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On a reality show, you can break boundaries that are impenetrable in sitcoms. Cory Almeida, the regular warm-up for American Idol (who doubles as the DJ), would sometimes start chatting with a fan holding a sign for erstwhile Idol judge Steven Tyler. "I stand them up and walk them up to the judges' table and immediately the energy changes," Almeida says. Tyler would give the fan a kiss.
Almeida also has a can't-lose tactic shared by all warm-ups: giving away stuff. T-shirts, candy, show merchandise.
His secret weapon: blinky rings. Cheap rings that blink in different colors. "Adults go crazy for these blinky rings," he says. "Carson Daly was, like, 'Can I get some of those for my kids?' "
7:36 p.m.: When shows collide
Toward the end of his native song contest, Sweet finds himself standing next to a German woman who can rap and a Mexican guy who can beatbox. Sweet asks them to perform an impromptu mash-up. But right before they begin, the bell rings, meaning it's time for the next scene — raising a disappointed "aww" from the crowd. Still, they laugh pretty hard during the scene.
Sometimes the show messes up a warm-up's act — but that can be a good thing. "It's like a Jack-in-the-box — doo doo, doo doo, doo-doo-doo-doo-doo — you want to get them ready and amped up," Sweet says. "That's why if I don't get a chance to finish something, they have to hold their laughter in, and when the show comes, they let it out.
"Then I feel like I've really helped, because you're like a secret weapon," he adds. "I don't know if I am or not. But sometimes it feels like that." After the scene, he purposely skips the mash-up and carries on.
"Mark Sweet is in a class by himself," emails Phil Rosenthal, who hired Sweet for his show, Everybody Loves Raymond. "The audience loves him because he engages with them directly, not just as a comedian but playing a game-show host, getting the best kind of participation from them. And yet he's also expert at focusing them on the show."
Warm-ups desperately try not to interfere with what's onstage. Hot in Cleveland's Burger always reads the script beforehand, so his act doesn't step on any of the show's jokes. "If the word 'flipper' is in there and I've made some dolphin joke earlier, it would kill the joke for them," he says.
It can get competitive. Burger says a producer once told him during a show, "Do me a favor, don't tell any more jokes, it's really pissing off the star." Burger started interviewing an audience member who turned out to be a mortician. The audience started howling. Burger wasn't invited back. But when the replacement bombed, the show's producers quickly relented.
Perlow had a similar situation on Home Improvement. Once he heard a voice from the set interrupt his act, saying, "You know, there's a show down here, too." It was Tim Allen. Perlow was fired.
Billy Gardell, who stars in Mike & Molly and is also a stand-up comedian, doesn't understand that kind of thinking. "Those people are crazy," he says. "I want my crowd in the best mood they can be, and Mark delivers that every Wednesday night."
But should it be the best mood, or the mood that fits the show? "I took pride in never getting more laughs than the show," Perlow says. "If the show was particularly dumb, then you dumb down the warm-up. ... If the show is great, like Friends or Newhart, you'd raise the audience up to that level."
Still, the prevailing view is that laughs are laughs, and all laughs are good. "If you're a TV writer and you're jealous of the laughs Mark Sweet is getting, you should be doing your job better," Kirschenbaum said. "He shouldn't have to ratchet it down for you."
8:30 p.m.: Bigger ambitions
If a night goes long, Sweet gets to his hypnotism act, which he also frequently performs at the Ice House in Pasadena. He has a pilot in the works about using hypnotism to reach people's past lives.
Warm-ups typically have aspirations outside of warm-up. In sitcoms, after all, they're a sideshow. They entertain a few hundred people on set each night, not a few million watching on TV.
It's a distinction that used to rankle Pearson, the juggler. He started as a street performer, setting a world record at 15 when he juggled for several hours on Jerry Lewis' Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon. He also broke into acting and stand-up comedy. In about 70 sitcom episodes, Pearson estimates, he has started as the warm-up before climbing under the railing and jumping onstage to guest-star in a scene. "Your laughs usually get goosed a little bit because they're already digging you," he says.
Still, after the scene, it was back to the sideshow. "I resented it very much," he says.
But then he took a break to star in the 2004 movie Little Black Book with Brittany Murphy. He later realized he came out $17,000 short of what he would have made as a warm-up during that period. "It was at that point I sat back and said, 'Warm-up is the best job going.'