Paul Shaffer on Writing Letterman's Netflix Theme Song & the Value of Humor in Pop

Paul Shaffer performs during the 2016 City Parks Foundation Gala at Rumsey Playfield, Central Park on June 20, 2016 in New York City.
Andrew Toth/FilmMagic

Paul Shaffer performs during the 2016 City Parks Foundation Gala at Rumsey Playfield, Central Park on June 20, 2016 in New York City. 

When David Letterman needed a theme song for his new Netflix show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, he turned to -- who else? -- his longtime late-night TV bandleader, Paul Shaffer. The resulting tune (which can be heard in the first episode, available to stream now) is full of cheerful keyboards and strutting bass. Shaffer discusses the theme song in the video below, premiering exclusively on Billboard, and he spoke with us about the lessons he learned from old soul and pop records and why Letterman is ahead of the curve -- yet again -- with his latest endeavor.

When did you get the call about composing this theme?

When it was announced in the press that Dave was going to be doing a new show I heard from him. He said I wouldn't want anybody else to do it but you. I was thrilled to be involved, even more so when I started to see some of the episodes. I score them sort of like a movie, putting music in afterwards where the director thinks it's needed. So I get to see little snatches of these episodes here and there. I think it's exactly what I would have hoped Dave would do for his second act. It's fantastic. There are laughs but it's not all funny. There are serious issues. And they get out in the field. It all makes a nice sandwich. I'm really proud to be a part of Dave's adventure. I think it's the next step in the talk show saga. I wouldn't be surprised if others start doing a similar type of thing. Dave has been a leader all through his career. People look to him, copy him, are inspired by him. I think that's going to be the next wave: People doing a more intense interview with just one person the way Dave is doing it.

Did Dave give any instructions as to what he wanted for the theme?

I tried to ask him, but he didn't really have anything to say. So I remembered that he likes a roots sound. When I said that, he said yes, that sounds good. He and I loved the movie that came out a couple seasons ago about the Muscle Shoals recording studio and musicians that made a lot of the soul hits of the 1960s. We loved that and we loved that sound. So I figured he'd like something in that genre and that's what I came up with. When he heard it he was very enthusiastic.

An interesting thing that I thought happened. The theme is used in the beginning when he comes on stage in front of a live audience. I thought he needs drums, pizzazz to bring him on. But the producers and director took a look and said, "we want to just focus on the keyboards. We want it to feel like it's Dave's old friend Paul playing." So they pulled the drums out and just went with piano and organ. I couldn't be happier -- it's me!

What in particular do you admire about the Muscle Shoals sound?

The honesty you hear, the southern soul feeling. Both of us grew up listening to that.

Did you pre-write or jam in the studio?

I work on it at home just on the piano recording it as I go along. Then I listen back and see if there's anything in there. When I went into the studio, everyone chimed in. Then we weeded it out afterwards and left it with mainly the keyboards.

There's a great bassline too.

That of course is my old friend Will Lee. All I had to do was say those two words, Muscle Shoals, and he knew exactly what to do.

You spoke a little bit about how it's important to have humor in the music you make, why is that?

When I was growing up, I loved the records of the Four Seasons and Frankie Valli -- "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man," stuff like that. It appealed to me that though these songs were fraught with angst, full of teenage romantic pain, they were just so much fun to listen to. They were funny in their own way. And when I got to New York and started meeting the people that made those records -- What was that like? How did you do it? -- they were all saying, we were laughing our asses off in the studio. And I realized that they were having fun. They were having fun making the records, and the audience picks up on that. It's in the grooves, like we used to say. If you have fun making it, they'll have fun listening to it. That's been my philosophy.

I feel like some artists forget that because they won't be considered serious if their music is funny.

I think it's entertainment -- you've got to have fun. And of course, you wanted to make people dance to. When people dance, people have fun. I went off on a tangent with my own career, went into music and comedy specifically. So I took it over the edge. But where it came from was the teenage records of my youth. You would just laugh out loud sometimes listening to those serious lyrics but realize there's good times behind them.

So you grew out your beard while you were recording the theme?

I didn't shave that morning, let's put it that way. I don't know if it will put me on the same wavelength as Dave. A lot of people were surprised that he kept the beard for the show. He trimmed it a little bit, but it's certainly still there. I've heard the beard has its own agent now. I don't know whether that's true or not.

You also contributed to the score -- have you scored before?

I have here and there, though I don't usually refer to it that way. I have my little theme now, so that's my motif and I can quote from that during the scoring. The director is right in there with me. He plays me the little scene. We discuss what he wants. Then I go out in the room and play something until he's happy. Then I can go and add to it, put another keyboard on it or something.

What else are you up to at the moment?

I will play the piano for anybody who will let me do it. So that's what I'm doing in all different sort of ways. I still love to play on records, so I'm always available to do sessions. I'm having an interesting time starting songs and finishing them now. I don't have to just fade into commercial. I get to play entire songs. That in itself is a nice change. It was wonderful working for Dave all those years and knowing exactly where you were going to be every day. Now every day could be different. I'm open for business.