Friday, January 7, 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. 

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