Comic Howie Mandel has a soft spot for live shows
It may be time to make a case for Howie Mandel as a renaissance man. He’s been a dramatic and comedic actor, a top live comedy act, a voice character artist and even a best-selling author. And, it’s not like he’s going to stop there if someone brings something else up as a career move.
“I’ll do anything,” Mandel said in an interview in April from his office in Los Angeles. “More acting, more hosting, more judging, more game shows. I just love working and love having the opportunity. My answer is yes to anything that’s offered if I can do it.”
One thing that Mandel’s said “yes” to again is a live show in the Reno-Tahoe area. This time, he’s performing May 6 at the Grand Sierra Resort. It’s part of a steady stage regimen that Mandel maintains despite his busy life as a TV star.
“I do about 200 live shows a year, and it’s probably the thing that is most near and dear to my heart,” he said. “I’ll always come back to standup. It’s the place where I’m most comfortable, and it’s so unlike anything else I do. There are no rules, it’s very loose and there’s a lot of improv. And I get to be the center of attention.”
One word of caution, though: Mandel doesn’t want you to bring the kids to these shows, even if they know him from TV cartoons or his popular work on game shows and competitions.
“There’s no editing at these shows,” he said. “I can go anyway and say anything and do anything. It’s like this little place where you can maybe go a little too far, and then go back a bit and build on that momentum.”
“It’s just so much fun. It’s like the opposite of everything else in this business. There’s no real collaboration: just you and the audience.”
For Mandel, the shows change from night to night.
“I have a plethora of material that I can draw from, but I always end up taking things off the beaten path,” he said. “I want to make it as unique as possible, so whatever happened to me that day or in that moment, what’s happening in the room, that’s what it ends up being about.”
Learning the craft
Mandel’s start in show business was at the famed Comedy Store in Los Angeles, where he became a featured act in the late ’70s. A native of Toronto, Mandel also started in Canadian nightclubs and television before making the move to stand-up and acting in America. Among his best known early work was a starring role on TV drama “St. Elsewhere,” and he also did a lot of cartoon voice work, including “Muppet Babies” and a series called “Bobby’s World.”
Mandel said his time at the Comedy Store was invaluable in honing his standup work.
The biggest to me in the ’70s was Richard Pryor. For a while he had a show at 8 p.m. every night at the Comedy Store, and that’s where I would watch and learn and see how he does things. Now, I’m not anything like Richard Pryor, but to see his bravery and his willingness to do something uncomfortable, just to see him cross that line and watch him work was great to see.
It was in the 2000s that Mandel started another facet in his career when he was hired as the host for “Deal or No Deal,” a game show that ran on NBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and in syndication. In 2010, he was named to the judge panel on “America’s Got Talent,” also on NBC, where he remains for the show’s new season, which begins May 29.
Mandel also found time to write a book, “Here’s the Deal — Don’t Touch Me.” Topping the New York Times Bestsellers List when it was released in 2009, it goes into detail about his struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder. Since then, he’s talked about OCD a lot in interviews and in the context of his other work.
“As we speak, I’m medicated,” Mandel said when asked how he’s currently coping with OCD. “But that being said, it’s something I work on every day. I was diagnosed late in life, and my generation didn’t talk about it. So now, I do talk about it, ad nauseum, and that’s to remove the stigma. I want people to take care of their mental health as much as they do their dental health.
“We all need help in some way, but people are embarrassed to ask for help. So, if it’s me mentioning it in a book or an article like this, or just being open about it, that removes the stigma, so hopefully one more person will feel like they can ask for help.”
The element of surprise
Mandel’s open personality has been an asset on “Talent,” which he said he loves to do every season.
“I love the element of surprise,” he said. “I never know what I’m about to see. For them, you never know how you are going to be received and what the response is going to be, and that’s pretty exciting. I don’t really like to see this, but even when there’s a huge fail, it’s interesting to see how everything unfolds right in front of us.
“Some of these people have never had the opportunity to be on stage before. They’ve just been practicing in their own room and now it’s becoming a reality. So, to witness that in person, oh my God it’s amazing.”
Mandel was particularly taken with last year’s winner, 12-year-old musician Grace Vanderwall: “She had no experience. She was just noodling around on the ukulele in her hometown in upstate New York. So, to see her play and do so well, it was just the most surprising, exhilarating fun moment I’ve had in a long time.”
Mandel does keep his hand in acting when he finds the time. His latest project is “Small Shots,” a comedy about the entertainment business now playing on Netflix. In it, Mandel is in heavy disguise as an agent named Sy. It’s not based on anyone in particular, he said.
“Justin (Schack) is the director and writer, and he’s also one of the people who shoots ‘America’s Got Talent,’ and he is really great at that, so I just went ahead and did it,” Mandel said of “Small Shots.” “I say yes to things that I think are funny or great. It’s that simple. And this is something that intrigued me and I knew it was going to be really well directed and well done.”