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It's a Warm-Up Life for Us

Michaelrayner_1 To be a warm-up comic is to be a world-class carnival barker. Your job is to convince a crowd that the show they are about to see is the most entertaining and hilarious thing they will ever experience. To do this, you must be the most entertaining and hilarious thing they will ever experience. You just can't be funnier than the show -- and not all comics can give that up. You need to develop a trusting relationship with the audience as you guide them through the show. Unfortunately, there are only between 10 and 15 warm-ups on sitcoms these days because of the proliferation of unscripted shows and dramas.

I don't know how other people have become warm-ups for sitcoms, but this was my circuitous path to warm-up happiness: I was working as a standup, and my wife, Moira Quirk, co-hosted GUTS, a Nickelodeon show, with Mike O'Malley. Mike and I kept in touch, and when the day came to shoot his own pilot, he invited me to help warm up the crowd with a few of the bizarre tricks I do between bits, like spinning a cheeseburger on an umbrella, balancing a wheelbarrow on my face, and making a Cabbage Patch doll striptease.

Mike's pilot already had a warm-up, Don Reed, but I was to be a "special guest." Don was incredibly funny and warm and was willing to let me do some time. I did about 20 minutes. The audience loved it, and so did Don. He asked if I wanted to do more warm-up gigs, and I said yes. Don Reed turned out to be my Don Corleone in the world of warm-up.

After I suffered countless rejections, Don recommended me to a line producer who hired me as one of three warm-ups for a show called The Secret Lives of Men, featuring Bradley Whitford, Peter Gallagher, and Mitch Rouse. Eventually I did all of the warming up solo, until the show was canceled. I was now in the warm-up club. I still had to hustle, but I was in the loop.

Unlike a standup, a warm-up comic is there to serve the show. It's no longer all about you. My job is to keep the audience ready and eager to laugh. I can't let their energy fall, which is likely to happen during four hours in a cold sound stage or when the actors have gone to change or technical things are being done. I keep the audience fresh because the producers and the network want authentic laughter -- and lots of it.

I begin tapings by doing a bit of my own material, just to let the audience know that I'm funny and will be hanging out with them -- kind of like their favorite funny uncle but with none of the bad touch. I then introduce the regular cast, generally with a good bit of fanfare, and then the actors head into the first scene.

But some sitcoms, despite their best intentions, can only be described as crap. In this case, scene after scene, I have to turn to the audience and proclaim, "That was hilarious!" when in fact I, the audience, the grips, and the best boys know that the jokes suck, the scenes suck, the show sucks.

Just like Cyrano, I have to make the audience fall in love with me to make them think they love the show. I'll hand out copious amounts of candy and prizes. I'll have competitions, share trivia, tell old jokes, and do stunts. I'll do absolutely all of my material and create more. But in an age in which few sitcoms are being made and even fewer are shot with a live audience, I will be happy -- oh so happy -- that I have a job at all.

What if the show is good but the audience is a problem? If the show is popular, the audience members will be fans and eager to laugh. If not, they will be unwitting tourists or -- more likely -- they will be paid. During an episode of You Don't Know Jack, there was a group of about 40 previously incarcerated men in the audience, making an easy $20. How do I know? They told me. The guys loved to talk, and the rest of the audience was entertained as I engaged in many lively conversations with these scofflaws about who did breaking and entering, armed robbery, or perhaps a few unsanctioned "pharmaceutical sales." Fortunately, I knew enough not to ask the man with inked teardrops on his cheek what they meant. I have also had groups from halfway houses, mental-health facilities, and nearly every type of recovery program. So when you watch your TV and hear raucous laughter, there is a pretty good chance it's coming from someone just released from jail or drug rehab -- perhaps both.

When the audience doesn't laugh at the sitcom, I will get fired even if it's not my fault. When they laugh too much at me and not enough at the show, I might also get fired. If the producer is getting divorced, I might get fired. If the wife of the show's star has a friend who wants to start doing warm-up, I might get fired.

However, if I find a home on a hit show, I've got it made. The audience is simply happy to be in the presence of Ray Romano or Matthew Perry. They laugh appreciatively and generously, and all is well with the world.

-- Michael C. Rayner

Michael C. Rayner has warmed up for various TV sitcoms, including "Dharma & Greg," "That '70s Show," and most recently "Lucky Louie" on HBO. You can find out more about him at www.michaelrayner.com

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