Tickets to TV tapings are free. There is apparently some obscure F.C.C. law that decrees this but, even if there isn't, it's just
good sense. Studio audiences are rarely treated well. They're made to wait in line for hours, often under scorching sun, often with
nowhere to sit. Some TV studios bring in audiences a dozen times a week to view TV shows that cost millions of dollars to produce, but no one
has ever thought to spring for some benches and an overhang to throw a little shade over their guests.
And after they wait for hours, they sometimes still don't get in. Filling every seat is of paramount importance so, as it says in
teensy type on the obverse side of your ticket, "Ticket distribution is in excess of studio capacity. A ticket does not guarantee
admission." If they have three hundred seats to fill, they distribute six hundred tickets and hope that 50% of them get used. Some shows
distribute five or ten-to-one and still pray to fill all their chairs.
Then, when the audience members do get inside, they're usually seated in the most uncomfortable of bleachers and made to wait for long
stretches of time through costume changes, technical problems and other delays.
And sometimes, they don't see much of a show. Years ago, when Sonny and Cher were just starting their variety show, a friend
procured some tickets for a taping that promised a stellar guest list. We all dutifully lined up outside CBS Television City, where they now
have tiny benches but then didn't even have that, and we waited for hours.
When we finally got in, we watched them tape the opening of the show, in which Sonny and his then-spouse came out and sang and welcomed
everybody and talked about their superstar roster of guests. Then we watched them tape the ending wherein Cher and the future-Congressperson
thanked their superstar roster of guests and we wildly applauded the incredible show we had supposedly just seen. Then the producer announced
that, for "technical reasons," the rest of the show had already been taped..."So thank you for coming, ladies and gentlemen!"
(Translation: "Everything else was recorded without you and we're dubbing in canned laughter and applause. We just needed you
people so viewers will see a live audience here for the opening and closing — so get out!")
This type of treatment — and worse — is often accorded studio audiences. So that's a good reason for the tickets
being free. It's a lot easier to do this kind of thing to people who haven't shelled out money for the privilege.
But there's a problem: After a long wait and other indignities, even a non-paying audience may not be in a mood that is conducive to
laughter. And when there are delays in the taping/filming of the show, as there almost always are, they may grow even more restless and
distracted. Thus was invented a show biz ritual known as the "warm-up."
A warm-up consists of someone coming out to talk to the audience before the show, and during lulls. Sometimes, it's a member of
the program staff. Sometimes it's a comedian hired just for the occasion. Either way, the goal is to make the audience feel
welcome. A TV studio can be a foreboding, disorienting place for some and they can become so distracted by all that's going on off-camera that
they forget to laugh and applaud. The warm-up person strives to keep the energy level in the room at an acceptable level.
On some shows, keeping the audience "up" is not half as important as keeping them there. Tapings can drag on and after an hour or
three, the novelty of seeing it all happen live can wear thin. Producers have been known to promise prizes, autographed photos, free dinners,
even cash to audiences to keep them in their seats. The best method though is to hire a good warm-up person. This is not always an easy
thing to find.
I have seen good warm-ups and bad. Perhaps it would be instructive to tell you of the best of warm-ups and the worst of warm-ups,
and I'll even throw in a runner-up in each category.
On the "best" side of the equation, the runner-up would be Carl Reiner, at least on the night that I went to see The Dick Van Dyke
Show filmed. Mr. Reiner created the show, produced it, wrote many of its episodes and often played roles, including but not limited to the
bumptious Alan Brady. Even with all those duties, he assumed the chore of Audience Host, chatting with us and warming up the crowd.
His occasional partner Mel Brooks was in the audience and they spent many minutes yelling at each other, but Reiner was very funny,
even when Mel shut up. Our host staged a competition, offering a dollar from his very own wallet to the person in the audience with the
funniest last name. It was an excuse for him to run around the bleachers and interview folks with absurd surnames and, no, "Evanier" did not
win. The dollar — which Reiner and the cast autographed — went to a Mr. And Mrs. Belly. (In fact, I think Carl thought that
was so good, he gave them an extra dollar. Anyway, he's my runner-up.)
Picking the best warmer-upper is no contest: The late Johnny Olson was the undisputed heavyweight champ of thawing-out an
audience. By the time Johnny was through with you, you'd give a standing ovation to a potato race.
Johnny was an announcer on most of the shows he warmed-up. He is probably best remembered for shouting, "Come on down" on the Bob
Barker version of The Price is Right for the first thirteen years of its existence. But he announced and warmed-up many shows in his
day, including comedies and variety programs, along with every game show he could cram into his schedule. Jackie Gleason, a man of ego
unbounded, would not go before the TV cameras without a Johnny Olson warm-up preceding him. When Gleason moved his CBS show from New York to
Miami, he arranged (at great expense) for Johnny to be flown to Florida each week, just for the day, just to do the warm-up.
A Johnny Olson warm-up had to be seen to be believed. He would boogey out to an Aretha Franklin record played full-blast, and he
would quickly have the house on its feet and clapping along. For about ten minutes, he would race through the audience, sit on fat ladies'
laps, kiss everyone who wanted to be kissed (and a few who didn't), pass out prizes...once, I saw him turn a cartwheel in the aisles.
Basically, this man — who was in his seventies at the time — would do whatever it took to get the audience up and cheering.
If it sounds silly here, I have to clarify: It was. But he was just such a lovable guy that when he asked you to give Bob Barker
a rousing welcome, you didn't want to let Johnny down; you wanted to clap your hands into Silly Putty. The folks who filed in to see The
Price is Right tape were already pretty jazzed — any one of them might be winning a new Corvette within the hour — but Johnny Olson
could raise even their level of excitement.
He did the best warm-ups I've ever seen. The runner-up for the worst, amazingly, was a man named Sheldon Leonard.
The reason that's amazing is that Sheldon Leonard was one of the giants of show business. He was an actor for years — on
the Jack Benny radio program and later in movies, including Guys and Dolls and It's a Wonderful Life. He soon became a TV
producer and was responsible for, among many others, The Danny Thomas Show, The Andy Griffith Show, I-Spy and even our favorite, The Dick
Van Dyke Show.
Sheldon Leonard could do anything. Except warm-ups.
The one I saw came when I attended the filming of one of his lesser efforts as a producer — The Don Rickles Show, a 1972
situation comedy on CBS that was cancelled some time during the first commercial. (In Mr. Leonard's autobiography, he ostensibly lists all the
TV shows he worked on, but there is no mention whatsoever of The Don Rickles Show.)
Leonard usually played a gangster or tough guy on screen. When he came out to warm-up the audience, he did not forsake that
Whether it was because that was the way he was, or because he knew he was opening for a turkey, I cannot say. But there was a
slightly intimidating tone to his voice as he told us, approximately, "Ladies and gentlemen, we have brought you here tonight because we need an
audible response. It would be much less expensive to do this show without a live audience. Much cheaper. But then we would not have
an audible response. If you are grateful that we go to the trouble and expense to bring you here, you will give us an audible response.
If you do not give us an audible response, there is no point in having you here. We might just as well ask you to leave now."
(I don't remember his precise words but I do recall the repeated use of the term "audible response" and the thinly-veiled threat that
if we didn't laugh and applaud a lot, we'd be outta there like collagen through a supermodel.)
So we all laughed nervously throughout a program that didn't deserve many chuckles. And on the way out, folks were wondering if
"This sucks" would have qualified as an audible response.
And now it is time to reveal my pick for the Worst Achievement in the Science of Audience-Warming. May I have the envelope,
Years ago, I was a staff writer on a show that employed a guy named Russell as its warm-up person. Russell was a stand-up
comedian; at least, that's what he put in the "occupation" space on his tax return. You sure couldn't prove it by his act. He never told
us where he worked when he wasn't working for us but I'm guessing Taco Bell.
I'm not sure how he hooked up with our program. A friend of a friend, I suppose. Each tape day, he would come to my office
early and I would brief him on the show to be taped, so he could brief the audience. He would arrive with little games and new material, all
prepared as intensely as if he were cramming for a Tonight Show spot. If trying hard counted for anything — and, in show business,
it rarely does — Russell could not be faulted.
He was well-compensated for his effort. Warm-ups are an A.F.T.R.A. job, meaning that the actors' union mandates the fee and you can
qualify for their health plan and such. A guy who does enough warm-ups could be one of the workingest actors in the guild without ever
appearing on anyone's Trinitron.
The consensus around the office was that, for that kind of dough, we ought to be able to get someone who knew a joke. My Rolodex
included a dozen outta-work stand-up comics who would have been thrilled to have the gig. Still, the producer refused. "The guy needs the
job," he kept saying to us.
I finally took over from Russell and I was much better than he was. That is not a brag. You would have been better than
Russell. My 96-year-old grandmother in the rest home in Manchester, Connecticut would have been better than Russell. I cannot name any
living, English-speaking human being who could have stepped onto that stage and not been better than Russell.
But that was not why he was terminated. It happened one week when we cancelled the taping and no one thought to call and cancel
At the usual time, he showed up at my desk and asked what he could tell the audience about the program they were going to see. I
told him, "Tell them they're not here because there's no taping this week."
Russell turned the color of Heinz Beans and bolted from my office. The producer was in conference but Russell barged rudely past
the secretary and demanded to know if there was a taping and, if not, how come he hadn't been notified. "We're down this week," the producer
told him. "I'm sorry no one called you but you'll get your full salary." This in no way placated Russell, who started yelling. And
I was just outside the door and I saw him pick up a small porcelain statue and dash it against the wall. At the top of his lungs,
he screamed over and over, "How could you do this to me? HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME?"
I still don't know just what he thought anyone was doing to him. It was an oversight, true, but it sure didn't warrant going
super-nova like that. If anything, he should have been glad no one had called him. If they had, he wouldn't have been paid for that
Instead, he smashed a few more pieces of office decor. Then, when he saw me and a few others charging in to the rescue, he called
the producer some vulgar names and stormed out, slamming the door — and probably his career — behind him.
(This was the same producer who, alone among the staff, insisted we not dump Russell. Notice how he was rewarded for his
Everyone just stood there, stunned. I tried breaking the tension with a feeble remark — "Gee, that's the best warm-up he
ever did" — but no one laughed. I couldn't blame them.
That was the last we saw of Russell. The following week, just before tape time, the producer realized he had neglected to engage
a new warm-up person and he asked me to take a stab at it. "I can't do a warm-up," I told him.
He replied, "If Russell can do it, anyone can do it. You can't be worse than he was." I had to admit the man had a
So I went out there with the microphone and, before and during pauses in the taping, I chatted with the audience. I did not try
to be funny and, in that goal, I was wildly successful. (Actually, I got a few laughs, which put me way ahead of Russell on the bell curve of
comedy. But mainly I talked about the show and answered questions about recent episodes, future episodes, how things were done, etc. My
familiarity with the show made up for my lack of comedy material, I guess.)
At the end, I walked off to wild applause. The producer came running up to me and I guess I expected him to say, "Great job,
Evanier! From now on, you're our warm-up guy." Instead, he thanked me for filling in and said, "I'll find a real warm-up guy before the
I must have looked startled. I said, "Gee, the audience applauded a lot."
"That wasn't the audience applauding," the producer explained. "That was the crew applauding."
"The crew was applauding because I was doing the warm-up?"
"No," he said. "The crew was applauding because Russell wasn't."