“Don’t forget to laugh loud,” cajoled Jack Benny, “that is, if you ever want to get here again.”
Benny never said it on his show. He said it to his audience as part of the pre-show for a radio broadcast (of October 24, 1954 to be precise). The warm-up is still used today in television, as producers try to assure the audience at home that what they’re seeing is worth watching because the people in the studio enjoy it.
We talked about Johnny Olson and his warm-ups in this post; Johnny was called the best in the business by many. We’ve done a story about a Jack Benny warm-up. Somewhere on the blog, you’ll find a tale of Fred Allen’s words before a show to the studio audience. Here’s a story from the New York World-Telegram of May 1, 1943, talking about what happened before some of the shows that aired from the Big Apple (incidentally, do apples grow in New York?).
Radio Stars Get Audience in the Mood
By HARRIET VAN HORNE
Holding a mirror low in front of him, a sad-eyed young man walks through the audience, steps absently to the platform and stands there a full minute before the announcer deigns to notice him.
“What are you doing with that mirror?” he is finally asked.
“The doctor told me to watch my stomach,” replies the young man, still staring down at the glass.
Gags Relieve Tension
It is peculiarly necessary in comedy shows, because the atmosphere in any studio in those hushed minutes just before air time is tense with excitement, not at all conducive to laughter.
Besides jollying the audience into a receptive state of mind, the warmup serves to introduce the performers. Acquainted with a comedian’s technique, they laugh more freely—and more quickly.
Of all warmup shows Truth or Consequences undoubtedly is the most strenuous, for both performances and guests. Ralph Edwards and his producer, Herb Moss, knock themselves and the audience into a kind of joyous delirium with a half hour of nonsense out of the same corn-bin as Hellzapoppin’.
Not for the Worrisome
“Do you care what happens to you tonight,” Edwards will ask, as he strolls down the aisle seeking contestants for the wildest comedy quiz on the air. “Are you sure you don’t care?” he will repeat, as two of his stooges walk stealthily down the opposite aisle, bearing a sheet-covered stretcher. “This? Oh, just one of last week’s contestants,” a stretcher-bearer will tell a curious lady on the aisle.
Edwards’ questions are not to be considered rhetorical when you remember that this is the show that sent an innocent contestant to Town Hall, where, for the first time in her life, she played the violin. Another contestant was put into a fight ring where he sparred with a kangaroo—until the latter was disqualified for kicking.
Garry Moore, master of ceremonies on Jimmy Durante’s Thursday night show, ad-libs for a half an hour before the show, good-naturedly insulting the audience. People are always surprised when they see Garry for the first time. He looks like a college freshman. His hair is cut crew style, standing up straight over his head. He lets the audience stare at him for a full minute before he says a word. Then, running fingers through his wiry thatch, “So what did you expect—feathers?” Durante takes little part in the warmup, appearing at the last minute from a seat in the rear of the studio. His timing is perfect, however, for the audience is applauding him and laughing uproariously when the signal is given “We’re on the air.”
Styles of Other Stars
Jack Benny usually presents a violin solo—complete with gags—before his show. Milton Berle ad-libs in his customary manner for several minutes, as does Phil Baker.
Fred Allen, one of the few comedians who are natural wits, has his audience rocked in mirth 15 minutes before the program starts. His routine varies little from week to week. He warns the audience against swallowing laughs, citing a recent medical discovery (by Young Doctor Malone) that swallowed laughter has a bad habit of accumulating at the end of the spine. “You don’t want to be a lead-end kid, do you?” he’ll ask. To further impress studio guests with the need for laughter—and lots of it—Fred tells the sad story of a man who swallowed all his laughs the wrong way, until finally Young Dr. Malone had to operate. And when he began to carve the incision went “Huh-haw.” Fred makes it an old, old laugh with an unmistakeable death rattle in it.
Red Skelton provides the audience with very little laugh ammunition before the show. He resorts instead to the old spinach-now-candy-later psychology. “If you’re a good audience,” he advises, “and laugh as hard as you can at all our jokes I’ll put on a real show for you after the broadcast.” And he does.
How Cantor Warms Them Up
Cantor clowns for the folks before and after the show. He warms them up, gives them a show, then cools them off, as he puts it. Duffy’s Tavern has no warmup, save for a brief introduction of the performers by Announcer Dan Seymour.
Information Please stages an informal quiz before the show, more to put the guest experts at ease than anything else. Likewise the Quiz Kids, who occasionally have a grownup guest who is shy of the mike, and scared silly in the presence of so much youthful genius.
Musical shows, naturally enough, rehearse a few numbers that the audience will hear again on the show proper. Dramatic shows introduce the leading members of the cast. Diane Courtney and the Jesters present a half hour of variety numbers, usually including their famous arrangement of McNamara’s Band. Accompanist John Gart gives a novachord demonstration. Most comedians and musical artists are too weary to give an epilogue. Garry Moore probably speaks for the majority when he says to the audience, “Beat it.”