Did he make Letterman less edgy?

Paul Shaffer’s new book shows how he’s mellowed. But then so has the whole show.

Did he make Letterman less edgy?David Letterman is starting to get relevant again, even if it’s sometimes a creepy sort of relevance; last night he devoted a large portion of his show to a serious confession of his affairs with staff members, and the blackmail threat he received over those affairs. Even before he baffled his audience with his mostly non-comic confession of misbehaviour, he was impressing that same audience with his ability to handle serious issues: his show with President Barack Obama not only beat Conan O’Brien, but got more viewers late at night than Jay Leno did in prime time. So this is a perfect time for Paul Shaffer, Letterman’s bandleader, to be publishing a book. Shaffer didn’t intend his memoir, We’ll Be Here For the Rest Of Our Lives (co-written with David Ritz), to be another volley in the late night wars: he told Maclean’s that he simply decided he’d better do a book “while I had a few brain cells left to remember.” And while he spends some time talking about Letterman, who has employed him since 1982, much of the book is devoted to anecdotes about Shaffer’s early life in Thunder Bay, his work as an original band member on Saturday Night Live, or near-misses like turning down the role of George on Seinfeld (“Jerry’s great,” he recalls thinking, “but what kind of show could he possibly have?”). But he’ll always be known to most of us as Letterman’s bantering partner. And to understand how Letterman’s show has developed, we may need to understand the career of his bald, diminutive Canadian sidekick.

Shaffer explains in the book that almost as soon as he started working for Letterman, he came up with a persona that was a parody of the effusively smarmy showbiz legends he had seen on other talk shows, particularly Sammy Davis Jr. and Jerry Lewis. He told Maclean’s that when he began developing his act on Letterman, “I was simply spouting back a lot of the show business sayings I’d heard from my favourites like Sammy, Jerry, Uncle Miltie.” Add in his bizarre taste in clothes and his tendency to wear strange glasses (something he’d already done on Saturday Night Live), and he looks like a refugee from Las Vegas in the ’60s.

Canadians seem to be especially fascinated by this side of American show business; SCTV had already introduced many similar characters (like Sammy Maudlin). But it worked best with Letterman, whose shows have always been parodies of traditional late-night talk. Shaffer writes that Letterman enjoyed “off-the-wall” bits and said “it was magic, wasn’t it?” when a particular routine confused the audience. The weirder his show was, the better Letterman liked it, and Shaffer is so weird-looking that he helped define the whole effort: he’s an effective bandleader and sidekick, but he’s also a spoof of both roles.

But Shaffer is also, in his own way, an indication of how Letterman’s world has become less ironic as time has gone on. Though the book has a lot to say about comedy (“I speak in the book about how even in my youth in Thunder Bay, I was gravitating toward the funniest people around”), and the many Canadian and American comedians he’s worked with over the years, We’ll Be Here is mostly not comic but warm and friendly, conveying Shaffer’s pleasure at meeting people he admires. Letterman’s old trademark, which Shaffer went along with, was displaying a certain ironic contempt for show business types, but in the book, Shaffer praises everyone in the most glowing terms imaginable: Phil Spector is “to rock ’n’ roll as Wagner is to opera,” while Shaffer’s big boss is “a patriot because of his instinctual love of country.” It’s as if Shaffer’s sentimental showbiz insider act has stopped being an act. “There’s an adage that we become what we parody,” he says. “I think that it’s true of me and of many of my friends.” He adds that as time has gone on, he has become more of “a person on the show who can get involved in the action, who can comment on it.” He’s almost a regular sidekick now, albeit one with strange glasses.

That fits in with Letterman’s program, which is no longer the hipster joke it used to be. Even before he started using the show as his own confessional platform, Letterman had been leaving the off-the-wall silliness to O’Brien (and his sidekick, Andy Richter), making his show more straightforward. His mostly serious conversation with Obama was part of a trend toward political jokes and genuine anger; a TV executive told the New York Times’ Bill Carter that “Dave is wearing his views on his sleeve now,” while Shaffer himself praised Letterman to Maclean’s as a talk show host who is as good as Jon Stewart when it comes to “keeping it entertaining and yet reasonable and informative.”

Even the ending of Shaffer’s book seems to hint at the change in tone that the show has undergone. The last chapter is about Shaffer going along with Letterman to entertain the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq; the last line of the book is totally unironic: “We leave you with the love and the sincerity and all the good stuff.”

If Letterman’s show is getting more lovable, this is a perfect time for it to change; with Leno becoming increasingly mean-spirited (with jokes about putting duct tape over people’s mouths), Letterman’s new image could get the viewers that other talk shows have lost. Shaffer’s book may indirectly give us a glimpse of the new, less ironic Letterman show and staff. He’s still a goofy-looking sidekick, just as Letterman is still a prickly host, but Shaffer isn’t as much of a showbiz spoof as he used to be: “Over the years,” he says, “I have backed off on such obvious tricks.” He might be speaking for the whole show.

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