Of everything I’ve ever been involved in, warming up for TV shows is the thing I get asked about most. Sadly it’s also the thing I’m able to post and talk about least.
I’m frequently in a position where I’ve done a show I can’t talk about until broadcast, and by then I’ve forgotten I even worked on it.
I also never watch the shows I work on, because I saw them live, when they were unfiltered and before they cut the funniest bit where one celebrity called another celebrity a hilarious but unbroadcastable name.
If you’ve never been to see the live recording of a show, I’d highly recommend it. It’s not that difficult to get tickets provided you’re happy to wait and it’ll give you a much greater appreciation for how much effort goes into making a tv show.
Before I talk about my own experiences in the world of TV, let me first tell you about what a warm up person actually does –
As with everything from oven temperatures to exercise, things are rarely ready to go the moment you need them. The same is true for audiences, especially those who are about to watch the recording of a television show. Usually they’ve stood out in the cold or sat in waiting rooms for a few hours, been ushered into seats next to strangers (something we instinctively avoid on buses and in cinemas) and told they mustn’t turn their phones on (the horror) under any circumstances. Once they’ve become accustomed to the new experience of abandoning technology and actually talking to people, the lights dip and someone who isn’t famous comes out and starts telling them jokes. That person occasionally has my face.
AUDIENCE SHOT FROM ‘DON’T ASK ME, ASK BRITAIN’
If I have the right amount of confidence, muster all my charisma and strike a little bit of luck, I might just be able to get enough laughs to stop them thinking ‘Who’s this guy and where the hell is Keith Lemon’. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. More on that later.
There’s an old saying that ”you’re only as good as your audience” and in television it is absolutely true. The sound of the audience laughing on a recording can make the difference between whether or not you laugh at home, or if you remember the show being funny. A brilliant, well written show with great performers will record badly if the audience is not in the right mood. The audience not laughing will directly affect the performers and the vicious circle created will catastrophically influence the show.
AUDIENCE SHOT FROM ‘CULINARY GENIUS USA’
Think of it like this. Applying for tickets to a show is like ordering pizza for a night that’s 6 months away. On the night that particular food arrives, you might not be in the mood for it. It’s my job to convince the audience that they want pizza. They want pizza more than anything and that they should show their appreciation for that pizza by applauding, cheering and laughing every time they take a bite. I must also tell them where the fire exits are and that they can’t just go for a wee whenever they fancy.
Prior to the stars of the show appearing I’ll usually have around 20-25 minutes to explain how everything works, what the show is about, who’s going to be on it, drop a couple of health and safety points and put them in the mood to whoop and cheer like 14 year old girls at a Justin Bieber concert.
AUDIENCE SHOT FROM ‘CELEBRITY TIPPING POINT’
This latter part usually involves a combination of sing a longs, telling jokes, showing them magic tricks, juggling and straight out bribery. The latter comes in the form of everything from inviting the loudest singers to come onto the set for a photograph to handing out mini packets of Haribo. Over the last couple of years I’ve found there’s little a grown man won’t do for the promise of a gelatinous cola bottle.
Prior to filming the actual show, there’ll usually be some pre filming of the crowd to get some shots of them clapping and laughing that can be used later if needed. This part is always tremendously fun and my job usually involves telling everyone to sit up straight, stop picking their noses or fix their bras before I begin conducting them like an orchestra.
The audience must reach their peak readiness at the moment the cast of the show are about to enter the studio, the only problem is, you have absolutely no idea exactly when that will be. You know it won’t be before a certain time, but after that moment, all bet’s are off. Maybe the make up took a little longer than expected, perhaps someone is wearing an outfit that won’t work on camera (the most common problem being ‘strobing’, when patterns appear to move and pulsate on their own) or maybe a celebrity just threatened to walk off the show last minute because the dressing room water wasn’t fizzy like they’d asked for.
Down on the studio floor you are completely unaware of these issues and must simply keep going until the floor manager gives you the thumbs up to introduce everyone.
When that finally happens the energy in the room takes a new flight of it’s own and the show begins. A warm response for the cast will help settle their nerves and I always try to make sure the stars get a standing ovation.
Once the show is actually recording I’m like a coiled spring. Any significant stop in proceedings will result in the sound of the floor manager shouting ‘WARM UP’ (or occasionally even your name if you’re lucky) and out you go to keep everyone entertained while the broken thing gets fixed.
On some shows the cast will vanish for a moment to apply make up or grab water, in others they’ll stay on set and chat.
On panel shows it’s rare that you’ll do much in the interims. The audience are much happier listening to Jonathan Ross chatting to Frank Skinner (the funniest ad lib comedian in Britain) than they are watching you juggle carrier bags.
LIVE SHOT OF ME WORKING ON ‘A QUESTION OF SPORT’
My personal favourite is A Question Of Sport, it’s close to my house, it takes only one hour to record an episode, and the combination of Sue Barker, Matt Dawson & Phil Tufnell is always hilarious regardless of who the celebrity sports people are. (My highlight being an episode from last season in which Jonny & Alistair Brownlee paired up with Ellie & Becky Downie to hilarious results)
Keith Lemon fans will be happy to hear that he is equally, if not more funny off the camera and certainly more ‘sweary’. I’ve never seen a studio audience laugh like they do when he is on the set.
On game shows anything can happen. For ‘The Chase’ Bradley Walsh usually becomes the other half to an impromptu double act and entertains the audience with his natural wit and charm. ‘Celebrity Tipping Point’ is also great fun and I doubt there’s anyone in television who is nicer or more hard working than Ben Shephard.
A SELFIE FROM THE SET OF ‘THE VOICE’ on it’s first season on ITV
High stakes shows like The Voice and BGT have a life of their own. They always have huge stars as coaches, massive budgets are being spent and the tension from the people taking part is palpable. It’s super important to bring your A Game and when you see audience stand up to join in an unrehearsed and unexpected performance of ‘Great Balls Of Fire’ by Tom Jones, you can be proud you were part of the team that helped create that moment.
Occasionally you even make it to the broadcast, although usually just verbally. On the day this following clip aired I received about 50 messages saying ‘is that your voice?’…
It can be a real rollercoaster and provided you can remember that despite being surrounded by celebrities, you aren’t one, you’ll probably do ok. One thing about television is that they know how to look after people. You usually get a fantastic dressing room and in a world where nobody cares about your name, it’s nice to see it printed on a door.
Especially when you get inside and it looks like this –
Despite being fairly new to the world of ‘TV Warm Up’ I already have enough anecdotes to last me a lifetime. If you see me in real life, ask me and I’ll tell you a few. The kind of things that happen to performers every day also happen in the TV studio. They just have a much better chance of being filmed or making it into a newspaper. I’ve pretended I need to check a camera wasn’t going to be in the way of something just so I could quietly ask the floor manager what the star presenter was called, I’ve realised that I have absolutely no idea how to pronounce a celebrity sports persons name only to have it corrected by the aforementioned celebrity sports person themselves when they came onto the studio floor, and I’ve even wal…
Actually I’m going to leave that there. This isn’t a confessional and I don’t think highlighting the scale of my occasional incompetence will do my career any good :-).
I frequently hear that warm up is the hardest job to get and the easiest job to get fired from. If a show is terrible, it’s your fault. If a show is terrific, it had nothing to do with you. Another saying I’m fond of is that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. In that vein, it takes a team to make a TV show. Even though that team may have 200 names on it, the praise is usually all placed onto one. That name is usually that of the star and that’s just fine by me, as it is with everyone else who worked on it.