By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Robert G. Lee, who did Rules of Engagement's final season and worked on Wings and Just Shoot Me, calls himself "a white, impish Bill Cosby." He does fewer competitions and more chatting with audience members. He also pokes fun at people onstage, like when he points to the crew member walking briskly around the set and says, "That is the assistant director. He is a bitter, bitter man. He wants to be the director, but he's not."
Compared to Sweet, Lee has a wry, low-key approach. "He will give them precisely the same audience every time," Lee says of Sweet. "Me, I would shoot myself in the head if I did that. I thrive on creativity and ad-libs. ... For me it's a little more dangerous. If an audience is horrible, I'm going to keep digging and digging until I find something."
Lee acknowledges that Sweet is more successful, but he's confident in his own method. "What I think is bad is those producers who want people screaming for the entire three-hour period, which exhausts them," Lee says. "If they're laughing the exact same way each time, the audience at home can feel that it's fake and the producers can't feel what's working or not."
Allan Murray, a warm-up for Whitney, disagrees. "Often I'll get a call for the show saying, 'The guy we have isn't funny,' " he says. "If they're laughing during the downtime, they'll laugh when you say 'action' as well.
"If you have them all standing and clapping during the breaks, that can exhaust them," he adds, but, "if you're sitting in there and nothing's happening, that's exhausting as well."
6:49 p.m.: Involving the crowd
During the dance contest, Sweet brings up an older woman and asks her name. "Carrie," she says.
"Carrot?" he asks. "We got celery over there. We'll have a whole freakin' salad before this is over." She starts dancing to a hip-hop song. "You are so white," he says.
Throughout the evening, Sweet cycles through a rotation of competitions: Animal noises. Foreigners performing their native songs. Before each performance, he'll chat with the contestants, looking for comedy diamond mines — like the time he got an Alaskan architect who designed igloos.
Audience interaction is a necessity: It makes the audience members feel like a part of the show — which, of course, they are.
That's why pilots sometimes work better than a mediocre show on the air, Lee says. "You tell them, 'It's up to you. If you laugh big, this show could go through the roof.' "
Much of the job is catering to an unpredictable crowd. Tourist and college audiences are the best, but occasionally you'll have a big group that, say, only speaks Swedish. When a show isn't popular enough to get fans, it might pay audiences from places like drug rehab facilities. Lee says, "You can always tell a drug rehab crowd when you bring someone down and you say, 'What do you do?' and they don't know: 'Well, I'm getting my life together.' "
At another show, Lundblade recalls, a woman started to give birth. As the EMTs pulled her away, she cried out that she wanted to know what happened, so a writer walked alongside her and finished the story.
Michael Burger, a veteran who now works on Hot in Cleveland, once had an audience member die.
Music also has become a huge part of crowd control. Lundblade used to just hold up his microphone to a boom box playing "Walking on Sunshine." Now most warm-ups come with a regular DJ.
Ken Millen, who DJs for Sweet, calls himself "the second second banana." He picks songs based on the crowd. The Big Bang Theory gets a hipper audience, so he'll play The Raconteurs' "Salute Your Solution," a favorite of star Johnny Galecki. On Two and a Half Men he'd more likely go with "Start Me Up." The Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There" always works, he says, "because they love doing that 'wooh.' "
Sweet doesn't just let the music play. Cheers had a live band, but he noticed that, when the band started, people would chat, stretch, go to the bathroom. Now, as the music plays, he talks through it, to keep the audience focused.
On reality shows, audiences are part of the show, and sometimes even seen on camera, so the warm-up becomes more of a stage manager. There's more crowd control: applaud now, no sunglasses, no jackets. A producer talks to the warm-up through an earpiece.
"Dancing With the Stars is pretty tough because it's a real egotistical audience," Lundblade says. "They're all the third cousin of the dancer and they don't have to applaud."
DWTS contestant Kim Kardashian once was texting when she was supposed to be applauding. Through the earpiece, "They're like, 'You got to get her to not text,' " Lundblade says. "Like I'm going to go, 'Hey, Kim, put away the cellphone, bitch.' "
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