Friday, January 07, 2011

The art of doing Warm-Up

Sometimes I’ll get a Friday question that can fill up a post by itself. Today is one of those.

It’s from unkystan:

Years ago I attended tapings of shows like "Chico and the Man" and "The Jeffersons". While sets were being moved in and out we were entertained by Freddie Prinz standup, Scatman Crothers & Della Reese singing, etc. How did you keep your audiences entertained between scenes?

At MTM and Paramount, they employed both a small band and a warm-up guy. As you mentioned, with a multi-camera show, the audience (of about 200 people) is there for several hours, and there are down periods while writers confer, actors change wardrobe, sets fly in and out, and technical glitches get resolved. So he’s not just a warm-up man, he’s also a keep-‘em-warm man.

Each warm-up guy has his own style. Some are stand-up comics and have a set routine. Others do schtick like magic tricks. playing guitars, or staging little competitions.

For the first year of CHEERS I did the warm-up. We originally had a comic and week four he called in sick. Since I had done radio, Les Charles volunteered me for the job. After that taping the cast went to the Charles Brothers and asked if I’d do it every week. I was quite touched. That comic still won't talk to me.

I had no time to develop a style. I was thrown in an hour before the show. So I just decided to be conversational. The warm-up guy has two functions: keep the audience’s energy high, and even more important -- keep them involved with the story. Most comics don’t do the second part. They feel it’s sufficient to do their act. It’s not.

There usually is a break between scenes of ten to fifteen minutes. The band will play a few songs and the warm-up guy will take it back. Some of the cheaper production companies dispense with the band and to me that’s a big mistake. The band keeps the audience rocking and you don’t burn out the warm-up guy by making him fill fifteen minutes six or seven times a show.

But just before each new scene would start I would recap. “Remember, Sam and the gang went over to Gary’s bar to retaliate. Now it’s later that night and they’re coming back to the bar.”

To fill time between takes I would answer audience questions. They were often the same questions from week to week so I was ready with witty answers.

I also acted like a golf commentator, describing the behind-the-scenes activities on the floor. “Uh oh,” I’d say in a hushed tone,”It looks like we have a director, two producer confab. Wait. Ohmygod! This is unheard of. I think we’re going to have…yes, yes we are… a director, three producer confab. You were here to see it, ladies and gentlemen.” Crap like that. I would also introduce the folks on the floor – writers, crew members, etc. No one works harder on a production than the crew. These prop and sound and wardrobe people do a superb job in relative obscurity, so it’s nice to give them a chance to take a bow.

Every so often there would be technical delays that could be quite lengthy. One night at CHEERS the air conditioning went out. That was brutal. On BECKER (I was directing that episode, not doing warm-up) the power went out. The studio audience sat in the dark for a half hour. Talk about a momentum killer.

The toughest warm-up I ever did was on the very last CHEERS. The Charles Brothers asked if I would do it, and I was honored, but oh man! First of all, it was an hour and half show. Secondly, the audience was all invited guests and former staff members. Industry audiences are the worst for warm-up guys. They never ask questions. They know everything that’s going on down on the stage. I think I wound up introducing every person in the audience three times.

I always liked doing the warm-up because I felt I was really contributing to the show. A good audience can spark a better cast performance. If I wasn’t the show runner, I’d just be standing around during the taping. At least this way I was really involved.

There is an art to doing warm-up. I was well-received, but there are a few who are so good they actually make a living at it. A top notch warm-up guy can work six or seven shows a week, between sitcoms, talk shows, and game shows.

If you have hopes of becoming a warm-up person yourself someday let me get you started. When

someone in the audience asks, “Do they get the show in Boston?” you say, “They see it, but they don’t get it.” You’re halfway home.

If you have a question, please leave it in the comments section.  Most week I answer more than one.  Thanks. 


Dudleys Mom said...

I really enjoyed this post. Thanks.

John said...

OK, here's a follow-up to that answer -- in the role of the "keep 'em warm" guy, was there ever a time when you did that for one of the scripts you an David had written where earlier, but the audience reaction to certain jokes hadn't been what you expected. Did that make you feel like you had to try harder to get the audience in a more receptive mood for the rest of the show, or were you thinking, "These miserable SOBs have no sense of humor, and probably ought to be shipped over to sit in the 'Happy Days' studio audience, where maybe they'll think Ted McGinley is a laugh riot." Or did someone else have to do the rewarming part, because you were in one of those set conferences with the producers on why you didn't get the reaction everyone was expecting?

unkystan said...

Wow! My question gets a full post! I'm honored.

Allison said...

Great post. I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that prior to reading today's post I didn't give much thought to the warm-up folks. *Of course* there is a lot involved! Thank you for educating me a bit on how much work goes into keeping an audience "warm" and the importance thereof.

Mary S. said...

What a fun Friday question and response - great post!

Eric said...


David L said...

If I remember correctly, when attending a taping of "All In The Family" circa September 1974, Norman Lear did the warm-up. It was cool then, even cooler in retrospect.

Troy said...

I went to a lot of TV tapings back in the 80's, and got to see a lot of warm-up guys (they were all guys, BTW).

Some were forgettable, but others went on to bigger and better things, e.g., Jimmy Brogan, who used to do the warm-up for NEWHART, and went on to become the talent coordinator (and a writer) on THE TONIGHT SHOW with Jay Leno.

One of the most unique warm-up guys I witnessed was for the only taping of FAMILY TIES I attended: It was none other than Michael J. Weithorn, the co-exec and writer of the show being taped (the 1776 flashback episode), who went on to create and produce KING OF QUEENS.

Honestly, I'm jealous, Ken, that you got to do what appeared to be such a cool and enjoyable job. I went to a few tapings of CHEERS as well (one of which stretched to 5-6 hours!), but alas never saw you.

So here's my Friday follow-up question: You say there are guys who can do multiple warm-ups a week and make a nice living out of it... how much does a warm-up guy make per taping?


thomas tucker said...

I went to a taping of The Odd COuple once. Tony Randall and Jack Klugman did the warm-up themselves!

Anonymous said...

"Someone in the audience asks, “Do they get the show in Boston?” you say, “They see it, but they don’t get it.” "

Somewhere in heaven Steve Allen is laughing his head off.

YEKIMI said...

Ever think you should have a warm-up blogger before we get to your main blog?

benson said...

I guess this is a plug for Ken's twitter...

Great idea about Jon Miller hoisting the pennant...but wouldn't "The Mothership" pull some strings and put the kibosh on it.

The full tweet:
ESPN wants to be there when the Jints raise their championship flag. If I were the Giants I'd have Jon Miller hoist it. Let ESPN show that

BigTed said...

(Eric:) "Applesauce..."

Hilarious! In case anyone doesn't know, IFC is now rerunning "The Larry Sanders Show" (along with some other brilliant comedy shows from the recent past).

Anonymous said...

I heard Louis CK said he had to be talked out of doing the warm up for his HBO show "Lucky Louie". The thinking was that he was so strong as a stand-up the audience would be waiting for him to break character during the actual taping.

Brian said...

Good post. What a treat for the audience to have a writer for the warm-up guy. I once attended a taping of the pilot for a short lived NBC sitcom called "13 East" in Dallas, TX and I appreciated that something was going on between takes. I do remember that sometimes it got a little boring when they had to repeat scenes.

Steve said...


I just re-watched "Any Friend of Diane's" from Cheers for the first time in years. Always one of my all-time favorite Cheers episodes, and it still holds up as a fantastically written and executed episode all these years later. Even the little throw-away dialogue in the episode was priceless (Norm's superior talking about wanting to be a dancer as a boy).

You may have written here about this already, but if not, can you say more about the casting of Shelly Long over Julia Duffy for Diane, and how it was having Julia there for this episode. And speaking of casting, anything you can say about Ted Danson over Fred Dryer, or how Boston was chosen as the setting over what I think was the original idea of LA?

Sean said...

So how does a Dodger honk feel about the Giants winning the Series? And to follow up, do you really think that Giants cast-offs Juan Uribe and Eugenio Valez are gonna help the Dodgers suck less this year?

ttv said...

That's a nice way of making a good relationship to everyone.

Michael said...

My dad grew up in southern California and used to go to tapings. He told me that when Johnny Olsen was an announcer, he used to warm up the audience, and just before airtime tell a dirty joke to make them roar, so that when they went on the air, the audience was screaming.

Sarah said...

Hi Ken,
I am almost through rewatching Wings, a show I loved growing up and was surprised at how much I still enjoyed it today.
The whole cast is great, but one who really stands out to me is Crystal Bernard as Helen. She holds up against the heavy hitters (Tony Shalhoub, Thomas Haden Church, Steven Weber), and I was really surprised at just how funny that little woman is. She has fantastic comic timing and never fails to make me laugh at least once an episode.

So my question is, who are some actors who have surprised you? (either people you've worked with or not?) People who you watched and thought "Man I had no idea that person would be so funny/talented/able to leap tall buildings/etc?

Joey H said...

Though I was pretty young, I'll never forget experiencing a Johnny Olson warm up before the Jackie Gleason Show in Miami Beach.

Adam said...

I love your Q&A's!

I'd like to hear more about how directors for multi-camera shows are selected.

(1) What makes a sitcom's producers decide to rotate regular directors (or even go outside the regular "family") rather than stick with one director for a long run?

(2) When such a show rotates directors frequently, how is it decided who to go to with what ep?


thevidiot said...

On shows that I have worked on (I'm an editor), the warm up guys have sometimes "bribed" the crowd with candy and bubble gum (they can usually smell the fried chicken going at craft service, so you have to give them something!). From that point on, the audience is filled with the clicky sound of gum and candy wrappers being opened and wadded up. Not fun for sound!

Dana Gabbard said...

Joey H, Mark Evanier on his blog says reportedly Gleason refused to do his show unless it would have an Olson warm-up. Thus after Gleason moved his show to Miami Beach uit was necessary for CBS to fly Olson was flying down once a week from New York to do the warm-ups

sophomorecritic said...

Sometimes, when I watch shows like Everybody Loves Raymond or The Cosby Show, I feel like there's too much laughter over things that aren't inherently funny by themselves. An example could be a facial expression that Bill Cosby makes or a reaction that Doris Robert has to being insulted by her husband. The audience is already very familiar with the characters to the point where every little thing they do is funny. As you just said, the audience has a warm-up artist so that they will also just laugh more easily.

The problem is that as a casual watcher of these shows, I find the laugh track jarring and obnoxious and get turned off. Is too much of a laugh track ever a concern or do you guys view it as the more laughter the better?

One other quick question harping on a specific episode:

I find Frasier to be one of the most consitently funny shows out there, but I just saw a rerun that was one of the few episodes to disappoint me. In the episode, Woody comes back to visit and Frasier desperately tries to avoid him. My main problem was that I thought Frasier was getting too overdramatic over having to spend time with Woody as if he were a real monster when he seems like an affable guy on screen.

My question, though, is if that night of karaoke Frasier had to endure was so epically bad, why didn't you guys devote screentime to showing just how awful of a night it was rather than have Frasier just recount how bad of a time he had the next day. The thought of having Frasier, Gil, Noel and Woody doing a night of karaoke together got me excited as to the possibilities and then you just cut to the next day.

Jan LaFata said...


I'm so glad to have run into your blog as I am a former jock and newsman who misses "the biz" quite often. I'm out of it currently, in Yuma, AZ, where I grew up and I'm taking care of my Mom.

I had most of my success in Tucson, AZ, where I started out as a jock in 1991, then became the newsman for the country FM morning show. That's where I got to be part of the morning show as as "Jeff Martin".

It was a blast and I had so much fun and was so proud of my work. I'm probably one of the few radio newsmen that actually blended in a decent Al Gore impression into my my newscast!!!

It's interesting that you mentioned Mark Elliot. When I was a kid growing up in Yuma, at night I could pick up 93 KHJ and I heard Mark Elliot, Don Steele, Humble Harv, Robert W Morgan and Charlie Tuna.

Those guys were my motivation for getting in radio, many years later. I'd like to look into getting back in the business again someday. Could you tell me...Is everyone using the internet now to send MP3 airchecks for jobs. In my day everybody was still sending cassettes or reel.

Anyway thanks for letting me rattle on. I'm looking forward to checking out those other boss jock blogs!

By the way I have a 5MB KHJ jingle sampler if your interested. Also an aircheck from KRTH from 20 years ago.