NEW YORK - After eight weeks of reruns, David Letterman should be in a joking mood Wednesday: Not only does he join his late-night brethren back on the air, but he'll have his writers backing him up.

So Dave was the last to announce his return. Big deal - now the joke's on Jay, Conan and the other writer-less hosts.

An interim agreement with the Writers Guild of America will allow the full writing staffs for "Late Show with David Letterman" as well as "Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson" to return to work, even as the Hollywood writers strike continues to shutter much TV and movie production. It could prove to be a huge advantage for both these CBS late-night shows, which are produced by the Letterman-owned Worldwide Pants.

"I am grateful to the WGA for granting us this agreement," Letterman said in a statement Friday. "This is not a solution to the strike, which unfortunately continues to disrupt the lives of thousands. But I hope it will be seen as a step in the right direction."

NBC's "Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" as well as ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" had already announced they would resume Wednesday without benefit of their writing teams. (Letterman goes head-to-head against Leno, as well as the first half-hour of Kimmel's show.)

Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert" are to return writer-less on Monday, Jan. 7.

Resisting such an arrangement, Rob Burnett, president and CEO of Worldwide Pants, had actively sought an interim deal.

The guild has been discussing agreements with several small independent producers since talks between producers and the union broke down Dec. 7.

"We immediately said we were interested," Burnett said Friday evening in a telephone interview.

Guild leaders said in a letter to membership Friday that Worldwide Pants accepted "the very same proposals that the guild was prepared to present to the media conglomerates when they walked out of negotiations on December 7."

"We had no problems with the guild's demands," Burnett said.

Now, the task for "Late Show" is "revving up the machine," he said. "We'll be ready Wednesday, even if it takes a few more days after that to get up to speed."

Much speculation has been focused on how the other late-night shows will fill their time deprived of monologues, skits and other prepared material. All the hosts - with the exception of NBC's Carson Daly, who returned to the air Dec. 3 - are members of the guild, making those without an interim deal subject to union rules that would severely limit what they can do.

Meanwhile, doubts have been raised about whether their shows will face a problem booking A-list guests, who may not be willing to cross a picket line.

Central to the contract dispute has been compensation for work distributed via the Internet and other digital media. The guild also has called for unionization of writers working on reality shows and animation.

When writers struck in 1988, only two late-night shows were affected: Johnny Carson's "Tonight" show and Letterman's "Late Night," both on NBC. Carson made a deal with the guild shortly after returning to the air, but Letterman went weeks without writers' services before the strike was settled. This time, it will be funny business as usual. *