Exclusive Interview with Bob Perlow: TV Audience Warmup Virtuoso

Bob Perlow, King of the TV Audience Warmup Comics
All photos courtesy of Bob Perlow

Television shows like "Friends", "Full House", and "Growing Pains" might take only 20 minutes to air, but tapings frequently last several hours. From the 1970s to the early 2000s, Bob Perlow was the go-to warmup comedian on television sets, where he was responsible for keeping the live studio audience engaged and laughing. In his new tell-all book, The Warmup Guy, Perlow (co-written by Richard John Cummins) offers a personal, behind-the-scenes look at some of television's most famous shows and actors. With stories including Tim Allen's on-set meltdown, an improv class with Robin Williams, and a close friendship with Alan Thicke, Perlow divulges everything from the good and the bad to the downright outrageous.

Bob Perlow is a comedic entertainer who creates, produces, writes, and stars in taped performances. A product of TV, he grew up with the medium and spent more than thirty-five years as a warmup comedian. During that time he also received writing credits for "Who's the Boss?", "Laverne & Shirley", and many other well-known comedies. Perlow is also the star of a one-man multimedia show, Tales from Hollywood, which chronicles his career in entertainment. He lives in Narragansett, Rhode Island.

What kind of kid were you growing up? Shy? Outgoing? Lots of friends? Hobbies?
Outgoing with a fair amount of friends and, yup, the class clown with little to no hobbies.

Do you have favorites of the celebrities you encountered?
Since I've had the pleasure of working with so many celebs over the years
it's difficult to pick favorites but in the interest of this interview let's go
with.....Jay Leno, Jason Alexander, and Alan Thicke...there are many others
but these guys are my tops.

Did you have favorites of the shows for which you worked?
Again, there were so many, so I will keep it to where I had the best time
as opposed to ones I liked to watch...loved working on...Leno..Newhart
and Laverne..oh, Mork was right up there....I enjoyed watching.."Friends"
but hated working on it...(see my book The Warmup Guy for further details).

Were drugs or alcohol involved in keeping you up and energized for the long warm up sessions?
No. Although it would have made some of the tapings more enjoyable. The
3-5 hour tapings would have outlasted any drug of that time, plus you needed
every ounce of alertness in the warmup position.

After the excitement of living in Los Angeles for so long, what made you choose Narragansett, Rhode Island as your place to settle down?
Actually, I can say that in one word ...Family...actually, another word comes to
mind..Autumn...now that I think of it, three more words....No LA Traffic.

Perlow with Jason Alexander.

How did you get started doing audience warmup work?
One night in 1976, the great Garry Marshall, who hired me as an apprentice writer on "Laverne & Shirley", approached me and said something that changed my life....."Bob, the audience is a little dead tonight...go...talk to them......BE FUNNY!!"

Were you successful at warmups right from the start, or was there a learning curve?
No learning curve....and I think this was due to my background in improv and being a tour guide where I had to be "on" for two weeks at a time.

What did you teach as a college professor in Boston? What was that experience like?
I taught business i.e. marketing and retailing. It was fun and rewarding. Remember, it was the late '60s and I wasn't much older than the students, which was both a blessing and a curse as, again, I was single!

Perlow with Jay Leno.

What was it like doing warmups for "The Tonight Show"? How did it differ from doing sitcom warmups?
For me, getting the warm up job on "The Tonight Show" was the crowning achievement of my career. To be reunited professionally with Jay and to get to work on the number one late night show...did I mention it was...THE TONIGHT SHOW?..well, it just didn't get much better. The fact that it was 10-15 minutes a day as opposed to the 3-5 hour marathon sitcom tapings wasn't a terrible situation either.

Did you try parlaying the warm up work into other kinds of work? (If so, how did that turn out?) Or were you satisfied just doing the warm ups?
Professionally speaking I was very satisfied with my role as a warmup guy. My job was to get an audience ready to enjoy a show that for the most part they were fans of. The challenge of keeping them at the taping and still laughing after some three hours was something I always loved and looked forward to. Another perk was that many times I was asked (okay, I asked) to either write an episode of the show or appear as an actor on the show to augment my overpaid position...so I had the best of all worlds.

Perlow with Dr. Phil.

Did the small group of audience warmup folks know one another? Socialize? What percentage of them were female?
As far as the people doing warmups getting together socially...not so much. We knew of each other as there were not a whole lot of people doing this but usually worked on the same nights. Plus, this small group of people were competing for a handful of jobs, so not many wine and cheese nights. Not many women were doing warmup during my tenure...that may have changed during my six years away...I'm guessing more now with all the great female comics on the scene.

What are the most important qualities for a successful audience warmup person to have?
A sense of humor...likeability...PERSEVERANCE ..and most importantly the ability to go for long periods of time enduring hunger and not peeing....Oh and having a great fake laugh....

Any advice for aspiring audience warm-up folks?
Yes...have a backup career...like being able to say "you want fries
with that?" without crying and wanting to kill yourself.

Would you do more audience warmup work now, or are you 'warmuped out'?
Today, I am what is known in my parts as a "gentleman fisherman" here in the small fishing village in Narragansett RI, but would I take a job on a sitcom? Yes..however the airfare twice a week would bankrupt me...plus I am busy selling my book "The Warm up Guy" from Pelican Press available on Amazon (yes shameless plug).

Perlow with Tom Cruise.

What happens in your one-man show about your career?
My one-man show Tales From Hollywood gives folks who have never been to a live TV taping a glimpse of what it is like behind the scenes. I was fortunate enough to have hundreds of personal photos and videos from almost all the shows I have worked on and the first-hand stories with music from those shows....people seem to really enjoy it.

Any experience with Robin Williams stands out in your warmup work for "Mork & Mindy"?
Robin was far and away the most brilliant improviser and comic genius I have ever worked with....actually even seen! BUT he made my job difficult when I did the warm up on Mork. Once the scene for the show was done, Robin would regularly launch into some of the most incredible comic improv anybody had ever seen...but when he left the stage to change, I was left with the audience for the next 20 minutes....I was not going to top him or even come close...so I gave out hats.

Anything stand out/life lessons from your time with mega-producer Garry Marshall?
Whenever someone of note passes away, you always hear the same platitudes: What a great humanitarian....a real gentleman...one of a kind..ad nauseum no matter what they were in life. But with Garry Marshall, it was the rare case where you couldn't say enough to get the true measure of the man. He was...one of a kind who was a true genius in show business and in his day-to-day life. He certainly changed my life and many others. For the true measure of the man, just remember his saying that has passed on from generation to generation of people whose life he has touched: "Life is more important than show business".....RIP, Garry.

Perlow with Whoopi Goldberg.

You're a single guy. Do you want a wife? Kids?
I'm happy to say that at this stage in my life, I am in a happy, committed relationship with the wonderful beautiful Deb and our two dogs...As far as kids? I don't want to be the Dad that they wheel out at the soccer games to watch drool at timeouts...so, no.

Your desert island choices for:
Movie: A Face In The Crowd
TV show: Walking Dead...
Book: The Warmup Guy...(yet again a shameless plug)
Food: Oysters....(actually any fish with a shell)
App: Uber
Music: Reggae
Anyone in history for conversation: Lincoln
Anyone in history for romance: Cleopatra

Any audience situations you couldn't handle?
Doing Warmups for over 35 years, sometimes seven days a week, you had better be able to handle any and all situations.....there were a couple that were more difficult than others, like at the beginning of my career when at a Laverne taping the audience did not laugh at one joke at the start of the show. We found out that the entire audience was a group from Taiwan who did not understand a word of English.....We had the group leader interpret each scene after it was taped - and then it got huge laughs.

What elements of audience warm up work help you in your regular life?
Everything in real life is an improv situation....so everything helped.

Did you get nervous before and/or during the warmups?
No.....When you started as a Tour Guide for 90 hardened New Yorkers on a bus around California for 2 solid weeks for 3 years....a 5 hour sit-com was a piece of cake...besides how could it be fun if you got nervous each time? I looked forward to each and every warmup situation....I was very lucky to have spent my adult life doing a job that I loved and looked forward to.