As the bandleader for David Letterman during his tenures on both Late Night and Late Show, Paul Shaffer’s become a fixture of television history on par with The Simpsons‘ couch or the bar from Cheers. The late-night icon stopped by the Rolling Stone offices for an exclusive “100 Greatest TV Shows” video interview, in which he looks back on the far-reaching influence that he and Letterman had on their medium.
“Dave certainly changed the talk show format,” Shaffer says. “It’s a lot like when a musician has his own sound — it’s his sound and his style, you can recognize it anywhere. Nobody else had it, everybody else started doing it — Fallon, Kimmel, Conan, all of whom I’m friendly with and all of whom say how much of what they do is influenced by Dave. To them, it was like when I was listening to the Beatles … that’s how Dave was to these people.”
But Shaffer grew into a star in his own right, instantly recognizable by his hep-cat sunglasses and flashy fashions. “I can look back and say I think I was the first guy to bring rock and roll and a looser sensibility to the music one was going to hear on television,” Shaffer says.
In recent years, the bandleader position has become a badge of cool cred for musicians that might not have touched the job as recently as a decade earlier. “I allow myself to be a little bit proud,” Shaffer says, “and think that some of these guys might not have even considered doing [TV] — the Roots, Reggie [Watts] — these people have their own careers in music, and they’ve turned to television. And I have a feeling they’re having a lot of fun doing it.”