Forty years after Late Night With David Letterman began broadcasting from NBC Studio 6A at 30 Rock, the show is rightly hailed as a classic. And taken on their own, Paul Shaffer’s 33 years as Letterman’s musical director and bandleader would make him one of the most iconic men in late-night history. But his legacy runs far beyond that into nearly every crevice of the comedy and music worlds. He cut his teeth in a Toronto production of Godspell in 1972 alongside the likes of Eugene Levy, Martin Short, Andrea Martin, Victor Garber, Dave Thomas, and Gilda Radner — all in the infancies of their careers — before leapfrogging to Saturday Night Live, his own Norman Lear–produced sitcom, This Is Spinal Tap, and more.
Even some of the lesser-known aspects of Shaffer’s career are like fun pink-wedge answers in a game of Trivial Pursuit. His brief stint as an SNL cast member from 1979 to 1980 made him the second person, after Tom Davis, to be officially credited as one of the show’s “featured players.” Blink and you’ll catch him as the cab driver in Look Who’s Talking Too. More recently, Shaffer became the only guest star to play himself on the Emmy darling Schitt’s Creek. The readouts go on and on.
These are just some of the memories Shaffer revisited during a recent conversation in New York. The chat was in anticipation of Late Night With David Letterman’s anniversary, and Shaffer shared other anecdotes about his career including his fallout with John Belushi, his rap song with Will Smith, and being the first person to say “fuck” on SNL.
You’ve described your first meeting with David Letterman before, but when did you first become aware of him?
In the ’70s. The late, great Howard Johnson, the musician, who we just lost last year, was in the house band at SNL on tuba and bari sax. He had a crazy idea around ’78 about a special about tubas. He was going to sell the NBC network on it: Tuba Special. He had a diagram of how the big band would look — all tubas, all pointing from stage left to the right, except for this certain kind of European tuba that points the opposite way. That was the main thing he had except for the host. He said, “I want this guy David Letterman. He’s a new comic that seems like he’d be open-minded enough to get a special like this.”
I had heard of David before that, but that was the first time I really took note of that name. Then I got called for the morning David Letterman Show. It was going to start right after my five-year Saturday Night Live tenure had ended, and it didn’t seem right for me to jump right into another show. I passed on it. Then I started watching in the morning and thought, Oh my goodness, this is hilarious. Then when they got canceled, and they didn’t give a damn anymore, they got really hilarious.
February 1 is the 40th anniversary of the NBC late-night show. The opening was soundtracked by you with feathered peacock girls welcoming Dave, who later introduces you on a behind-the-scenes tour of the studio. What do you remember from that day?
Bill Murray was the first guest. He did “Let’s Get Physical” as a musical number. This was the first show ever; we didn’t know what was going to happen. Billy came to the office in the early afternoon to kick some ideas around with the writers for what he might do on the show. When I saw him, he had finished this meeting and said, “I want to do ‘Let’s Get Physical’ and get into some kind of aerobics routine. Not sure how yet.” I said, “Do you want to try to work it out?” “No, I gotta go feed my dog.” And he left.
He didn’t get back until the taping had already started. With the band — my brand-new personal quartet — we learn “Let’s Get Physical” and don’t really know what we’re doing. And he really just improvised that whole scene — had never sung it before, never sung it with the band. That was our first show. I said, “My God, you’ve really got to be loose with this show.” That never changed.
How does that initial era of Letterman contrast with the later CBS elder-statesmen years?
There was a lot of experimentation. Sometimes it bombed, sometimes successful. But the feeling was: We have license here to try anything. Who is watching? When we moved to 11:30, in line with that, the feeling was: People are watching. The show may have gotten a little bit safer. You didn’t want to get involved with something that wasn’t going to be successful or funny. I was expected to keep up with the change, too: get a bigger band, look like more of a presentation. The four-piece just wasn’t going to cut it anymore.
What were your favorite bits from the early Letterman years?
The time when the screen rotated 360 degrees. I understand they got a lot of complaints since halfway through it was upside down. We tried something like that way later at the Ed Sullivan Theater: “Let’s do a show at 4 a.m.” So everyone set their alarms. The bad part was it was the same shot of him at the desk; it could’ve been anytime. But I took advantage of it. At the time, I was doing a James Brown cape bit every Friday night during a commercial. They would come back in the middle of the station break and see me with a different celebrity putting the cape on me, from President Donald Trump to Heidi Klum and everybody in between. For this 4 a.m. show, I got to do it right in the middle of Broadway, down on my knees screaming like James Brown. And the doorman from Flash Dancers topless club, still open at 4, came out with the cape and put it on me.
You introduced the Blues Brothers for the first time on SNL as Don Kirshner in 1978. Where does your contribution come from?
First of all, I was the bandleader of the Blues Brothers and put it together with John Belushi — hiring each musician individually, almost like the way they portray it in the movie.
Kirshner was a renowned publisher from the Brill Building era who then had a second career in the ’70s when they syndicated television, one of the first live rock shows: Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. His character was unusual on the show. He introduced the acts live, and off-camera he was a fast-talking promoter from the Bronx — nonstop, his lips almost moving faster than his mind could think. He would go on these long rants: “Fuhgetaboutit, youwanttotalkaboutcontracts?” But when he got on TV he slowed … right … down … out of fear and nervousness and became like an ice statue. So I started doing him on SNL.
Shortly after I got to New York, an actor I knew from Godspell — Don Scardino, who became a television director — said, “I’ve got a part in this pilot; it’s going to be a Monkees kind of thing for the ’70s where we’re a band and we’ve sold our souls to the devil. Maybe it becomes a real recording act. And I recommended you because I know you’re funny, and maybe they’ll like someone who can really play.” So I audition for Kirshner, got the role, and went to California. It was a partnership between him and Norman Lear. The pilot was made in ’74, while I was in The Magic Show, but shelved, then taken off the shelf three years later when I was already on SNL.
You were in L.A. filming your CBS show A Year at the Top when Kirshner began appearing on camera for Rock Concert. But then you rejoined SNL once the sitcom was canceled.
“Babe,” Kirshner said — because he talked like that — “people are saying I’m stiff, but Ed Sullivan was stiff! But he had the gig, and I got the gig. I’m going to be taping today. I want you to come down and be with me the first time I go on camera.” So I saw him the first time make this transition into an ice statue. And I never forgot it. It was so funny.
I get my old job back. Billy’s brother, Brian Doyle-Murray, was writing on SNL by this point, and he was cooking up a musical number where Garrett Morris was going to do Tina Turner in drag, and Mr. Mike Michael O’Donoghue was going to be in it, too, with a guitar — it was called “Mr. Mike & Tina Turner.” That was the premise, but it was hard to set it up. They needed someone to introduce them. And I said, “I can do Don Kirshner.” That’s how I started doing it.
When the Blues Brothers came along, it was natural: “Let Paul do it as Don Kirshner.” It might’ve been Lorne’s idea. It would not have been Belushi’s.
He must’ve been flattered by the impression.
He loved it. His show was syndicated; SNL was network. It made him even more famous, I think. We were friends until the very end. I spoke to him when he was dying in the hospital.
I always saw some overlap between your Kirshner impression and your character, Artie, in Spinal Tap.
I think you are feeling the limitation in my acting repertoire, especially at that time. [Laughs.] I could only really do Kirshner! Harry Shearer got me that role, a local promo man in Detroit. I said, “So you’ll send me the lines?” He said, “You’ll be making them up.” But how am I supposed to act? All I did was Kirshner.
The main scene is in the record store where no one shows up for the signing. And I’m saying, “It’s my fault — kick my ass.” But then there’s a scene where I’m talking to the record-store owner. I say, since it’s a Kirshner-type character, “What are you doing to me?” He says, “Artie, don’t take it personally.” And I go, “Forget about personal, what about a relationship?” That was the type of thing Kirshner would’ve said exactly.
Is it fair to say you saying “fuck” on air was your most noteworthy contribution during your season on SNL?
We’ve managed to make something out of it in retrospect. But at the time, people really barely noticed. We were doing bad British accents. The idea of the sketch was one of those tapes circulated in show business where the Troggs from the British Invasion were trying to record a follow-up to “Wild Thing,” and they had no means of musical communication besides to say “fuck” all the time. This was the tape.
Al Franken and Tom Davis took the tape and transcribed it and transposed it to medieval times, as if it were a medieval band rehearsing for a performance for the king. But you say the lines of the Troggs tape, and instead of fucking, we make up our own word, flogging. It had gone well in the dress rehearsal, and in between Al Franken said, “It was funny. If you want to throw in a few more of those floggings.” By now, I was loose and threw in a fuck by mistake.
But in the immediate aftermath, you weren’t scared of losing your job?
I was at that very moment, sure! I’ve seen the tape, and I see myself say it and my face goes white.
The first person who acknowledged it was Laraine Newman. As soon as we’re off camera, she said, “Well, thank you for making television history.” I was still a little shaken. And then Lorne came over and said, “You just broke down the last barrier.” But there were no calls at all.
You were a co-writer on Gilda Live, and your work on that led to your exclusion from The Blues Brothers. How did that go between you and John Belushi? Was it simply a professional situation, or did it extend to your personal lives as well?
It was a total riff, personal and everything. The Blues Brothers had gone over schedule, and they were supposed to get that movie done the summer before the fifth season. John Belushi and Danny Aykroyd were supposed to return to SNL, but they weren’t ready to come back, so they left the show. That’s when Peter Aykroyd and everyone came in. They were still working on the movie. So I didn’t have to see John — that’s what I’m getting at. I didn’t see him again for the duration of the movie. I determined that since I didn’t get Gilda’s work done in time, I was supposed to finish her songs then go to Chicago for their movie.
I told my lawyer I pulled out; I had to. He said, “You can’t! First, I just completed the deal, but secondly, this is a big movie. What if I we’re able to work out something like having a co-producer on both of these things, Bob Tischler? Say you stay and work on Gilda, Bob goes to Chicago, then he comes back?” I didn’t know things about scheduling at that time. People do things like that all the time; I didn’t know. So I said, “Okay, see what happens!” He called right back: “They’ve already replaced you.” They replaced me in two seconds.
You never spoke to Belushi directly about it?
I never talked to him. There was no social media or anything, but somehow it was like you could release a press release just within our SNL group: “Paul is out. He is not a Blues Brother and will never be.” I felt terrible. I had cast this thing, musician by musician, with John!
It wasn’t that he was harsh. I had pulled out. Yes, he moved fast, but that’s showbiz. So then it started this big rift. Gilda, of course, opened on Broadway, and I became a kind of third banana in her show. The second banana, of course, was Father Guido Sarducci. But I was feeling bad my friends were in Chicago doing The Blues Brothers.
Later, they were in Los Angeles completing the movie. I was poolside at the Sunset Marquis hotel, and I run into Aykroyd. He’s very nice and warm to me. Then I get a call from him afterward. Duck Dunn, the bass player, is having a BBQ at his house: “Duck wants you to come, and P.S., John will be there.” I go; we have a big reunion. He forgives everything. Then the most touching thing happens: They had the tracks from the movie and played the songs, doing the choreography. All the numbers. Just for me. Which was really bittersweet.
John died during the first season of Letterman. I remember the memorial service at St. John the Divine then going to do the show.
You’ve been impersonated on SNL over the years: Gary Kroeger, Mark McKinney, Chris Kattan. Anyone get you especially right or wrong?
All of them capture some elements of my bizarre character that I try to do. But there’s nothing like when Chris Elliott tried to do it on Letterman. He nailed me.
Is there a particular Letterman impression you’re a fan of?
Norm Macdonald, I guess. There’s a feeling in satire that you can only do somebody great if you really love them. That’s been my modus really. When I kidded Sammy Davis on those early Letterman days or talked like Tony Orlando, it was really because I loved those people and their talent, but they’re so over-the-top you have to send it up.
It’s incredible how present you were at the start of so many stars’ careers. But I’ve never heard you speak about your song with Fresh Prince-era Will Smith.
“When the Radio Is On”! I had a wonderful A&R man, Tim Carr. He had signed the Beastie Boys. He was well versed in rap and brought on Russell Simmons. Russell said, “I’ll get the rappers for you.” They wanted Ecstasy of Whodini, who wore a Zorro hat. Then he said, “There’s this new kid, the Fresh Prince. You haven’t even heard his record.” It may’ve just come out. Because part of his rap was: “My whole life long has been one big song / But all my parents ever said was ‘Turn it down’,” which was Smith’s reference to “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”
Talk about logistics — recording it was one person at a time, then the doo-woppers all together. But Will was a total professional, doing take after take. We shot a music video up in Harlem inspired by Marlon Brando’s The Wild Ones. A motorcycle gang. Carole King wasn’t available, so I got Carol Kane, the actress, instead. And driving in from Philadelphia comes the Fresh Prince with his entourage.
Having to assemble all them together for the video was almost an impossibility, but it happened. The night before, I got a call: Ecstasy was in the hospital — he took a fall, something like that. I didn’t know what to do until I got the second call: He had a twin brother; he’d be there. With the hat.
You got a chance to host SNL in 1987. I especially love your songs about the show’s mythology. Twelve years in and you’re coining the SNL mystique already.
I guess Letterman was still hot in ’87, and Lorne had just returned to the show. The show’s reputation had taken a beating, and maybe it wasn’t so easy for him to get hosts.
I opened up with “Dirty Water,” by the Standells, about Boston but with special lyrics: “Saturday night was my home.” Then “It Was a Very Good Year” with special lyrics, which I remember writing with Marc Shaiman, who had taken over my spot as the writer of musical material on SNL. This was before his huge breakthrough. I don’t think Lorne was crazy about the whole thing. Maybe he was worried it was sending them up.
It worked out timing-wise — he didn’t quite have enough time for a full other sketch, so he had to let me do it. And not only that; he said, “Take your time with it.” Which is exactly what he didn’t want to have to say. So I milked it. “Belushi’s chauffeur would drive,” I think, was my favorite line.
What a transition from being the piano player to getting to host. That was not lost on me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.