Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 36 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
Seeing that he hit the performing scene in 1972 and has worked with legends like Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Christopher Guest, Chevy Chase, and of course David Letterman, it seems like Paul Shaffer was destined at birth to be one of the most sought-after musical sidekicks in comedy history. Whether it’s his 30 years and counting as Letterman’s band leader or his work on Godspell, National Lampoon, The Blues Brothers, or even his brief run as an SNL cast member, Shaffer’s always possessed the easy cohost charm and supportive banter expertise that’s built him his unique and time-tested station in the land of late-night comedy.
Born in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Shaffer got an early start in music, playing the piano at age six then touring the Thunder Bay area with his high school band Fabulous Fugitives. He got his first big break at age 23 when he became the musical director for the Toronto production of Godspell, where he met and collaborated with upcoming performers Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas, Andrea Martin, and Gilda Radner. After Godspell, Shaffer moved to New York City in 1974 and played keyboards for the Broadway musical The Magic Show, conducted for another Broadway hit More Than You Deserve, and also cowrote several songs for the National Lampoon Radio Hour, which included future SNL stars like John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, and Chevy Chase.
The following year in 1975, Shaffer joined the SNL house band (he worked with SNL musical director Howard Shore in Godspell) and made accompanying music for sketches, most notably as the unnamed piano player to Bill Murray’s rambling lounge singer Nick as well as the Blues Brothers – who he also toured with as musical director in 1978 (he did not appear in the 1980 film, however, due to Belushi’s problems with Shaffer working on Radner’s Broadway production Gilda Live at the same time). Before briefly leaving SNL to costar as a struggling musician in the CBS sitcom A Year at the Top, Shaffer returned to the show and was made a featured player 1979 and, aside from continuing to appear as musical support, didn’t have many characters aside from the geeky drummer Artie in two “Nerds” sketches or his predictably musically-inclined impressions of Boy George, a piano-playing Robert Vesco, composer Marvin Hamlisch, and rock producer Don Kirshner, who was Shaffer’s most frequent character with seven appearances, starting even before he was made a cast member.
Shaffer’s sporadic appearances on SNL may have been on the quieter and more supporting side, but he also has the honor of being the first SNL cast member to say “fuck” on live television. During a March 1980 sketch called “The Minstrels of Newcastle,” Shaffer appeared alongside Bill Murray, Peter Aykroyd, Laraine Newman, James Taylor, host Michael Palin, and returning star John Belushi in a spoof of the Troggs tapes release, which used the word “floggin’” as much as fellow fuck-sayer Jenny Slate’s “Biker Chit Chat” sketch used the word “frickin’.” On SNL’s debut F-bomb, Shaffer says in Live from New York:
But nobody noticed I said “fuck,” because we were doing these bad English accents. You couldn’t hear it, it wasn’t really clear, and there were no phone calls or anything. Everybody in the sketch heard it, though, and I remember Laraine coming over to me right after and saying, “Thank you for making broadcast history.” And then Lorne came over and said, “You just broke the last barrier.” But I didn’t get in trouble, because it was clearly an accident. I didn’t get fired or anything.
Shaffer left SNL after his season as a featured player and became musical director of Late Night with David Letterman in 1982 (he also wrote the show theme song) and has remained Dave’s go-to source for banter ever since. His resume of musical influence extends from cowriting The Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men” to directing the closing music to the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta as well as small film and TV roles in This Is Spinal Tap, Disney’s Hercules, Blues Brothers 2000, and Man on the Moon (he was also offered the role of George Costanza on Seinfeld but turned it down). In 2009 he released a memoir We’ll Be Here for the Rest of Our Lives: A Swingin’ Show-biz Saga, and in January 1987 he became the first member of the SNL house band to host an episode. Most recently, Shaffer returned to his Godspell roots by making a cameo appearance as Lazarus in the Broadway revival last month. He continues to lead the CBS Orchestra on Late Show with David Letterman, where he still does his annual holiday impression of Cher singing “O Holy Night.”
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.