ARCHIVE: Howie’s Life in a Suitcase


The (Red) Banker makes an offer: And Howie Mandel accepts, as he returns once more to the Count Basie Theatre on Wednesday night, September 9.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit September 6, 2009)

“I’ve been blessed” is what Howie Mandel says when we bring up the elephant-in-the-living-room subject of Deal Or No Deal, the international game show phenom for which he hosts three distinct versions — the US prime time, daytime and English language Canadian editions.

While it was another, all but forgotten game show — the old syndicated oddity Make Me Laugh — that gave the rookie comic his first TV exposure, the Canadian-born Mandel cops to having no particular affinity for the whole quiz-show genre, with his massive success on the Deal franchise existing only as one work-intensive, lucrative branch of what’s become a pretty sprawling career path.

There’s a forthcoming book, entitled Here’s the Deal: Don’t Touch Me — a personal journey through the author’s publicly professed neuroses and disorders (OCD, ADHD and a fear of germs that makes Monk look like the host of Dirty Jobs). There are the hours of talk-show guest hostings and occasional TV projects like Howie Do It and the animated Bobby’s World. And there are the hundreds of live stage gigs that the veteran standup continues to schedule — the latest of which is a Wednesday night stand at the Count Basie Theatre, where Mandel and his longtime warmup act (the deadpan master John Mendoza) return for the first time since June 2008 in an 8pm laff-fest.

The sleek suits, soul patches and chromedome stylings of the millennial Mandel seem far removed from his 1980s incarnation as a colorfully attired, curly-topped cousin to Mork from Ork. But just as Steve Martin morphed over time from his 70s self to the esteemed gentleman of letters we know today, so Howie has gone from a guy who climaxed his act by blowing up a latex glove with his nose to a well-rounded entertainer who tempers the frenzy with a little confessional comic therapy, a little blue humor — maybe even a glimpse of the eternal prankster, as evidenced by the “hidden camera” punk skits that the star still loves to produce.

Red Bank oRBit was granted a brief window of opportunity to speak with Mandel, as the busy star hustled to yet another airport for yet another gig-to-gig flight. Read on…

RED BANK ORBIT: You’ve appeared at the Count Basie Theatre at least a few times, but this will be your first time back since they underwent a very spiffed-up renovation. Any impressions of the place, as one that seems to be on the list of regular touring venues you work at?

HOWIE MANDEL: To tell you the truth, when the lights are in my face, there’s really no telling where I am — it’s all an abyss! I just come in the back door and do my thing.

So what can we expect to see in your stage show — something old, something new, something blue?

It’s just me up on the stage. I’ll do my ‘Bobby’ character; we’ll show some hidden camera pieces, and more or less take it from there. One thing I want to mention, if you’re a fan of Deal — it’s not a family show, so don’t bring the kids!

You’ve got so much going on, it’s like we need to construct a big wheel and give it a spin to select a topic. How about live shows? For someone who’s hosting three different editions of a hugely popular TV show, you continue to be all over the map, touring around and doing a big stand in Vegas coming up… 

At the MGM. I still do over 250 live dates a year, and that’s all balanced against the TV schedule. On the same day as the Red Bank show, I’ll be shooting eight episodes of Deal or No Deal!

And then you’re jetting cross country to appear at the Count Basie? 

No, it’s shot in Connecticut now. We moved the production to a studio in Waterford. And we do them in real time, so we’re able to get a lot accomplished in a day.

Spinning on to anther topic, what can you tell us about the forthcoming book? 

I’ll actually be doing a separate tour for that when the time comes. The book is called Here’s the Deal: Don’t Touch Me,  and it’s about who I am, really, the issues that I deal with every day. I just want to make an honest account of my life and career.

Would you say that these issues you’ve made public — the obsessive-compulsive disorder, the germophobia, ADHD —  have informed your work, and fueled your drive to the point where they’ve helped make you what you are today?

I’d trade it all in a heartbeat, though!

In between everything you’ve tried your hand at, did you ever imagine dabbling in the game show genre? I watched a lot of them myself when I was a kid, and I guess it’s a not uncommon thing for an aspiring showbiz person to make their own game show at home…

Unlike you I never have been much of a game show watcher, and I didn’t want to be a game show host — I’ve turned down at least three offers in the past. But the producers of Deal or No Deal were very insistent that I try my hand at this. My wife took a look at my audition tape and told me ‘you’re an idiot if you don’t do this.’

She was right, of course. I’ve never been more thrilled to be involved with something like this. It’s such a nice phenomenon. I’ve been truly blessed.

I was going to ask if you had a favorite among the old school game show guys; the Bill Cullens and Wink Martindales of this world.

If I’ve taken inspiration from anyone it would be Groucho Marx. His game show was more about the comedy, how he interacted with the contestants, than about the game itself.

But really, Deal is less about me — I tend to step back a bit and allow the contestants to strut their stuff.

You’re in a profession that’s historically been about pressing the flesh — hugging and kissing the contestant, which Richard Dawson really upped the ante on when he hosted Family Feud. How do you reconcile that against the don’t-touch sort of impulse?

Dawson is the anti-me! How do I reconcile those things? There is no reconciling — there’s only therapy! I get the best help.

On a similar note, is there any kind of an interactive aspect to your stage show? Do you take it down into the audience? 

I like to stay up on stage, keep to a certain comfort zone. But it’s an interactive experience, where anything can happen.

I don’t plan my shows per se. Something technical might happen, and you have to work around that. Or you’ll hear and see things going on in the room that can determine the direction of the show.

You might reject the notion outright, but the question begs to be asked — with all of the things you’ve got going on, all of the things you’ve done, including films and dramatic TV, could you lay claim to the title of King of All Media?  

I’ve been busy! That’s all I can say!