Thursday, August 02, 2012

The 8 Tips For Becoming a Good Warm-Up Guy

Over the years I've written, produced, and directed hundreds of episodes of sitcoms shot before a live studio audience. Especially in the late '90s when I was freelance directing and it seemed like every week I was at a different studio on a different stage with a different show.  Just as I moved around, so did the warm up men.  My wife and daughter, Annie would often attend these filming nights.  Annie was ten then.  She became somewhat of an aficionado of warm up people.  Some she liked, others she tortured.  After awhile she knew them all -- their strengths and weaknesses.  And thus she's compiled the 8 Tips For Becoming a Good Warm-Up Guy -- the most comprehensive and only guide to this unique art.  So today I'm going to turn it over to Annie. C'mon, folks, let's give her a big hand. 

Being a warm-up guy cannot be easy. You're the commercials that no one can fast-forward through. (Though DISH is probably working on that.) You struggle on the standup circuit,, claw your way onto a studio lot, and all you get is heckled by a sassy ten year-old. (At least, all the warm up guys I sat through did.)

Growing up listening to warm-up guys every week has made me a self-appointed expert on the subject. So, should you be lucky enough to land one of these auspicious gigs, here is some unsolicited
advice for you at no charge. I won't even make you give me an autographed photo of the cast.

1. It's a big deal to get that job, so act like you want to be there. There's nothing more annoying for the audience than having the first scene end and you're already in the parking lot. Worse is the extended sigh as if to say, "Shit. I gotta talk to these idiots again?" Gee. Thank you. We idiots are not thrilled by you either.

2. Not everyone in your audience is brand new each week. Some of us are related to the cast or crew. For those of us who are there time and time again, please throw in some new material. The people who create the show write a completely new episode each week. All we're asking for is one new fresh knock knock joke.  And maybe lose the one about the blonde and the dead bird. 

3. This isn't your big chance to get into the Friars Club. Jim from Idaho didn't wait in line for three hours to hear how fat he is. A little gentle ribbing about where we're from or how long we've been
married is fine. If you start foaming at the mouth, you've lost us.

4. Give away candy and we'll laugh at your jokes. Give away merchandise from the show, and suddenly the sitcom we came to see is opening for you. (Well, not always. I once won a shirt and I was insanely excited. Thirty seconds later my mother handed the shirt back to the warm up guy. I believe her words to me were, "We have enough of this crap at home. Let the tourists have it.")

5. You might think this would go without saying, but your material should not rely on cursing or dirty jokes. Especially if it's a family show. The audience over at JESSIE does not need to know how long it’s been since you’ve received oral sex. One guy exclusively told raunchy jokes, like he was doing warm-up for Andrew Dice Clay’s bachelor party. Needless to say, the audience looked like they were sitting on burning coals.

6. Keep your energy up, no matter how late the filming goes. Keep a tool belt of Red Bull or pick up a cocaine habit. Whatever. Just don't yawn.

7. Make sure you can pronounce all the cast members' names correctly before you introduce them. It's important that the audience likes you, but it's equally important that the actors on the show don't want you dead. Don’t just take a stab at Kunal Nayyar. Ask him. At some point during the night, let everyone know who wrote and directed the episode and anyone else involved – line producers, assistant directors, that weird guy in shorts who’s always changing light bulbs. They all deserve a round of applause.

8. Just have a good time! You have an audience required to not walk out on you. That’s like a comic’s greatest gift. Don't worry if you have an off week. Just blame it on that week's episode and move on.

Knock 'em dead. And ignore the ten years-olds. They're just cranky their moms won't let them have swag.



Booster said...

"My wife and daughter, Annie would often attend these filming nights."

What are you, Woody Allen?

(Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Nice post!

David Schwartz said...

Ah, the memories... I did the warmup for the TV show Solid Gold back in the early 1980's. How did I get this job? Did I train for it? Did I do standup for years to become funny and self-assured enough to entertain an audience? Well...

Actually, I was the gofer on the show. I ran errands all day long delivering scripts to the executives and getting lunch for the staff. Early in the first season they had a need for a warmup person and had no one to do it. I volunteered. Hey, I was 22 and apparently had some chutzpah...

So I get up on stage without any prepared material and proceed to talk to the audience for 3 hours!!!!! I was young, wide-eyed and apparently had a youthful naivete that apparently made me likeable to the audience.

Over the next few months I did the warmup at the show numerous times. Sometimes things would go great and I'd feel a bit cocky. I'd think, "Hey, I'm pretty good at this." Each time that happened, invariably I would bomb the next time out and my time on stage would feel like days instead of hours.

Other times things would go extremely smoothly and it would be a lot of fun. The key was being fully present to the aucience, kidding around with them and making them feel part of the show.

I don't know how many other warmup people have started with no prior experience, but I was lucky enough to have done it. And either the producers were too cheap to hire a real guy (I got $ 50 extra on my salary to do it), or they actually thought I was good, cause I did it most of the first season.

A couple of postscripts:

1. For at least a year afterwards I would run into people in the Hollywood area who would comment that they saw me doing the warmup on Solid Gold. Even a guy working behind the counter at McDonalds recognized me, although he still made me pay for the Big Mac. Having such an obscure gig that was seen by so few audience members, I was surprised that I got recognized as much as I did during the year.

2. When I had souvenirs like T-Shirts to give away, there was a whole lot more excitement from the audience. We're talking World Series excitement! Somehow a flimsy T-Shirt at a TV show taping takes on a lot more value as a giveaway than if you saw it at the gift shop.

I believe that when it comes to doing the audience warmup, having the audience like you was 80-90% of the job. If they liked you they were on your side, and that good energy carried you through the many hours of down time.

RCP said...

This was very funny, Annie!

Mike said...

"Cheers is filmed before a live studio audience" - always struck me as wrong.
It should be "Cheers is filmed live, before a studio audience".
You dig up a cemetary of stiffs? Some nights...

jeff said...

Annie shoulda warmed up the Monday morning assemblies...

DBenson said...

Ages ago, read a story about the filming of the first "King Kong" remake. One scene, where Kong is displayed to a live audience, featured a gigantic "robot" that didn't work (it's barely there in the finished film, for immediately obvious reasons). It was outdoors and took all night.

The story reported they had a comic trying to keep the extras perky during the endless technical delays, constantly trying to impress them with how much money the dang thing cost.

Now there was a warm-up job from hell.

Carl Carlson said...

This is good advice for public speaking, not just warm up guys. BTW is Annie single?

Phil In Phoenix said...

Ken, you are very fortunate to have Annie doing warmup for Friday Questions!

Michael said...

Are there any Warm-Up Gals? Sounds like Annie would be good at it.

Asset Alliance said...

I have always had trouble speaking in public.I try to focus on one person and just go for it.

By Ken Levine said...

I'm sure Adam Carolla uses a woman to warm-up his audience.

But seriously, yes. We used one the first year of ALMOST PERFECT.

David Baruffi said...

After Richard Dawson's recent passing, I started to look up some old "Family Feud" clips. While doing that, I found this really old clip of Ray Combs, before he started hosting the show in the '90s, (Which is when I was growing up, so actually I associated the show with him until Game Show Network came around) on Johnny Carson, before he was hosting. Johnny mentioned to the audience before he walked out that Combs was the best Warm-up guy working in Hollywood, and it was that job that eventually got him the hosting gig, which with all due respect to Dawson, he was great too, but Ray Combs was a great game show host. We know now how troubled he was, but at the time, you didn't know that; he was a great show, of a very difficult show to host. (As we've found out on this new version that's had a rotating door of hosts)I was curious, who else do you may know that started as a warm-up comic before moving on to something else more famous, and did you have any experiences with Combs while he was doing warm-ups? Thanks.

Here the clip of him on Carson btw.

edmarkey said...

Great post...entertaining and well written. I know that Sinbad used to do warmup for The Cosby Show. (I don't remember if that was pre- or post-Star Search) Do you know of any others who became major standup acts?

Anonymous said...

I was the audience warmup on Frasier for 9 years. I loved that job. I got to laugh at a great show and work with great people. It was the dream job. All the things she said are absolutely true. I was always terribly happy to be there and I loved the show, and I'm sure that showed, or they would've fired me at some point :)

And I remember Ken, looking dapper in a suit and tie -- but all the writers dressed nicely on shoot day. It was that kind of show.

And everyone was so great to work with. Except Eddie. He had a freaking attitude, man. They had to have a toilet with Perrier in it for him to drink out of.
-- David Willis

Gary West said...

I enjoy Annie's style. Always a good read.

This is a fascinating subject because - you never really think of the warm-up person - and, how many today are working regularly? It would be fun to name them all, or perhaps, to expand, an all-time list: a warm-up Hall of Fame? Quite a few?

Randy West wrote a great book on Johnny Olsen - the Don LaFontaine of warm-ups and good ole' game show announcing.