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He Who Laughs Lasts

For 30 years, PAUL SHAFFER has provided comedy's soundtrack -- but his musical versatility is no joke

Paul Shaffer rehearsing his CBS Orchestra before an afternoon taping of Late Show With David Letterman plays like a time-lapse rock & roll summary course: He stands in his keyboard fortress, leading his septet through snippets of his patented pun-centric guest-intro music (e.g., the Grass Roots' ''Midnight Confessions'' for Confessions of a Dangerous Mind's George Clooney), none played longer than it'd take the most slow-footed celeb to cross to a couch. Then they roll through a handful of rock, pop, and R&B covers, Paul jabbing at his synths, head happily bobbing. Finally, Shaffer, 53, leads the band through one last Letterman standard for one of tonight's semi-regular bits.

''Will it flo-o-oat?'' they all harmonize, punctuating it with a brassy flourish.

Therein lies the essence of Paul Shaffer: as exuberant jamming through a panoply of musical styles as introducing a salami tossed into water. For 28 years, between Letterman and Saturday Night Live, this unflaggingly mellow, ecstatically kitschy, and unapologetically bald maestro has been providing the backbeat for TV's most influential comedy. After nearly three decades of musical guests, Shaffer has played with virtually everyone -- from one-hit wonders to classic rockers to bluegrass bands. On March 10 he'll put to good use that ability to switch from Jagger to Jay-Z in 60 seconds by serving (for the 16th time) as bandleader for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. ''Paul is someone all musicians know and respect,'' says Madison Square Garden senior VP Joel Peresman, who helped coordinate the venue's post-9/11 benefit, another Shaffer-led musical grab bag. ''It creates a familiarity for an artist, and Paul and his band can be the backbone.''

A precocious performer who took up the piano at age six in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Shaffer was always drawn to comedy. In his first major gig, as musical director for the 1972 Toronto production of Godspell, he gravitated more toward the hilarious cast -- Martin Short, Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy -- than the musicians. ''Paul's always been about the laughs,'' says Levy, who convened with Shaffer, Short, and SCTV's Dave Thomas every week for a couple of years for what they called ''Friday night services.'' ''Our Siddur [Jewish prayer book] was PEOPLE magazine,'' says Shaffer, relaxing in a Manhattan bistro, remembering the riff-happy gatherings that largely parodied that business of show.

They shared a fascination with Rat Pack Hollywood, heightened by their Canadian distance. ''Show business seemed much less realistic as an option,'' recalls Short. ''It seemed very glamorous and of another world.'' Now a fixture in the biz, Shaffer still seems euphoric to be there. His offstage speech is peppered with such twilight-at-the-Golden-Nugget lingo as nutty and the kids and venerating gems like ''You can't argue with the talent of a Sammy Davis Jr.''

In 1974, Godspell composer Stephen Schwartz brought Shaffer to New York to play on the musical's film soundtrack and in his new Broadway tuner, The Magic Show. About a year later, saxophonist Howard Shore, a Toronto cohort (and future Oscar-winning composer for The Lord of the Rings), became SNL's first musical director and recruited Shaffer as his pianist. Old friends with such Second City Toronto stalwarts as Dan Aykroyd and Radner, Shaffer remembers it being ''natural to work with the cast on special musical material.'' He would memorably tinkle away behind Bill Murray's unctuous lounge singer, Nick, and assembled the Blues Brothers band.

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