[Spoiler alert: this story contains the identity of the elimnated contestant on Wednesday night’s The Masked Singer.]
The White House might want to borrow a few lessons from The Masked Singer when it comes to keeping secrets. The hit Fox reality singing show has done a CIA-worthy job of shrouding the identity of the celebs under the outrageous costumes on its second season, keeping millions guessing each week about who’s under the hood.
But after his elimination on Wednesday night (Oct. 16) following a yeoman’s job singing Jet’s 2003 hit “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?,” Skeleton is coming clean about his journey on the show and the incredible lengths producers went to keep his name out of your mouth until the big reveal. “I had a blast doing it,” says Paul Shaffer, 69, the former David Letterman bandleader who admittedly is better known for his killer keyboard skills and Elton John-worthy outrageous glasses and outfits than his singing voice.
“The secrecy is huge. They take it seriously and they want to make sure it is as we see it at home. … You don’t know who anyone else is, you don’t see them,” Shaffer says of his fellow masked celebs, swearing he has no idea who the other singers are. “You don’t even hear them. When they bring you in, you’re wearing a big visor that’s dark so it totally protects you and you’ve got a big hoodie on and you have to cover up your hands so nobody has a clue.”
And while Shaffer did tell his wife and kids that he was doing the show — after they signed non-disclosure agreements — the one person he didn’t tell was his late-night boss of 33 years, David Letterman. But the epically bearded former talker knows his old pal well enough that he was able to sniff it out. “Of course I didn’t tell Dave! I couldn’t tell anybody!” the amiable ivory tickler says. “But Dave called me up and said, ‘I’m familiar with how these things work… you don’t have to say anything, but I know it’s you.’ He said he could tell by the way I walk that it was me.”
Shaffer says he was inspired to join Flower, Eagle, Fox, Black Widow, Leopard, Butterfly and Thingamajig and the rest of the gang after watching the first season of the “insane” show and having his mind blown. “I saw exactly what was going on and I said, ‘Why not?'” he explains. Shaffer was also intrigued by rapper T-Pain‘s win in the first season, saying that it was a revelation to find out that the Auto-Tune-loving MC could “really sing.”
“Then you get the idea that there are two actual singers on the judging panel [Nicole Scherzinger and Robin Thicke] and the other two [Jenny McCarthy Wahlberg and Ken Jeong] are pretty hip as well,” he says. “You can see they’re actually going for vocal quality and they know what they’re talking about.” Though he’s known for his considerable keyboard skills on Saturday Night Live, Blues Brothers 2000, Late Night With David Letterman and Late Show With David Letterman, Shaffer is admittedly not as famous for his singing voice.
“I figured I’ll have this huge mask over my face, so it won’t matter,” he says about initial concerns that his vocals wouldn’t be able to stand up “against Engelbert Humperdinck in terms of sound quality.” Frankly, he was more worried about just staying upright in the weighty costume that is very hard to see out of. Though producers said he’d have cue cards and a teleprompter with the lyrics to his chosen songs — the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” in the initial rounds — Shaffer says there was no way he was looking for the words. He was just trying not to fall off the stage.
Shaffer picked “Rapper’s Delight” because it’s one of the first rap songs he ever heard and he memorized it back in the day and could still remember some of the lyrics. Searching for a track for the smackdown rounds, Shaffer went with the Redding song, because it had “a little attitude.” But when it came down to his final performance, he chose the Jet tune from the list because he recalled the Australian group performing on Letterman’s show back in the day and remembered the song’s hook.
“You’re inside this thing and it’s hilarious and you’re laughing your ass off in there and thinking, ‘Who got me into this?'” he says of the elaborate, sweaty skeletal suit. “And you realize it’s you.” With a group of people dedicated to keeping him upright, alive and undiscovered in the suit, Shaffer says he realized in rehearsal that unlike some of the more powerhouse vocalists who could just stand still and belt their tunes, he was going to have to dance for his dinner, which is how Letterman figured out it was him.
“I expected the costume would be hard to deal with and me not being a singer was hard enough,” he says. “But with that mouth of a skeleton, you’re not putting the mic up to your own mouth… it’s a bit farther away than normal conditions. I didn’t even know where the mouth was.” And while he did a bit of singing and dancing during his decades with Letterman, Shaffer says his Masked Singer stint was, by far, “the most bizarre thing I’ve ever done in my whole career.”