Recently, in his acclaimed blog bykenlevine.com (which I read every day), Ken mentioned something involving me that I was entirely unaware of – that I replaced him as the warm-up man on Cheers.
I hope, and am almost certain, that it was not a matter of “We’re ‘going another way’ with our warm-up man.” When you’re on the staff of a series, as Ken was on Cheers, you are too valuable to be stashed away in the bleachers, talking to the audience. You are vitally needed down on “the floor.” Which I’m sure is why Ken relinquished his warm-up duties, and returned to his post. (Reality Update: At a recent lunch, Ken informed me that he stopped doing warm-up, because he and his partner had left Cheers to work on AfterM*A*S*H, thus opening an opportunity for me. That's how things work sometimes.)
A brief explanation of the role of the warm-up man (or woman, and you can infer that every time I say warm-up man) on the show. On show night, the bleachers are inhabited by a couple of hundred “civilians”, brought in to watch the live filming, and, hopefully, laugh. The warm-up man’s task is to keep those people engaged, entertained and from not leaving.
Cheers was not my first warm-up job. That honor goes to Taxi, a couple of years earlier. I did the Taxi warm-up four times, at the end of one season. The regular guy was unavailable, so they needed someone to fill in for him, and run out the string.
I know I made four appearances, because my deal was, if I did four warm-ups, my compensation would be in the form of a Selectric-II typewriter. I remember telling the audience that I was earning one row of typewriter keys per warm-up, announcing each week exactly which keys I had just accumulated, including “comma” and “semi-colon.”
Taxi was an elite operation, owned and run by award-heavy MTM (Mary Tyler Moore alumni. These guys were used to All-Stars at every position. Now, in the warm-up department, it was me.
I recall on that Friday evening before my first effort being brought in and asked what I’d be doing during my warm-up. (Their exact words were, “Do you warm-up!”) I told them I didn’t “have” a warm-up.
“Then what are you going to do?”
I told them I’d be talking to the audience.
I recall swearing and self-recriminations at that point, my bosses far from satisfied with my plan of action. What exactly would I be talking to the audience about?
“Whatever comes up,” I replied.
Which is exactly what I did.
I remember, while working on a talk/variety show in Toronto, hearing the renowned playwright Abe Burrows (Guys And Dolls, How To Succeed In Business) discussing having done time as a warm-up man for radio shows earlier in his career. The point he emphasized most strongly was that the warm-up man’s purpose – to get the audience “heated up” for the show – was way too important to risk failure.
As a result, Burrows revealed, he always told the same “sure fire” jokes at every warm-up. By doing so, he was guaranteeing delivering an upbeat, “primed and ready” audience to the show.
My approach was exactly the opposite. Every time was different.
I would answer the audience’s questions, and the “funny” would come out of that. Also, during extended lulls in the filming – hair and costume changes, for example – I would find myself singing theme songs from old cowboy shows. (Every warm-up man has his own “specialty”. One warm-up man balanced a jellybean on his nose. Another, contorted his face, until, without makeup or prosthetics, he looked exactly like one of the simians in Planet of the Apes. Me, I sang cowboy theme songs, from Sugarfoot to Yancey Derringer.)
On that first Taxi warm-up, I was so nervous that, when I went into my westerns medley, I actually turned my back to the audience, as I warbled into the microphone. Thankfully, the audience found my behavior refreshingly endearing.
FLASH FORWARD – it’s Cheers. The second season. I had a new baby daughter at the time, and she did a lot of crying. Especially at bedtime. I was losing my mind.
I asked my friends, and Cheers co-creators, the Charles brothers, to help get me out of the house. The boys knew I was uninterested in working on staff (though I did write four Cheers scripts.) They then proposed an idea that would allow me at least one wailing-free evening a week.
“Would you like to be the warm-up man?”
And that was that.
I did the warm-ups for the entire second season of Cheers. Was I wonderful every week? No. I was, I won’t say “uneven”, but I would definitely say “uncertain.” Sometimes, the studio audience was passive, giving me little to work with. On those occasions, I would fall back on what had worked for me before.
I hated repeating myself, and, not being a professional comedian, I was no good at it. “Spontaneous timing” is difficult to duplicate. But even at my worst, I made sure to remind the audience of where we were in the story (of the episode we were filming); my “writer” background made certain of that. (I also benefitted from my legitimacy as a scriptwriter for the show, rather than being some freelance funnyman, signed on to tickle their funnybones.)
Throughout the years, I continued doing “warm-up” here and there, once warming up the audience for the pilot episode of (now Senator) Al Franken’s sitcom Lateline, though Al had hoped – and I’m being entirely serious – that Jerry Seinfeld would do it. (That’s how you get to be Senator – you believe in the impossible, and sometimes, it works out. Though, in the case of Lateline, he got the “possible”, which was not Seinfeld, but Pomerantz.
My last warm-up was for a sitcom starring Norm Macdonald. The show’s Executive Producer (who also created Newhart and Coach) was in the habit of doing two filmings per day, (editing the best parts of each together for the final product.) That process required the warm-up man to do two warm-ups in one day, an onerous workload of six, or more, hours.
It was then I discovered that a comedy component I was unaware of was energy. By that time, I was in my mid-fifties. It was “too much, too late”, and I permanently “hung ‘em up.”
Given the choice, I would rather have been a performer than a writer. To me, it’s more exciting to wear the suit than to make it. The thing is, I was temperamentally “cut out” to be a writer. So that’s what I was.
But once in a while, I would come out front and do “the other thing.”
And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, was a blast.