Kathie Lee Gifford sings songs like she's mad at them. What did they ever do to her? Maybe she was frightened by a song as a child. And by Christmas, too, because each year on television she wreaks a bit more revenge.

The brand spanking new 1997 edition (although it actually contains no spanking), "Kathie Lee: We Need a Little Christmas," airs tonight at 10 on Channel 9, which seems awfully late for a family-aimed show. One suspects CBS wasn't so much scheduling it as tucking it away in a nice quiet corner.

As readers of tabloid tattlers know, Kathie Lee has had a difficult year. And one can sympathize. Her husband, Frank, the dull sportscaster, was videotaped committing extramarital hanky-panky. You'd think Kathie Lee would be intent on getting back at her husband rather than taking it out on all of us.

While it's the strict policy of your TV previewer not to give away endings, it seems fair to end the suspense and report that yes, Frank does appear on the special (and is listed as one of the producers), but not until the very end. He lumbers out from the wings with the couple's two cute kiddies, Cody and Cassidy. The big galoot has gall, you have to give him that.

This is while Kathie Lee is singing, or rather barbecuing over a spit, Irving Berlin's "Count Your Blessings." Oh, the irony! "Come on, honey, let's go home," Frank says to her after the song. One longs to hear a proper soap operatic retort from the wronged wife -- something along the lines of "Why don't you go home to your tarty little tramp?"

But that would hardly be in the Christmas spirit -- even Kathie Lee's plastic-coated, artificially sweetened, blood-curdling version of it.

The latest reports from the Kathie Lee front say she has lost a great deal of weight and is quite depressed. Indeed, she looks frighteningly thin on the special and even makes a reference to it. It's actually a touching moment: She softens her otherwise strident delivery of the title tune (from the musical "Mame") when she gets, poignantly, to this line:

" . . . For I've grown a little leaner, grown a little colder, grown a little sadder, grown a little older. . . ."

For a moment she does indeed come across as the game, brave waif, standing up stubbornly to the meanies and Grinches of the world. If she hadn't made such an exhibitionistic display of her "perfect life" and allegedly blissful marriage all those years, she'd seem touchingly tragique now instead of like someone who was all but begging for a pie in the face.

At least she shows more sparkle on the special than her dreadful guests. First up is Kenny Rogers, looking as though he were miffed at being awakened from a nap in his dressing room. Instead of launching into a song, Rogers sits down and chats with the star, much as she does with guests on the daytime talk show she co-hosts with Regis Philbin. This is not proper prime-time procedure.

Naturally we have to hear about Rogers's home life, one of Kathie Lee's nearly maniacal obsessions. Then Rogers announces, as if it were a papal decree, that he is now going through "one of the most creative times of my life," that he's involved with "a lot of stuff that's really really exciting for me," and that "you have to be in a very special place in your life in order to do that."

Wow. Kinda makes you feel warm inside. The way barium does.

Another guest, Michael W. Smith, "has a beautiful family," Kathie Lee assures us, and a wife who is very very "supportive" of him. Earlier she'd spoken admiringly of how "supportive" Rogers's wife is. Yes, the show has a subtext, albeit a baldly self-aggrandizing one: Repeatedly and revealingly, Kathie Lee suggests there is nothing so noble as a woman supporting her man.

But say, wasn't Eva Braun pretty supportive of honeybunch Adolf Hitler? It's not the answer to everything. If I were a divorce lawyer, I'd offer her my services free.

After Smith comes another singer, CeCe Winans, whom Kathie Lee hails as "a great mom" who's "raising a beautiful family." That's nice because as a singer Winans likes to punish her material even more mercilessly than Kathie Lee does. She drags "O Holy Night" on for so long it becomes "O Holy Night and Well Into the Next Morning."

The hour, taped for some mysterious reason in Bristol, Tenn., ends with Kathie Lee singing about Christmas past "when the world was kinder, full of hope, and love would last." Hmmm. A dart aimed Frank's way, perhaps? Lord knows he deserves it. And yet one suspects that in some unspeakably twisted sort of way, these two may deserve each other. When it comes to Kathie Lee's Christmas specials, we all deserve a year off. CAPTION: Sugar plum: Kathie Lee Gifford puts on a smile for hubby Frank and kid Cassidy on her latest Christmas special. CAPTION: Naughty? Nice? Or how about "noble"? In her Christmas special, Kathie Lee Gifford suggests that's an admirable trait for a wife.