Published in L.A. Weekly
Mark Sweet has warmed up the audience at more than 4,000 sitcom tapings, and he almost always begins with the same joke, the one he's using tonight at CBS' Mike & Molly, as it gets under way at 6 p.m.: "Turn to the person to your right and shake that person's hand."
The joke — and it is a joke, which becomes clear when you see what happens next — accomplishes something more than mere laughter: It gets audience members comfortable with the people around them. The message is that this isn't the L.A. Philharmonic, where an errant cough requires you to shrink in humiliation. "I've been in a warm-up where I started a show and people said, 'Is it OK to laugh?' " Sweet says. "They're not sure what to do. They think they're in a movie set."
On television, sitcoms are a slick, breezy 22 minutes. But a sitcom taping is an absurdist, theatrical event of Wagnerian length. The actors do two, three, four or more takes of every scene. Between takes, as the cameras and props are reset, the writers convene on the sidelines to rewrite jokes that didn't work.
During the lag time, Sweet keeps the audience not just occupied but primed to laugh. On a raised platform in front of a bleacher full of spectators, he emcees a variety show of jokes, magic tricks and competitions. One standby, a dance contest, typically involves a frisky audience member using the mic stand as a stripper pole while gyrating to a song like "Bust a Move." It can be corny, yes, but it's impossible not to laugh.
Some comics warm up for talk or reality shows. But it's sitcom tapings that bring the greatest difficulty and biggest paycheck. A network gig goes three hours or longer (Friends sometimes went seven) — and can pay $4,000 per night.
This odd, behind-the-scenes vaudeville is something of a dying art: The number of sitcoms shot in front of an audience — called multicamera comedies, because many cameras shoot at once — has dwindled in the last couple decades. But the handful of top warm-ups who are still around are in high demand.
Mark Sweet, who has steady gigs on Chuck Lorre's three platinum CBS shows (Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory and Mike & Molly), is at the top of the profession.