Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Adventures of a Warm-Up Guy

Here's a bonus Friday Question that leads to a worthy topic: Warm-Up Guys.


It’s from Brian Phillips:

Warming up an audience takes a special talent. Johnny Olson (pictured: above), of "The Price is Right", from what I have read, was great at it. Who warmed up the audience on the shows you worked on? If it is not someone associated with the show, who determines who gets the gig?

There have been so many over the years that I don’t remember a lot of their names. Ray, Mark, Wendy, and J.J. if that helps.   Usually either stand-up comedians or writers from the show handle the warm-up duties. I did the warm-up for CHEERS for awhile. Then I passed the torch to another writer, Earl Pomerantz. The great David Lloyd used to do the warm-up for THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW during his stint on the show. Jay Tarses, the showrunner of THE BOB NEWHART SHOW and TONY RANDALL SHOW did their warm ups – perhaps the most caustic warm ups ever.  I'm surprised he wasn't attacked every week. 

For comedians it’s a great gig. Steady work, a captive audience, and the pay is pretty decent. If you build a name for yourself you can score several gigs a week.

The showrunner hires the warm-up guy, or assigns it to his line producer. Here’s how I got my gig on CHEERS. For the first few episodes we had a comic who worked a lot of shows. Les Charles got a call at 5:00 on a filming night saying he was sick and couldn’t make it that night. Les turned to me and said, “You used to be a disc jockey, right?” I said, yes, and he said, “Congratulations. You’re doing the warm-up.”

After that night the cast went to Les & Glen and requested I do it every week. I was very flattered and it was also extra money. Honestly, I think the reason they preferred me was not that I was funnier but that I kept the audience in the show better. I kept reminding them what was going on in the story, I answered a lot of questions about the show, and in general just kept the audience more focused. And now that I think about it, he wasn’t that funny either.

Each warm-up guy has his own schtick. I did about a five minute intro. And from the reaction to the jokes I knew whether we had a good audience or 200 cadavers. A multi-camera sitcom filming generally takes two or three hours. You have to fill time between scene and costume changes and during conferences on the stage when the writers decide to change the script on the fly.

Some warm-up guys would have games and contests or do magic tricks. I answered audience questions and did a play-by-play of what was going on on the stage as if I were a golf announcer. I’d whisper, “There’s a two-writer/one-actor comfab. The last time there was one of those was July 23, 1978 on THE JEFFERSONS. You’re witness to history, ladies and gentlemen.” Nonsense like that.

A few shows will also hire a small band to play between scenes. On ALMOST PERFECT we had a lot of Carole King’s band. Needless to say, they were hot. I kept hoping Carole would sit in but she never did. I stole a bit from Jay Tarses. Whenever the band would finish Jay would make up the song title.  “That’s the theme from DUCK, YOU SUCKER.”Music from a book: LBJ – THE WHITE HOUSE YEARS.” I think I even stole some of his actual song titles. No, wait. I didn’t steal them. It was an homage.

One of the reasons I liked doing the warm-up was that I felt I was really contributing to the filming. Actors feed off the energy of the audience and if I could generate a hot crowd then maybe the cast’s performance level might rise a percentage point or six.

Tomorrow: More on the subject with a guest blogger who’s an expert on the subject. But for now, let’s give a big hand for today’s blog post. I’m going to take a break, but in the meantime, here’s the band to play one of your favorites: “Love song from SAW IV: JIGSAW’S BAR MITZVAH.”

24 comments:

LouOCNY said...

When me and my sister were kids, our mother, who was separated would take us into NYC, for a cheap day of adventure. This was possible, as our father drove for the local bus company, so we got free passes. The day would consist of walking around a lot, a street dog for lunch (dinner was a steak at TADS, a wonderful discount steakhouse chain where a steak, baked potato and salad was like $1.79 in 1968).

One of favorite things to do was to go early to one of the several places that had laid out free tickets for the various game shows which taped in NYC at the time, so we got to see TO TELL THE TRUTH, EYE GUESS, and the original MATCH GAME - almost all of which had Johnny Olsen as the announcer - and yes, he was GREAT as a warm up. One of his great schticks was doing a dance based on the NBC peacock - right when it was being played for the taping. Of course that got the people laughing JUST in time for the title sequence! After that, Gene Rayburn hardly had to work at all to get laughs for the next half hour.

Kathy said...

but, one question--didn't they want you to help with the on-the-fly rewrites? The few tapings I've attended, different writers have had to rush off to talk with the actors and showrunner...

Also, I attended a few tapings of the same show one season. The stand-up did the exact same jokes every time.

Michael said...

My dad saw Johnny Olsen warm up some audiences and said another of his tricks was to tell a raunchy joke JUST as they were starting filming, so the show came on with the viewer hearing laughs and applause. Rumor has it that it's possible to do that today with technology.

Dave Mackey said...

By the time I got out to LA to see Price is Right Johnny had just died, and the new warm up guy was a nervous fat guy in a drab suit on what was probably one of his first tapings. That guy within a few years turned into a comfortable, competent and gaudily dressed Rod Roddy, and he was soon as identified with the program as Johnny was. Price does tryouts on-air whenever there is an announcer vacancy because most of the old-school guys are dead, retired, or Johnny Gilbert.

Ron Rettig said...

Off topic but Ken can you believe that Warners actually found buyers for re-runs of 2 Broke Girls and Mike and Molly?! This is per a report by AP.

chalmers said...

I wish I could have seen Johnny Olsen do warm-up and loved the story about him cracking an off-color joke right before opening the show.

I’ve watched a lot of “Match Game” episodes and often noticed unexplained audience tittering as Olsen announces “Get ready to match the stars!” He also was funny in the pantomimed “Showcase” skits while his recorded voice was describing the fabulous “Price is Right” prizes.

Gene Wood was also great in the announcer/warm-up role for a variety of Goodson/Todman productions. I remember watching an early ‘70s “Beat the Clock” rerun on GSN where Wood was the host and Richard Dawson was the celebrity guest. Later, when Dawson hosted “Family Feud,” Wood was the announcer and warm-up man.

Jay said...

Here's about 4 minutes of audio of one of John's warm ups for Price.

I believe there might be similar ones for Match Game on Youtube as well.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vps0g9H5UFk

Michael Hagerty said...

Hey, they COULD have been playing the theme from "Duck You Sucker"...in fact, KMPC and KFI did.

And you won't believe what label it was on:

http://www.ebay.com/itm/Jerry-Ross-Symposium-Motown-DJ-1209-Duck-You-Sucker-/350318041983

John Weber said...

I never got to see Johnny Olsen do his warmup, but I was a big fan of his, and game shows in general. And he did something amazing and wonderful for me that really helped my career.

It's 1983 - I have just started working as a temp exec producer at WCAU-AM. For me to remain after a six month period, I had to show something. Every Friday, one of the hosts did a silly hour of trivia with bells and buzzers and prizes and whatnot. I brazenly said, wow wouldn't it be cool if we got someone like Johny Olsen to read our intros and do some fake fun prizes and stuff. Everyone agreed yep, that would be cool but we have no budget and why would he do it.

So I called, I guess Television City in Hollywood (i think, wherever Price is Right was taped) and left a message how we were doing this homage/spoof to game shows, and it would be wonderful if there was any way he could record some stuff, being the beloved game show announcer he was. I was 23 and naive and nervous and must have sounded...well, naive and nervous.

A day later, my phone rings, It's Johnny!!! I manage to stop stuttering and explain what i want to do and say we have no money but we'll send some station t-shirts and promote TPIR whenever we do this special hour. He said, "Sure, LOVE to do it," told me he had a radio station in West Virginia, and to mail them there, and he would do them there.

ohmygodohmygodohmygod, I ran to the PD and told them that Johnny had said yes to my pie-in-the-sky idea, and we gotta start writing. After his jaw dropped, we wrote intros, outros, fake prize packages, you name it, and sent them off in a package that included station t-shirts, coffee mugs, whatever stuff we had.

A week later, a package arrived - it was a reel-to-reel tape (still a precious possession of mine) containing everything we had asked for and more, including alternate reads, stuff he had thrown in, you name it. When we mixed music and effects in, it sounded absolutely WONDERFUL!!! We used those materials for years and years, I had made my immediate splash (I worked for WCAU and its successors for 13 years before I moved on) and
I owe a LOT to Johnny Olson. A kind, wonderful man who probably had no idea how much that meant to me in so, so many ways.

Ken Levine said...

John,

What a GREAT story! Thanks.

Kathy,

I would do the same jokes to open my warm-up on purpose. It helped me judge how responsive that particular group was. During the filming I had no routine. I just riffed based on what was happening on the stage or what questions the audience asked me.

Pete Grossman said...

Today, through the Huffington Post, a link was given to Pixar's approach to successful story writing. What's your take, Ken? Here's the link: http://pbjpublishing.com/blog/2012/07/09/pixars-22-rules-to-phenomenal-storytelling-infographic/

John said...

I remember being part of a third grade class in the audience for To Tell the Truth back in the 1960s and the gawdwful pun Olsen and the older woman he was speaking to (who I assume was a plant) pulled off.

"Where are you from?"

"Ireland"

"What part of Ireland?"

"Coney Ireland"


I'll admit, this was some damn fine warm-up humor from a 9-year-old's point of view. Don't really remember if the teachers or any of the other adults in the audience groaned

The Indian Bustard said...

@John Weber...

Never ever seen, or heard of Johny Olsen, but a great story, and thanks for sharing it here...

Ken, you may actually be doing "good" work here...

Randy West said...

So cool to see Johnny O. still the standard by which all warm-ups are measured. Those interested in the specific content of his memorable warm-up act, as well as his amazing 58 year career on CBS, NBC, ABC, DuMont, Mutual, et al can read Johnny's own writings included in the 400 pages of "Johnny Olson: A Voice in Time." Highlights are at www.tvrandywest.com and the book is also available at amazon.com (Of course, no book is as great as Ken's "The Me Generation by Me!")

Johnny was my friend and mentor, and his family entrusted me with his extensive notes from his planned autobiography. His is a hell of a story. Thanks for remembering him, Ken!

D. McEwan said...

Warm-up guy on Dame Edna's TV specials was a soft gig. Once Edna had made her big entrance on the shows, during breaks, she prowled the audience handling the house herself. Often the funniest things she said all night were said to the audience during breaks. On Edna Time, after Roseanne and Tom Armold had discussed Tom's sperm count and their loose meat restaurant, and finished and gone home, Edna said to the audience during a break: "I wouldn't want to eat at a restaurant run by someone so obssessed with his sperm. I certainly wouldn't trust the Bouliabasse."

Even at a Hollywood Squares taping I attended when Edna was the Center square, though there was a warm-up guy, Edna sidelined him, and prowled the stage apron during commercial breaks and between shows, talking to the house herself.

On her Fox pilot Edna Time, She took a different approach to an "audience warm-up" guy. She had a hunk in a speedo lead the audience in mild calesthenics. Sir Patrick Stewart was seated immediately behind me, and I will not ever forget, after a few (VERY few) jumping jacks, him loudly announcing in that great stentorian voice: "I'M TIRED!" and sitting down, arms folded, refusing to do more, which was exactly the reaction the Dada artist in Barry Humphries wanted.28

Phillip B said...

Saw Jim Cramer do a live remote broadcast of "Fast Money" on a college campus. They required the audience - mainly students - be in place TWO HOURS before air time.

They brought a stand up comedian from New York to fill the time, along with the college's cheerleaders, but the poor fellow did run a bit short of material...

LinGin said...

@John Weber -- Since you worked at WCAU-AM from 1983 till about 1995, you must have known and/or worked with the late, great Steve Friedman. And to keep this on topic WCAU was the launching pad for another legendary announcer/warmup men, Ed McMahon.

Stephen Battaglio said...

True story - Johnny Olsen was Pat Weaver's first choice to host NBC's Today show before hiring Dave Garroway in 1951.

Jeff said...

Speaking of announcers, here's something you might have fun with, Ken. ESPN's Darren Rovell did this Twitter poll tonight:

Given James Earl Jones or Morgan Freeman to narrate their life story, 63% picked Freeman. (There were 500+ votes). ... Top write-in votes: 1. Vin Scully, 2. Gus Johnson, 3. Sam Elliott, 4. Liev Schreiber, 5. Sean Connery. ... Funniest write-in votes: 1. Suzyn Waldman, 2. Dick Vitale, 3. Mike Tyson, 4. Charles Barkley.

Brian said...

Ken, is there any video of you doing the Cheers warm up?

Curt Alliaume said...

I'm one of the lucky ones who saw Johnny Olson in action, back in 1970 doing a What's My Line? warmup. Even during the taping, he was always on, running around and smiling at everyone. Made a big impression on an eight-year-old.

Announcer Randy West has written a biography of Olson that is a must-read.

John Weber said...

@LinGin - yes, I certainly did and got to know his wife Michell very well. I was one of the people who put Steve on the air, trained him, sat up with him all night doing the very first overnight shows, went to Vegas and did remotes with him there, and even filled in for him for a six week period when he was ill. He passed on way way too young

LinGin said...

@John Weber - Seeing you mention WCAU-AM in your post struck a bell in the recesses of my brain. I was a regular listener/caller to Steve's midnight-6 AM shows so I was pretty sure you worked with Steve. I lost touch with him during the years he was working at different stations although I heard him occasionally on his last time at WPHT. I was dismayed to hear of his illness and crushed to hear of his death. He was a mensch. I read in an appreciation a wonderful description of him: He WAS the IMDB before there was an IMDB.

Nice to make (or possibly re-make) your acquaintance.

And thank you Ken, for letting me use your blog for this personal moment.

Paul Duca said...

Johnny Olson was a warm-up man the way Beethoven was a songwriter. Goodson and Todman would fly him cross-country for tapings of shows where he wasn't the announcer, just to do the warm-up.

Dave Mackey...you may not know that like Ken, Rod Roddy was also a DJ in a previous life.