' " Markus said. "And then he said, `I'll do the show.' "

And it turns out to be very funny stuff. NBC uses that "must-see TV" slogan far too often, but it actually applies to tonight's episode of "Lateline."

ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST: "Lateline" remains one of the bright spots in an otherwise dismal spring crop of network shows. And the fact that it has actually made it to its fourth week on the air is somewhat of an accomplishment.

Those of you expecting to see "Significant Others" this past Wednesday - and I know there were at least a couple of you out there somewhere - were disappointed. Due to exceptionally bad ratings, Fox yanked it before its fourth episode made it on the air.

ANOTHER ONE ABOUT TO BITE THE DUST: Speaking of failed spring tryout series, you can add ABC's "That's Life" to the list.

This alleged family comedy starring perhaps the most annoying man on television today - alleged comedian Gerry Red Wilson - is about to breathe its last, a function of the fact that it's been bombing on Tuesday nights.

As a matter of fact, tonight's installment is the last on the schedule. And there's virtually no chance any more episodes will ever be produced.

Unless, of course, we slip into some sort of parallel dimension where annoying is good.

As of Tuesday, April 14, "Something So Right" will move back an hour from 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. And "Soul Man" will return to the 7:30 p.m. time slot it was bounced out of a couple of months back.

As for ABC, the network actually has much bigger problems than Tuesday nights. Like Sundays, Thursdays and Saturdays. But this really does look like the proverbial rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

VIDBITS: Lauren Bacall is coming to "Chicago Hope." The actress will appear in a pair of episodes - scheduled for Wednesday, April 29, and Wednesday, May 6 - as a famous artist with an inoperable brain tumor who develops a friendship with Dr. Aaron Shutt (Adam Arkin) and runs away with him to California.

- Ellen DeGeneres has found work on the eve of her sitcom's cancellation by ABC. She'll do a guest spot as the baby's new nanny on the season-finale of NBC's "Mad About You," which is scheduled Tuesday, May 19.

Also look for "Titanic" director James Cameron - who directed "Mad" star Paul Reiser in the movie "Aliens" - to make a cameo appearance as himself.