Mark Sweet has warmed up the audience at more than 4,000 sitcom tapings, and he almost always begins with the same joke, the one he's using tonight at CBS' Mike & Molly, as it gets under way at 6 p.m.: "Turn to the person to your right and shake that person's hand."
The joke — and it is a joke, which becomes clear when you see what happens next — accomplishes something more than mere laughter: It gets audience members comfortable with the people around them. The message is that this isn't the L.A. Philharmonic, where an errant cough requires you to shrink in humiliation. "I've been in a warm-up where I started a show and people said, 'Is it OK to laugh?' " Sweet says. "They're not sure what to do. They think they're in a movie set."
On television, sitcoms are a slick, breezy 22 minutes. But a sitcom taping is an absurdist, theatrical event of Wagnerian length. The actors do two, three, four or more takes of every scene. Between takes, as the cameras and props are reset, the writers convene on the sidelines to rewrite jokes that didn't work.
During the lag time, Sweet keeps the audience not just occupied but primed to laugh. On a raised platform in front of a bleacher full of spectators, he emcees a variety show of jokes, magic tricks and competitions. One standby, a dance contest, typically involves a frisky audience member using the mic stand as a stripper pole while gyrating to a song like "Bust a Move." It can be corny, yes, but it's impossible not to laugh.
Some comics warm up for talk or reality shows. But it's sitcom tapings that bring the greatest difficulty and biggest paycheck. A network gig goes three hours or longer (Friends sometimes went seven) — and can pay $4,000 per night.
This odd, behind-the-scenes vaudeville is something of a dying art: The number of sitcoms shot in front of an audience — called multicamera comedies, because many cameras shoot at once — has dwindled in the last couple decades. But the handful of top warm-ups who are still around are in high demand.
Mark Sweet, who has steady gigs on Chuck Lorre's three platinum CBS shows (Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory and Mike & Molly), is at the top of the profession.
In his recent memoir, former NBC entertainment president Warren Littlefield called Sweet "the king of multicamera comedy audience warm-up."
When Alan Kirschenbaum co-created Yes, Dear, Sweet wasn't available on the traditional taping days of Friday or Tuesday — so they shot the show on Wednesday to accommodate his schedule.
Kirschenbaum, who talked to the Weekly before his death in October, made it clear just how much a comic like Mark Sweet matters to a sitcom. After the star and the head writer, he said, "The warm-up guy is the third most important person on the crew of a show."
6:28 p.m.: Breaking in
After the audience watches a Mike & Molly episode to prepare them for tonight's taping, Pink's anthem "Raise Your Glass" comes on the P.A. Sweet is on the mic: "Clap to the music, everybody, come on!
"We are going to give away the official Mike & Molly bag," he says. "Who wants one, round of applause. I can't hear you, who wants one, round of applause."
Sweet is 61 but looks younger, with a tanned face and a contagious, puffy-cheeked smile. His solid black pants and sweater blend him into the background, but his crisp, upbeat patter and repetition of "round of applause" entrances an audience into submission. It's no coincidence that he's also a hypnotist, performing in comedy clubs and, he says, as a hypnotherapist curing ailments. Because the job is not just about telling jokes.
"Everyone thinks warm-up is about stand-up comedy, but it's really about keeping that audience engaged for 3½ to 5½ hours," he says later. "I'm really doing mass hypnotism."
"Who could use 20 bucks, by a round of applause!" he shouts, then pulls out a piece of clear plastic with a $20 bill locked inside. Sweet's act throughout the night consists of a series of contests in which the winners earn one of five keys, one of which leads to the $20.
"It's kind of like the roller coaster that ratchets up the hill to the top, and then it kind of works its way down on its own energy," he explains later. "The money effect is ratcheting up the audience."
This progression creates a story arc outside of the sitcom episode. Plus, Sweet knows, when you talk about money, people listen.
Sweet grew up right outside Detroit and started performing when he was a kid. His parents were divorced and his mom worked in pediatricians' offices, which helped him get magic gigs at children's birthday parties.