He is short, and he smiles too much. Light gleams off his balding head. “A gerbil on Valium,” Washington Post reporter Desson Howe once called him. Yet Paul Shaffer, 37— the smarmy, schmaltzy bandleader of NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman— has also been described as “the hippest man in America.” On camera, the bespectacled Shaffer —a native of Thunder Bay, Ont.—perfectly embodies the selfmockery of 1980s television comedy — the successful jerk who makes fun of successful jerks. But there is something subversively sincere about Shaffer’s style. Said Saturday Night Live producer Lome Michaels, a friend from Shaffer’s days on that show, “Paul’s so unhip, he’s hip.”
Shaffer also keeps some cool company. He sang on Canada’s 1985 Tears Are Not Enough all-star record for Ethiopian famine relief and last July organized a jam session with Fats Domino, Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis that aired on Cinemax, a U.S. pay TV network. Shaffer currently appears in Miami Vice star Don Johnson’s hour-long music video, playing the part of Johnson’s best friend, Logan.
And in May he will act out his fondest show-biz fantasy, when Cinemax airs Viva Shaf Vegas. A one-hour comedy special, it follows Shaffer as he sets out on what he calls “a Homeric odyssey” through the night life of Las Vegas to find himself.
For the past five years, as musical director of television’s most popular late-late-night talk show, Shaffer has played a gentle parody of Mr. Show Business, all slickness and saccharin. Each night he welcomes Letterman on to the set with lines like “Hi Dave, we’ve got a great show here tonight. ...” Then, grinning from behind his Hammond organ, he banters with the host in a campy echo of the nightclub bandleaders of the past: “Thrilled to be here Dave....”
For all the irony, his close friends—
including comedians Martin Short and Eugene Levy—insist that Shaffer is only half mocking the tuxedoed performers he imitates. Shaffer himself says that he has been fascinated with Vegas lounge life since his parents took him for a visit when he was 13. “I love that stuff,” he told Maclean's recently, relaxing in his Rockefeller Center dress-
ing room after taping the 830th episode of Late Night. “It’s show business at its finest.” He also has childhood memories of how his love for rock ’n’ roll first bloomed—and how he put aside his classical piano books to pound out versions of black soul music that he had heard on U.S. radio.
Shaffer left Thunder Bay in 1969 to study sociology at the University of Toronto. After graduation he won a part playing piano for the Toronto production of the musical Godspell—joining a cast that included Short, Levy, Dave Thomas, Andrea Martin and Gilda Radner. In 1975 Michaels hired him as pianist for Saturday Night Live, where he appeared onscreen playing piano backup to Bill Murray’s unforgettably
sleazy lounge-lizard comedy sketches. He also served as musical director of Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi’s Blues Brothers routines.
By the time Letterman’s talk show won a slot following Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show in 1982, Shaffer was known as both a comic and one of the city’s most accomplished session musicians. For the Letterman show, Shaffer has assembled a remarkably versatile studio band: bass player Will Lee, guitarist Sid McGinnis and drummer Anton Fig. They are as motley a crew of musicians as the industry has known. Letterman has on occasion thanked them for remembering to show up. But their musicianship is unquestioned. They have backed such stars as Eric Clapton, James Brown and Bryan Adams, sometimes with less than 30 minutes of rehearsal. Shaffer boasts that he has now played with every one of his teenage rock idols. “Now,” he adds, “they’re requesting to come play with us.”
For years Shaffer z proved his ability to re2 produce note-perfect verZ sions of other people’s 1 songs. But he is actively ^ considering recording an I album that would conx tain some original material. Said Shaffer: “It would be the first time that I would have to commit to something I’d have to stand behind.” Viva Shaf Vegas marks another turning point: a chance, he says, to put the Vegas obsession behind him. As for being the unlikely embodiment of hip, he admits that it tickles him. “I never take it seriously,” he said. “But then I do—you know, a kid from Canada coming down to New York and hanging out with a hip crowd. Boy, that sounds like fun when you’re up in Thunder Bay.” Not everyone is impressed, however, when the king of cool rolls into town. Bachelor Shaffer confides that each summer, when he visits his parents, “I still can’t get a date.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.