ONE OF THE BIGGEST CANADIAN COMEDIANS TO REACH MAINSTREAM STATUS IN HOLLYWOOD, HOWIE MANDEL IS SOMETHING OF A NATIONAL TREASURE.
He’s the guy whose career took off by chance in 1979, when a friends’ trip to L.A. found him in the right place at the right time. Dared to take a swing at amateur night at a downtown comedy club, Howie’s performance was seen by a Hollywood producer who was in the audience that night. He was hired on the spot to appear on the comedy game show “Make Me Laugh.” The next few years of Howie’s career saw talk show appearances and his six-year role as Dr. Wayne Ficus on NBC’s “St. Elsewhere.” The rest is history.
Howie Mandel’s struggles with OCD and ADHD have been well-documented throughout his career. He’s an admitted germaphobe, something that the A-list comedian has been able to make sense of through his work, which includes a 2009 New York Times Best Selling memoir titled “Here’s The Deal: Don’t Touch Me.”
So how is Howie holding up in a pandemic-plagued world? He’s managing like everyone else, but maybe a bit more. Previous to the film freeze on America’s Got Talent, where he has spent over 11 seasons as a judge, Howie was spotted coming to work in a full hazmat suit.
Although filming for the show is beginning to start back up, Howie usually slates about 100-200 stand-up shows every year, all of which have been postponed amid COVID19 restrictions.
At least, he says, Tik Tok helps him to stay connected with his audience in an unscripted way.
We caught up with the Toronto native about quarantine life, America’s got talent, and what’s next the comedic giant after 40 years in the business.
How are you and your family holding up during these challenging times?
My life and my issues have always been challenging anyways. So I’m holding up as best as could be, like everyone else, but my way of living hasn’t changed that drastically. It feels like the whole world is coming to Howie’s world now. I am always concerned about a pandemic. I always think there is one, so the fact that it actually exists now is something that I perceive as more normal life to me than the other way around, but I know it’s not. I can’t wait for it to end. I just wish everybody health and happiness and let’s get through this together.
What advice do you have for others who may be triggered about talks of viruses or are dealing with the same thoughts as you?
Well, my best advice has always been distraction. You know, staying really busy with work, or finding a hobby, or doing something where your mind doesn’t wander into dark places. Just stay distracted, stay in contact with loved ones, and just try to take it one day at a time. That’s what I’ve tried to do every day of my life, ever since I got into therapy. This virus is very dangerous for a lot of people, so all I can say is get outside, listen to the rules, abide by the rules. I think your mindset is a big part of how you cope with anything, you know, mind over matter. Find ways to relieve your stress and relieve your fear, because I imagine if you stay hyper and fearful the entire time, your immune system will eventually be depressed. Happiness is a great way to strengthen your immune system, so try to stay active.
In times like this, as a comedian, how important is comedy as a tool to support one another, to stick together and to help keep us sane?
You know that’s the paramount. I think we need to be supportive and caring, and understanding… we are all in this together. Nobody is in this alone. If you feel like somebody is alone, you need to reach out to them. I think it’s scary for people who don’t have a lot of people around them. Hopefully they can surround themselves with friends and neighbours and if you know that somebody is alone, reach out. Make sure they are okay, text them, call them, do something nice for somebody. It will make you feel good, too, it kind of takes the pressure off of what is going on.
You regrettably had to cancel your tour dates.
Yes, and stand-up comedy has been my main thing for 40 years. I still do 100 gigs a year always. I am out there more than anything I do, that’s my one sign of freedom. When you stand up on live television or are hosting or whatever, there are lines to recite or learn or marks to hit. But with stand-up, I can do anything. Obviously, right now, dates have been cancelled. I am taking it one day at a time.
You know, they say if you can just make one person laugh, you’re doing your job. Well, now I am home alone and I’m laughing. The unexpected! I never know what I am going to do.
Obviously through the years I have built a buffer of material to choose from, but I like to be taken off the beaten path. If you’ve been to any of my shows, they are very interactive. And each night is somewhat unique… maybe somebody will yell something out, maybe there will be a technical glitch, maybe something is happening that day. And that is what I crave, just to be taken off that beaten path. I look at it like a giant party and I am just trying to be the centre of attention. Right now, I am not allowed to attend any giant parties with more than 10 people. I invited 11 people over for dinner tonight and the president just announced that there will be no gathering with more than 10, so I have to pick somebody to disinvite.
Living in LA, what are a few things you miss from when you were living in Toronto?
My family and shovelling the driveway. I do miss it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t do it. I was just out this morning shoveling the driveway. There’s no snow or anything… but it’s just an old back home habit.
You have been a judge on America’s Got Talent for several seasons now, how has it been being able to see people chase their dreams on the show and helping them receive recognition for their special gift?
I always adhere to Nike’s philosophy of “Just Do It”. Somebody that was way smarter than me once said that 99 percent of making it is just showing up. And here we are on season 15 and people keep showing up, bigger and better than ever from all over the world.
To be able to watch someone who has a dream and has never had the opportunity to just show up, be 10 seats away and have their lives change forever and their dreams come true, there is nothing more exciting in the world than being able to sit there. It doesn’t even feel like a job. And now this year more than ever, we have a brand new panel. My good friend Heidi is back sitting beside me. Sofia Vergara and Simon and I have been buddies for years now, and Terry is like the best host on TV. So it just feels like a dream, you know? Going in each and every day and just watching it. And there is no question as to why we are the number one show on television every summer for 15 years and going.
How is it working with Simon?
Him and I have been friends for years. I go over to his house, we are friends off camera. He is one of the smartest, funniest, most heart-warming people you’ll ever want to meet. He loves animals and children. He’s become an amazing father. I know he has the reputation for sometimes being, you know, as people say, he is harsh. I think he is just incredibly honest. What you don’t see and I’ve got to see once I started working with him is that sometimes he’ll give somebody criticism and he feels like they took it hard. As soon as we cut cameras and we go to commercials, he goes up and makes sure that they leave the building feeling great and feeling like they’ve got really good constructive criticism. He won’t hurt anybody’s feelings. He wouldn’t step on a fly. He is the most generous person I have ever worked with, he really is.
Tell us about your experience on the Ellen Show just a few months ago. You arrived under the impression that you were a guest on the show, but once you arrived you found out you were expected to host. How were you able to prepare on the spot?
It taught me a lesson to listen to my messages. Obviously, I’ve been in the business for 40 years so they said “hey, you’re the host.” So I spent a couple of minutes explaining that I didn’t know I was the host. (Laughs) I am comfortable in front of an audience and 99 percent of hosting is letting other people be entertaining anyway. We had a good guest lineup and I had fun with people. I love everybody over at production at Ellen and I am going to be doing some guest hosting again next time.
Along with seeing you on America’s Got Talent, we can also find you in David Drobrik’s vlogs these days. How is working with Dobrik? It must be a blast making videos with him.
Well David also is a friend and hangs out in our office. From working with David and Tik Tokers, I love social media. I love the ability to kind of create something in the moment and just post it and then bang! Millions of people are seeing it. That’s what I find even in these times, it’s a great distraction for me. So I am always trying to post or collaborate with somebody. And people like David Dobrik and Casey Neistat and all the Tik Tokers I work with, you know they have brought me to a whole new medium that didn’t even exist when I started off. I love it, I love the freedom and I love that nobody tells you what to do, you just post it and it’s out there. It’s like having an audience without having to leave your home, get on a plane, travel thousands of miles, have production. It’s just real, pure entertainment.
You are a husband and a dad of 3 children. How do you manage your work-life balance?
I think it’s the advantage of work. Today is my 40th wedding anniversary. It’s quite the celebration we are having in the midst of this pandemic. I want it to be just us, and it is just us! And I actually posted on Instagram, my anniversary celebration is up now so people can join in and wish me well.
People ask us what makes it work. She will tell you that what makes it last is the work-personal life mixture, that I am not with her a lot of the time. Hopefully we can last through this pandemic. Now we are spending more time together than we ever have. I will be honest, I am annoying… I think I’m fun on social media and TV, but to live with me is a totally different story.
Being successful in show business for over 30 years, what would be the best advice you can give to those who wish to have a long term career in the industry?
Just say yes! Just keep saying yes, no matter how ridiculous the offer sounds or whatever, just say yes. I always say people overthink everything and the couple things that I say no to were properly wrong. You can always find a reason not to do something or why you don’t think it’s your lane. But look at the different things I did, I started as a stand-up comic, then I ended up on a drama, then I ended up on Saturday morning, then I ended up as a game show host, and now I am a judge. No is the first two letters of nothing, n o. But yes, even if the yes you say to fails, you are working, and if you’re busy working on something that fails, it teaches you something. So just say yes!
What’s next for you?
Just more. Just keeping it going, just more of the same. Just more. I am never done and when I am done, it won’t be my decision. Another decade of yes!