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"I'm far beyond where I ever thought I'd be in life," he adds, "and if I complained, I should be shot in the head. But higher ambitions? Absolutely I have higher ambitions. Do I want to keep being the warm-up guy? No."
Some graduate to higher-status jobs. Warm-up Jim O'Doherty eventually started writing and producing shows such as 3rd Rock From the Sun and Grounded for Life.
Burger at one point got his own ABC daytime talk show, Mike & Maty, so he gave up warm-up. The show lasted two years in the mid-'90s. He never thought he'd do warm-up again — until the offers came in. "I kind of missed it," he says.
Perlow often preferred warm-up to writing, "a solitary sport," he says. "Doing a warm-up you're onstage, you're interacting, you're getting laughs — it's a totally different feeling than having written a script and seeing it a month later with laughs that may or may not be canned."
He now has a one-man stage show about his life, called The Warm-Up Guy.
9:49 p.m.: The greatest warm-up bit of all time
Late in the evening, Sweet does a trick he learned at 16 from magician Tony Slydini. Kirschenbaum called it "the greatest warm-up bit of all time."
Sweet brings up an audience member, who helps him make a napkin disappear, at least to the volunteer's eyes — the rest of the audience sees where it goes. (It won't be given away here.) He'll repeat the trick again with more napkins. Then again with someone's shoe. He'll sniff it. "There's hot air coming out of this thing," he says. "You could dry your hair with this thing. Poor lady's going to get athlete's face."
He does it with a microphone stand. "Is there a small child?" After each item, Sweet appears perplexed at what he's managed to pull off for the 4,000th time, and repeats: "I need something larger."
10:15 p.m.: Taking a bow
By the end of the evening, the audience's cheeks hurt from laughter. It's striking how much of that pain has been caused by the warm-up — especially when everyone's ostensibly here to create this other multimillion-dollar comedy product.
Of course, you can't put the warm-up act on TV. But it's worth asking: Is one the real art, and the other mere craft? Or are they closer than they seem? Sweet probably would just say: "I'm there to serve the show."
By now, Sweet has given away all his candy and merchandise (through some trickery with the keys, he always keeps the $20). He introduces the cast, who take their final bows. As the audience leaves, they shake his hand and offer compliments.
Sure, he wants to be in front of the cameras. But anyone can be on television. His talent is the sideshow.
"I'm not very good as an actor," he says. "It's not my area of interest. I love performing."
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