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Auto shows also taught Sweet how to weave product information into his act. He had a handcuff trick, where he'd be locked up and secure — like the security you get, he'd explain, from torsion bar suspension. Now, at a sitcom, whenever the bell signals that it's time to start taping again, he can gracefully steer the audience away from his antics and toward the scene. "The show is the same as the corporate world — it's not about me, it's about the car," he says.
At the time Sweet was performing at auto shows, warm-up comics didn't even exist. In early sitcoms, one of the show's writers did the job.
"I didn't want to have a crazed audience," Reiner explains. He hates when the laughs seem too loud on a sitcom — and he is not a fan of warm-up comics. "It makes me crazy. The joke should get what it deserves, not what the laugh-meister tells you to give it."
It wasn't until the mid-1970s that "warm-up comic" started to become a profession. One of the first was Bob Perlow, a writer on Laverne & Shirley, co-created by Garry Marshall. "One night Garry came up and said, 'The audience, dead, go, talk,' " Perlow recalls. "That's his cadence: 'Go, talk, nice, be.' "
But as many writers have realized, being funny in the writers' room or in stand-up doesn't necessarily translate into success as a warm-up. You can't always do your well-honed set of jokes, because you're often interrupted. You can't be dirty, irascible or edgy — the audience has to like you enough to live with you for several hours.
Carmen Finestra, creator of Home Improvement, recalls, "There was a show I wrote on where the comedian would start imitating Asians in a stereotypical way if he saw an Asian in the audience, or someone from India, or someone African-American. You cringe. So does the audience. Now they're not in the mood to laugh at the show."
During warm-ups, he'd have a young woman in the audience call her grandmother to say she's considering stripping. Perlow would chime in as the strip club's sleazy owner. (Security made him stop after the studio got calls from angry grandmothers.) Or he and an audience member would pretend to strum banjos while he played a tape of "Dueling Banjos" from Deliverance. "We'd run around the studio like two nuts," he says.
Eventually, he got a paycheck for his warm-up work: $50 a night. And even during a writing career that included Mr. Belvedere and Who's the Boss?, he warmed up for Growing Pains and Full House.
It was soon after Perlow started doing warm-up that Sweet came to L.A., in 1981, hoping to become a stand-up comic or game-show host. A William Morris agent signed him after seeing his comedy show, and he booked gigs such as hosting the pilot for Art Linkletter's House Party.
He also got to know Garry Shandling from the comedy scene, and when Shandling got his own sitcom in 1986, he gave Sweet his first warm-up gig.
6:37 p.m.: Finding your style
"Please do not identify your laughs," Sweet tells the crowd. "We were here two weeks ago. There was a guy in the back row, he goes, 'Ha, ha, ha, Bernie Schwartz, Cleveland.' Please don't do that."
It's one of Sweet's signature jokes. If you throw a stone over a waterfall enough times, he explains, it gets pretty polished.
Take his version of The Dating Game, a common warm-up trick that ropes in a young lady from the audience and three potential suitors. At one taping, Sweet asks the contestants, "If you would be a candy, what would you be?" When a guy says, "Snickers," Sweet says, "Why?" and quietly prompts the guy with a whisper: " 'Cause it satisfies." The guy repeats it. The audience roars.
Even with his corporate experience, it took Sweet some time to get used to warm-up. On It's Garry Shandling's Show, he had no music. The audience wasn't given pizza, as they typically are now. The Dating Game, he found, was an easy, entertaining way to fill time.
One night, when he had the bachelorette close her eyes and turn around to meet the man of her dreams, Shandling stepped in and hugged her instead — the punch line Sweet was looking for. Nowadays, when the girl's eyes are closed, he has a middle-aged guy or a small child step in to give her a hug, causing her to collapse in hysterics.
Each warm-up has a distinct style. Ron Pearson, who works for the Tim Allen show Last Man Standing and others, does a lot of stand-up comedy but also a juggling act that climaxes with him walking onto the set and juggling clubs while balancing a ladder on his chin. Doesn't it steal focus from the show? "It absolutely steals focus from the show, but you know it's a long night when I get to it," he says. "It's a shot in the arm. My best hours are going to be hour three and hour four."