As a comedian, Tom Shillue has several credits to his name, including The Daily Show, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the film Mystery Team, and multiple national TV commercials. Shillue is on tour with Jim Gaffigan this spring, and he’s also midway through an ambitious 12 CDs in 12 months release schedule — during which he also produces a monthly live show and weekly podcast called Funny Story.
But Shillue also has another talent that’s served him quite well on TV, and specifically on Fallon.
Shillue is front and center alongside Fallon and Fallon’s head writer, A.D. Miles, as a member of their barbershop quartet, “The Ragtime Gals.” Perhaps you saw him leading the group’s a cappella rendition of “SexyBack” with Justin Timberlake earlier this month? Perhaps you’d like a refresher?
Roll the clip, then let’s talk to Tom Shillue about this and his barbershop singing.
I know there are at least three performances with “The Ragtime Gals” on Fallon so far. Are there more?
“There are more planned. We are mum on the details, only because barbershop is a very competitive field, and we don’t want any other quartets beating us to the punch on any of our songs. Believe me, it would happen.”
August 2012: Meet The Ragtime Gals of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon
November 2012: The Ragtime Gals perform Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me”
How did the barbershop segment and the group come about in the first place? I know about your singing — it’s been three years since your “Trololo” performance for the ol’ ECNYs! — but had you and A.D. Miles sung together before? Whose idea was The Ragtime Gals?
“Miles and I did a film together 10 years ago, called Fourwarned! It was a short film that we shot at an actual barbershop jamboree, and it led to us working on a script with Comedy Central for a series about a crime-solving quartet.
“The Ragtime Gals was Jimmy’s idea. He had heard that A.D. and I had sung together, and when I was hanging around the show doing sketches, Jimmy would say: ‘We’re gonna sing! Get ready!’ Then they came up with a song — our first was “Sweat” by Inner Circle. A.D. and Jimmy were like, ‘Here, make this work!’ Now I’m an experienced barbershopper, but I’m no musical genius. For that we have to go to Bob Martin, my hometown chum, longtime baritone in my quartet Scollay Square, and a Berklee graduate with crazy barber-chops. Using his mad skills, he muscles the hip-hop and pop tunes into the barbershop genre. Then I get the charts to the guys in NYC and we start rehearsing. The guys drill their parts for about a week, then we get together and sing. It’s a lot of work for two minutes of airtime, but that pretty much sums up everything that happens on LNJF.”
What’s it like to exercise a different performance muscle for you on national TV? Better, same, just plain different from doing stand-up on TV?
“It’s very stressful. There’s a lot of moving parts, and stand-ups are used to being able to control everything. I learn all four parts so I can be kind of the ‘leader’ of the group, even though I sing bass. But it’s good to have me as the assistant coach. But there is nothing as fun as singing barbershop for me — as a hobby. That’s where it gets tricky. Barbershop has always been my respite from show business — something I do purely for fun. So I’ve got to keep it fun and make it professional.”
Any fun stories specifically about working with JT this month, or with Fallon in general?
“Jimmy is absolutely the hardest-working and most pleasant person I’ve ever come across in show business. I think that comes across in the show. JT came in right before showtime, he was not feeling well, and yet he obviously brought the goods. He’s a comedian, not just a musician. Backstage I was running my part and making sure I had my first note down, as I start the song, and Justin was like ‘Are you nervous?’ And I was like,’Yeah, I’m nervous.’ And he gave me a look like, ‘What’s that?'”
Hopes, dreams, goals for the future with barbershop?
“Last year we did a Barbershop Smackdown in NYC at Arlene’s Grocery, with my guys Scollay Square vs. our favorite quartet Our Town. It was not much of a smackdown, really, because we worship those guys like a bobbysoxer digs Frankie. But we’d like to do that again soon, maybe at Joe’s Pub. Anyone who likes good close harmony should keep a lookout for that.”
Further reading: Meet Me In New York, Tom Shillue
The first installment of Tom Shillue’s video diaries as opener on Jim Gaffigan’s spring 2013 comedy tour.
Check out Tom Shillue’s stand-up comedy CDs via iTunes: