It’s 1979, as he graces the stage, nervously pacing around, a five-fingered glove shaped bag strung around his shoulder, his stringy hair out of control, you sit there confused. You are trying to dissect all that he is doing. In reality, this is just him being his genuine self. This is an authentic moment, which is probably why it works so well. It’s truly in-the-moment. You sit there wondering as an audience member “Where is he going with all of this? What is going to come next?”
The same that can be said for his act can be said for his entire career trajectory. A comedian who isn’t really all that comfortable onstage doesn’t necessarily scream out dramatic actor, nor does it scream daytime talk show host, game show host, talent judge, children’s T.V. show creator, or club owner. But as you watch him onstage now, much like in 1979, he remains in that moment. He may give up on a joke altogether if what’s going on in the audience is what piques his interest. While he may be more comfortable as a performer, the core values of 1979 Howie still ring true.
Howie Mandel Presents Howie Mandel at the Howie Mandel Comedy Club, which premieres tonight on Showtime, is his newest venture. This is his first stand up comedy special in 20 years. As he mentions at the start of the special, this is sort of in response to people who ask him why he doesn’t do stand up anymore, despite still doing stand up consistently. And in between those 20 years, the changes are reflected. Since his last special, he has talked very publicly about his struggles with OCD, being a germaphobe, ADHD and anxiety. So while he’s always been more or less authentic onstage, it almost feels like a sigh of relief as he can finally talk about this large other side of him on a stand up special.
We recently spoke with Howie over the phone to discuss returning with a stand up special, how his comedic voice has changed, watching Richard Pryor, America’s Got Talent Champions, Bobby’s World returning, and partnering with the world’s largest comedy festival, Just For Laughs.
In the special, you talk about how this is your first special in 20 years. Why do you feel like right now is the right time to get back to it?
Well number one, stand-up is where I first started. Stand-up is my first love. It is the thing that I’ve continued to do throughout the years. I’ve done no less than 100 concerts a year and probably more than that. And with America’s Got Talent and Deal or No Deal, I feel like there’s a generation now, not even the newer generation but the older generation, that will walk up to me and say “You know, I used to love your stand-up. You should get back into it.” And I go “Back into it? I do it all the time.” So I realized with all this exposure, people don’t even know what it is that I do. And that being said, unlike America’s Got Talent or Deal or No Deal, this is not full family viewing for the kids, too. But it’s my first love. It’s my primal scream at the end of the day. It’s the only thing I do outside of everything else that I do that I don’t have to recite lines or hit a certain mark or stand in a certain place or edit myself or throw to commercial. It’s just freedom.
And then as luck would have it, when the lovely people at the Hard Rock Café decided to dedicate a room to me and give me my own club, I said ‘Well, you know what? If I have my own stage, let me be the first one to use it.’ So that’s what I did and I brought cameras in, because you know, I don’t know where I’m going to be on any given in two days from now and in the next week I’m probably in 10 different cities. I might as well take advantage of having my own club. It just came full circle from playing stages to eventually having my own stage.
Was that ever a thought you had or a dream, to some day have your own stage?
No. And that’s been my entire career. I started stand up comedy on a dare, so I didn’t think about being a comedian. And then once I was a comedian, I didn’t think about being a dramatic actor and then I got St. Elsewhere. And then after St. Elsewhere and continuing to do stand up, I certainly didn’t think about being a Saturday morning cartoon like Bobby. And then once I did that, I said ‘No,’ three different times to being a game show host and then I got Deal or No Deal which was my biggest success. And certainly I didn’t know what a talent judge would be. So when they called me and said “Listen, you’ve been doing this for 40 years, we’d like to use your name and do you want to be apart of it?’ And I said ‘Yeah.’ And then I had my club and I thought ‘How can I have a club and then not be the opening act of my brand new stage? And why not showcase not only my brand new club but, people, I am a comedian, so what better place to show my wares than my home in my own club?”
Totally. And you’ve talked a bit about how your act is much unlike how you are on Deal or No Deal in that it’s uncensored, but at the same time, did that whole new exposure and audience at all change or alter you as a comedian?
I will tell you how Deal or No Deal changed me. When I got asked to do Deal or No Deal in 2005, my career at that point was waning. In fact, I told you my first love is stand up, ticket sales were a little bit less. I went from playing giant theaters to a couple shows a night to bigger clubs not totally sold out. And then when I got asked to do a game show in 2005, without even hesitation I said “No.” No comedian had even done a game show since Groucho Marx or maybe even Johnny Carson number one. And number two, when you deal with irony and comedy, the game show host was mostly the punchline and not the set-up. And I was thinking of just leaving. Maybe I would do something else for a living, maybe drop in a couple times to local clubs in L.A. just because I needed my fix of stage time. But I was going to quit the business. But when they came to me with Deal or No Deal, I said ‘No’ three times. My wife said to me “You’ve got to do something.” And she made me take the deal. And when I went and did the show, I thought I’d be funny and witty and “Maybe I’ll turn this into some sort of showcase so I can rekindle my career.”
And it turns out, standing there in front of a real person whose life was going to change drastically by doing well on that show, I threw all my comedy and thoughts about me by the wayside, because I saw that there was a glaze that came over contestants that aren’t part of show business and aren’t part of television. They’re standing there on a stage with 15 cameras around them in front of 300 people and all these lights and there’s this glaze. And I didn’t want to distract from them making hopefully a good decision in their life. I changed the cadence of how I talked. So I just started playing the game and talking to them and saying ‘Listen, the offer is $50,000. Do you here me? $50,000 is yours if you hit that button. Or, you have to open up another 4 cases.’ Anyway, I did the shows and I was so embarrassed that I had done nothing. It’s the first time in my career that I didn’t do any comedy, I didn’t recite any lines, I didn’t think there was anything there. So much so that, before it aired, I flew out of America and to some place in the Caribbean that didn’t have any T.V.’s for the premiere of it. And when it aired, I got a call the next morning going ‘This thing went through the roof.’ And then they called me the next morning and it’s even bigger and it’s even bigger. I flew back, and it’s the first time I had a catch phrase. The first person that saw me went ‘Deal or no deal,’ and it became kind of a big craze from 2005 to 2009. And ticket sales in the comedy clubs and theaters and little arenas started blowing up.
And up until then different people knew me as a comedian, different people knew me from St. Elsewhere. People would bet that the same guy from St. Elsewhere was not the same guy who would put a rubber glove on his head. And then there were people who knew me from Bobby’s World, usually young parents of kids but they didn’t know St. Elsewhere and they didn’t watch the stand up comedy. Deal or No Deal was the first thing I did that brought all of that together. And it also gave me the confidence to just be myself and more comfortable and it wasn’t always about the joke but ‘How do I present myself?’ So it taught me more about and gave me more comfort in those quiet moments than I ever had before, just being a comedian or being an actor.
Do people come to your show expecting that same exact guy that’s on T.V.? Do you run into that problem?
Well, obviously there’s people who sit down every Monday night and watch AGT with their little kids that will probably show up or try to buy a ticket. I discourage that, and even on the live tickets it says “Must be 18 or over,” and that it could have adult content. Not that I go to be blue, but I don’t want to edit myself and I want it to be real conversation. Also, since the last time that I did my last stand-up special, I accidentally blurted out, this is part of my book, about my OCD and mental health issues. So that also gave me comfort in the last 20 years, being on my little soapbox of removing the stigma. It’s really comfortable for me to stand on a stage and talk about something embarrassing that happened to me or some situation where I might’ve, many years ago, not been so open. Where I’d rather write a joke or make something up rather than making it more personal and about me and embarrassing and about my life and my marriage and my career, as open as I am today.
How do you feel about how the evolution of the stand-up special is? Are there too many stand-up specials?
I don’t know that there’s been an evolution. From day one, I came out here in the mid-70s to California, and I was lucky enough to show up to The Comedy Store each and every night and watch Richard Pryor cobble together what eventually became Live on the Sunset Strip, which I think, to this day, is one of the most seminal stand up specials that exists. And George Carlin did a ton of them, and Kevin Hart is still doing them, and the old Eddie Murphy Raw. I feel good stand-up is good stand-up. If you like the character and you want to listen and they can hold your attention for any amount of time and you relate to it and you can have the audience kind of escape for an hour or two and you can elicit a laugh from strangers and make them relate. Comedy is comedy. And they’re all like the classic stand-up specials that we all have come to know and love.
America’s Got Talent Champions started a few weeks ago. On the first episode, Mel B gave the first golden buzzer to Susan Boyle. I want to know if you have your own personal Susan Boyle moment, where you were quick to maybe pre-judge an act before doing a complete 180% and being blown away?
I don’t know if I did 180, but I have to say my golden buzzer last year Courtney Hadwin, was this shy little 13 year old English girl who has social anxiety and a hard time talking and couldn’t really communicate fabulously with Mel B. And then lo and behold, as soon as that music started it was Janis Joplin reborn. And she just got recently signed to Syco Music and she’s going to be a huge star for years and years to come. I like those surprise moments.
I feel like it’s really hard for comedians to pop on the show seeing that they’re only given 90 seconds.
I think that people don’t understand that. And I don’t know if I was a young comic starting out today that I would fare well on that show. I would do the show, there’d be no question about it. Where else am I going to get that kind of audience? But I don’t know if they could get me and understand me and in less than two minutes I could get across what it is and who I am. So it is tough. But beyond that, I don’t think the audience or even sometimes my fellow judges understand what it is that goes into being a comedian. Just showing up without any safety net. To need to elicit from an audience more than any other act needs. You could play a whole song and then you don’t need the audience to do anything until the end of the song. You hope they applaud or stand up. Where as a comedian, you need to hear a visceral laugh every 30 seconds otherwise it’s apparent you’re not doing great. You don’t need that for somebody playing a cover tune, somebody doing a magic trick, somebody juggling. People don’t know what goes into this. And I kind of do and feel empathy for anybody that walks out on the stage and just goes “Love me and laugh at me.” And that’s what I try to do every night and hopefully I get them on Showtime. But as soon as someone comes out and I hear they’re a stand up, I wear my heart on my sleeve for them.
You are someone who is known as a great prankster, in additional to comedian and all the other hats you wear. What would you say is the greatest time you have ever been “had” by a prank?
But there’s no end to being had. My kids now are on Youtube. My daughter Jackelyn, is a vlogger. My son, Alex, is a big Youtuber and a content provider. And I guess they need content all the time so they’re always effing with me. Whether it’s having my car totally wrapped or I come home to find my son and Roman Attwood covering my house with 4,000 rolls of toilet paper. There isn’t one thing that stands out, but it is consistent. So I go through my day wondering, “Am I actually living this or am I part of a YouTube prank video?”
Last year you talked about bringing Bobby’s World back. Do we have any further developments on that?
I’m trying. Right now I’m in meetings trying to reboot it. I just finished rebooting Deal or No Deal. What I’m trying to do is just, I found 4 or 5 things that I love doing in my career, and I will just continue doing them until they don’t do them anymore and then I’ll bring them back and do them again.
As someone who grew up on the show, I’m looking forward to seeing it. And yet another thing you’re now apart of is, you’ve only had one year of doing it but what is the most important thing you feel you can bring to the Just For Laughs festival now that you partnered with them?
I want the brand Just For Laughs to be as known as when I was coming up National Lampoon was known. If it was National Lampoon the magazine or National Lampoon Vacation or if you knew a writer that came out of National Lampoon and you knew they were funny. I feel like Just For Laughs outside of the world of comedy is not known as the stamp of approval for something being funny. And anybody who’s anybody in comedy has been part of Just For Laughs. Whether they were discovered at the festival or they performed at the festival or they shot a special at the festival. I just want to grow that brand so that people know that JFL and Canada is synonymous with great comedy and almost everything you see in the world of comedy.
I can’t wait to see where it goes. My last question for you. I ask this of everyone, as I’m always interested to hear how the answers differ, but what would you say you want your legacy to be?
“He made me laugh.” I’ve been chasing laughter my whole life and that’s the one audio and visual image that I chase. Whether I make a lot of money at it, whether people come and see me for it, whether it made me famous didn’t really matter. All I wanted to do was make somebody laugh. That’s all.
Howie Mandel Presents Howie Mandel at the Howie Mandel Comedy Club premieres January 18th at 10 PM EST on Showtime.