Viewers tuning into “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” on Friday got a rare treat when television bandleader Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band — legendary for their longtime affiliation with David Letterman — replaced The Roots for one-night-only as the NBC late-night talk show’s house band.
With Questlove, Black Thought and the Roots off to Los Angeles to curate and play alongside LL Cool J, De La Soul, Ice-T, Missy Elliot and others for the 2023 Grammy Awards’ 50th year anniversary tribute to hip-hop, NBC and Fallon announced Shaffer’s return to late-night on Jan. 30.
“Paul Shaffer is one of the most important musical figures in late-night history,” Fallon said in a statement Monday. “From ‘SNL’ to Letterman, he’s done it all. I’m beyond honored and excited that they’re getting the band back together.”
Getting “the band back together” for one night meant Shaffer calling on “Most Dangerous” regulars such as guitarist Felicia Collins, drummer Anton Fig and bassist Will Lee, who started off their “Tonight Show” performance Friday by playing The Roots usual introductory theme music, even down to their doo-doo-doo chorus vocals.
“Hey, am I in the right studio?” teased Shaffer before the live studio audience in Studio 6B at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York City before Fallon hit the stage.
As Fallon filled his monologue with cold weather jokes, the band blasted off to each punchline, with Shaffer throwing in the traditional “How cold is it?” response. Fallon even took a poke at Beyoncé’s potential Ticketmaster problems and the Grammys achieving 65-year-old-status by saying, “The Grammys are so old, they’re starting to not know the performers on the Grammys.”
Getting out of the monologue, old friends Fallon and Shaffer beamed when speaking with each other.
“What a trip,” said Shaffer. “It is surreal to be here after all this time. It’s such a coincidence we’re here tonight because 41 years ago this very week was when David Letterman came on the air right across the hall here at NBC, so this is like our 41st anniversary that we’re celebrating. And thanks to you, I have reunited the entire band from the Letterman show – boys and girl – and we’re having the time of our lives.”
Talking about Shaffer’s roots with Letterman, the keyboardist and bandleader told Fallon that after being the pianist for the first five seasons of “Saturday Night Live,” getting the call to work with Letterman on a brand-new morning talk show (“at 10 in the morning, live!”) wasn’t something he was particularly interested in. “I turned it down,” said Shaffer. “I couldn’t get up that early. Luckily for me, when that show didn’t happen, they gave him another shot, the late show spot at 12:30. This time I had the sense enough to say yes. And here we are, 33-years-later, between the two networks.”
From 1982 to 1993, Shaffer led the in-house band for “Late Night with David Letterman” before the talk show host moved to CBS and “The Late Show With David Letterman.” Shaffer had to change his band’s title to the CBS Orchestra due to a naming rights dispute with NBC, continuing on with Letterman until the late-night host retired in 2015.
On Friday night, Fallon talked about his times as a comic and appearing as a guest on Letterman, but confessed to Shaffer that he was most nervous meeting the bandleader.
“I was such a fan,” Fallon said. “Not only did you change the game and raise the bar as to what a band can do on a show. Obviously there was Doc Severinsen (Johnny Carson’s bandleader at ‘The Tonight Show’). But you took it to the next level. And I think that you changed the face of comedy as well, if I may say… When Dave told a joke and the audience wouldn’t really laugh, you would go, ‘Hehhheh.’ And, that’s when you knew it was funny. Comedy nerds at home were gong ‘He’s right.’ The audience just didn’t get it yet.”
Fallon also credited Shaffer with introducing the faux laugh to many comedians. “Tina Fey laughs like you. They’re all doing you.”
Shaffer responded to Fallon’s compliment by saying, “I didn’t realize that I had that much responsibility… I’m humbled. And we all look to Johnny Carson as our model and he used to have Doc Severinsen and Ed (McMahon, Carson’s sidekick) on the panel to talk to. I used to think that I was a combination of Doc and Ed.”
Along with playing intro and outro music for “Tonight Show” guests Kit Harington, Tyler James Mitchell and Fallon’s regular “Thank You Note” segment, Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band knocked out loud, brassy versions of Kool & the Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging” and The Jackson’s “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground).”
Fallon also followed-up a conversation with Shaffer about his choice for faves for this Grammy weekend (“Beyoncé did one of the best records of all time,” said the keyboardist, perhaps poking fun at Kanye West’s famous VMA speech in 2009 in praise of Bey) before claiming Harry Styles’ “As It Was” as the talk show’s Grammy choice for Song of the Year.
“It has everything I love in it – influences from all of my favorite artists,” said Fallon before going into his own version of “As It Was,” backed by Shaffer & Co., with the host aping the vocals of David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Adam Sandler, Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen to close out the show.
The nicest tribute to Shaffer on Friday came during the “Thank You Note” segment when Fallon thanked the bandleader with a nod to his time on Letterman. “When people talk about legends of late-night TV, you are number one on everyone’s top 10 list.”