Tuesday, June 10, 2008

"Shecky P."

“He sits there, like this quiet, studious writer. But when he gets in front of an audience, he turns into ‘Shecky’ Pomerantz.”

Not totally accurate, but not inaccurate either. What the observer was referring to was my surprising transformation from Earl, the hardworking scriptwriter, into Earl, the irrepressible Warm-up Man.

My brother used to have this joke. He said about a man, “He had a mustache, but he didn’t wear it.” I have a passion and a small bordering on medium talent for performing stand-up comedy. But like the man who never wore his mustache, I almost never performed.

However, when the creators of Taxi asked me if I’d be interested in filling in as Warm-up Man for the last four episodes of the season, I was terrified – I can feel retroactive butterflies just thinking about it – but I said I’d do it.

First, what is a Warm-up Man? (You may already know, so I’ll go fast.) From Lucy to Seinfeld, Raymond and Friends, television comedies were consistently filmed, or videotaped, in front of a live studio audience. More recently, comedies like The Office and 30 Rock are filmed without an audience, working in a format similar to a movie.

You can’t have an audience watching the filming of a movie. Here’s why. (You probably know, so I’ll go fast.)

Movies, employing a single camera, film the same scene over and over from various angles. Movies also rarely film the story in sequence. If an audience were sitting there, they’d be bored and confused.

They’d also be there for days. If the audience was watching a feature being filmed, they could be sitting there for years. That’s why there was no audience for the filming of Lawrence of Arabia. Sitting in bleachers under the hot desert sun for a couple of years? People have better things to do.

Like most sitcoms of that era, Taxi was filmed in front of a live studio audience. To alleviate boredom, confusion and a prohibitively lengthy shooting schedule, a method was devised where three – and later four – cameras rolled at the same time, covering the necessary angles simultaneously, thus eliminating the multiple filmings of the same action. The scenes were also filmed in sequence, like a play, so the audience could easily follow the story.

From Lucy onward, and on radio before it, comedy benefited from a live audience. Networks believed viewers sitting alone in their homes needed cues for when to laugh, so even when there wasn’t an audience watching, like for the filming of M*A*S*H, an accompanying “laugh track” was insisted upon. Somehow, there was never a concern about who those people were who were laughing at the antics of those madcap medics during Korean War. Maybe it was the Koreans.

The real advantage of having a live audience for a comedy is that the audience energizes the actors. The audience’s presence makes it a “live” performance. People are watching, generating an adrenaline rush in the actors that cannot be replicated working in front of a film crew wondering how soon till lunch.


To energize the audience so they can energize the actors requires the specialized and generally underappreciated talents of a Warm-up Man. Warm-up Men come in all shapes and sizes, but their primary intention is the same: to deliver an excited and enthusiastic audience to the show. A “hot” audience would not only rev up the actors, it would also jack up the laughter, which will ultimately accompany the broadcast.

I once heard Abe Burrows, the great TV director Jim Burrows’ father, talk about working as a Warm-up Man on a radio show. Burrows believed that the Warm-up Man’s role – delivering a “hot” audience to the show – was so important, it was dangerous verging on irresponsible to deviate from a set script of sure-fire material. He therefore, performed the same “can’t miss” jokes – word for word – before every audience he warmed up.

Earl, the Warm-up Man, did exactly the opposite.

On the afternoon before the filming, I was brought to the office of two of Taxi’s creators, Jim Brooks and Ed. Weinberger, where they said this:

“Okay. Do your thing.”

“What do you mean?” I replied.

“Your bits. Your jokes.”

”I don’t have any bits or jokes.”

“Well, what are you going to do for your warm-up?”

“I have no idea.”

Whatever the opposite of enthusiasm, encouragement and support is, that’s what I read on those two men’s faces. It’s likely they were thinking that they’d made a serious mistake in giving me the job

I’m not joke teller. I’m always afraid that they’ve heard it before, or they won’t laugh or I won’t tell it right. For me, it’s better to just talk. If nobody laughs, I have an available excuse: “I wasn’t telling a joke. I was just talking.”

I can’t tell you how petrified I was. Facing an audience with no prepared material was akin to jumping out of an airplane with no guarantee that the parachute would open. I would never do that. Why was I doing this?

I picked up the microphone and out I went. For a while, I just stood there. Then I said,


The audience giggled. I don’t know why. But I was off and running.

“How many people have never been to a filming of a television show?”

Hands went up.

“How many people have been to a filming of a television show?”

Other hands went up.

“How many people would never raise their hands just because somebody they never heard of before asked them to?”

Hands went up. Then, they realized what they were doing and they went down. And then they laughed. It wasn’t a joke, exactly, but it worked. It also communicated an irrefutable message.

“We both know you have no idea who I am.”

I admitted I had never done a warm-up before. As if it didn’t show. I told them I wasn’t being paid, at least not in money. Instead, I’d agreed to do four warm-ups for a gift: a state-of-the-art typewriter of that time – the Selectric-Two. Mathematically, this worked out to my receiving one row of typewriter keys for every warm-up I did. That first week, I was working for “z, x, c, v, b, n, m, comma, period and question mark.” Those were important keys, I explained. I used them all the time in my writing.

Everything I said was nonsense. Everything I said was true. And virtually none of it had been prepared.

I informed the audience that we really needed their laughter. Not only did it energize the actors, but if their response wasn’t strong enough, we’d be forced to supplement it with “canned” laughter provided by a machine.

“We’ll only use the “laugh track” if we have to. “Canned”: laughter sounds fake, which diminishes the show.”

‘I guess it wasn’t funny enough for real laughter.’

“Even worse,” I explained, “the ‘laugh track’ was produced a number years ago. Many of the people you hear laughing on it are now dead. A lot of them had recognizable laughs. Their relatives will recognize those laughs when they’re watching the show. Instead of laughing, those relatives will cry.

“So if you don’t want to make a lot of people cry, we really need you to laugh.”

I also urged them not to try and make their laughs identifiable by surreptitiously throwing in their names.

“Ha, ha, h-Harry Horak.”

“Don’t do that. We have to cut those out. And it takes a lot of time. There’s scissors, there’s glue. It’s really quite a problem.”

I went on in that manner. Being silly. Being real. I also lent credibility to the proceedings through my association with the show. Many audience members recognized my name from the credits as a writer. And for those who missed it, I made my affiliation clear by saying,
“I work on the show.”

I was also letting them know, “I don’t just do this.” I may have actually said, “I don’t just do this.” I didn’t want them thinking I just did that.

During breaks in the filming, I answered questions from the audience. “Ask me anything,” I’d brag. “I know it all.” Then someone would ask, “What does the Assistant Director do?” and I’d say, “I don’t know.” I’d then call over the Assistant Director and say , “What do you do?” And then, they’d tell the audience. They’d also tell me. ‘Cause I really didn’t know.

I also filled the time by singing the theme songs from long-gone cowboy songs. Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Maverick, Rawhide, Jim Bowie, Yancey Derringer, “Johnny Yuma was a rebel…” and quite a few others. Singing cowboy songs was the one “constant” in my warm-up routine. Other warm-up men had different claims to fame. One could balance a jellybean on his nose. Another could contort his face to look exactly like a monkey-face from Planet of the Apes. One of the most successful warm-up men hypnotized people and made them do embarrassing things in front of strangers. I sang Tombstone Territory and Sugarfoot.

And that first warm-up? I sang them all with my back to the audience.

Beyond the songs and the silliness, what I communicated most emphatically was the genuine excitement of living a dream. A highly regarded network comedy. And me, Earl Raymond Pomerantz, was a part of it. My unforced enthusiasm sent a simple and energizing message:

“I’m happy to be here. How about you?”

My longest stint as a Warm-up Man occurred when I warmed up the audience during the entire second year of Cheers. I eventually accumulated some reliable material, but for the most part, I just went out there. I remember, one night, the president of NBC was in the audience, and I said, explaining my enchantment with my newly born daughter,

“Babies are puppies with your face.”

That line would ultimately lead to an assignment to develop a television series about my family. But career advancement was never the reason I did warm-ups. I did them because I had to.

Once in a while, the guy who never wears his mustache has to pull the thing out and plaster it on. Suddenly, he’s a totally different person.

He’s “Shecky” Pomerantz.


MikeThe Blogger said...

Boy, that post brings back memories; two, to be specific. (1) Back in the fifties my buddies and I - we were about 13 years old at the time - would go to the CBC studio on Yonge street at Summerhill and be in the audience for the the "LIVE" TV production of "Wayne and Shuster". Paul Kligman used to do the warm-up every week, and as you said, he used the same tired jokes each time. After our third visit, much to his chagrin, we would yell out the punch lines. Never got kicked out- only talked to - today we'd probably be in jail. - and then we got to eat the Kraft foods they used in the live commercials when the show was over.

(2) Earl, at camp you taught me the second verse to the Wyatt Earp theme song. Amazing; I still know it. (how does that work when I can't find where I put my wallet from yesterday.) It was great to win bets when other people said they knew the song but would, of course, stop after the first verse. Then I would chime in with: "He cleaned up the country...'

Great post, thanks.

Neil said...

When I was a kid, there was a radio show (yes, I'm that old) - I think it was "Meet Corliss Archer" but I'm not sure - that would always start with laughter from the audience and the announcer saying "Live from Hollywood, it's 'Meet Corliss Archer'" or something like that. I always wondered how they got the audience to laugh on cue like that. A few years ago I found out. The warm-up guy would end his routine with a punch line perfectly timed so that the audience would start laughing at the exact moment they went live to the network. Now THAT'S talent.

Gnasche said...

I also get skittish in front of an audience. Back in Romania I used to do crowd warm-up for Ceauşescu.

(I rarely get to use that joke)

But don't worry about being nervous. Even the professionals still get butterflies after years in the business. I hear that Mary Kate and Ashley throw up before every performance.

(two for Tuesday)