Warm-Up Comics Have the Toughest Job in Comedy
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.
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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.
He eventually got a Detroit agent, who booked him for General Motors auto shows. For 25 years, 100 days a year, his job was to entice people walking by one of GM's displays, and then make sure they stayed. Sweet learned that whenever he would call out, "Who would like to win a genuine counterfeit hundred-dollar bill?" people would flock, never mind the word "counterfeit."
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.
Carl Reiner himself warmed up the crowd at The Dick Van Dyke Show, which he created in 1961. Reiner did only a casual chat, going for "giggles and chuckles," he says.
"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."
Perlow, though, had an advantage: He used to work on tour buses leading tourists through Santa Barbara and Yosemite for two weeks straight. He had a knack for occupying people's time.
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."
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.' "
Roger Lundblade, who worked on Will & Grace and is now on Two Broke Girls and others, says he once had to kick out a college student who heckled, "I'm going to fucking kill you."
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.' "
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.'
"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."
It's a trick you won't see from David Copperfield, and it would seem out of place on an HBO stand-up special. But at a sitcom taping, this odd, behind-the-scenes vaudeville, it's gangbusters.
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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