Just For Laughs: In conversation with Howie Mandel
By: Stuart Nulman – mtltimes.ca
Next Saturday (July 25) will mark the fifth time that Canadian-born comedian/actor/TV host Howie Mandel will be hosting a Just For Laughs Videotron Gala. And for Mandel, who can currently be seen as one of the judges on NBC’s reality competition show “America’s Got Talent”, he relishes every opportunity to perform in his native Canada, and Montreal in particular.
“Montreal was the first city to embrace me during my early years in stand-up comedy, and there is no comparable festival that celebrates the art of comedy than Just For Laughs,” he said during a recent phone interview from Los Angeles. “For me, performing in Canada and Montreal is like being in the most comfortable, warmest place on Earth. It’s certainly better than medications and therapy.”
Born nearly 60 years ago, Mandel was a class clown and prankster while growing up in his native Toronto (which resulted in expulsions from three high schools). He then became a door-to-door carpet salesman, and by the time he was in his early 20s, built up a successful carpet business that included two stores. It was at this time that he started doing stand-up comedy (which he began on a dare from some friends at the flagship Yuk Yuks club in Toronto), and later became a regular performer there. In 1979, during a business trip to Los Angeles, Mandel decided to take his stand-up career to the next level and performed at an amateur night at the legendary Comedy Store club. As a result, he quickly became a regular at the Store. It was there that he caught the attention of a producer, who booked him for several appearances on the comedy game show “Make Me Laugh”.
From that moment, Mandel’s comedy career took off, with countless movie roles, cartoon voice work, TV shows, talk show appearances and as the host of the popular NBC game show “Deal Or No Deal” (which earned him two Emmy Award nominations). However, Mandel asserts that it’s stand-up comedy that is his heart and soul, and with all the projects that he is involved with these days, he still manages to do over 200 live comedy shows every year across North America.
“I will never give up stand-up comedy. Even after I finish a large-scale stand-up show, I will still seek out a club that is open around 1 a.m. and perform there and be the centre of attention … even if there are a total of four people in the audience,” he adds.
Ever since he first went behind the mic as a stand-up comic, Mandel developed an onstage persona that was quite manic in nature, which included a lot of nervous mannerisms, strange noises, his trademark jittery “What? What?” response, and plenty of interaction with members of the audience. Mandel attributes this to when he was extremely nervous the first time he ever went onstage, which in part lends itself to his spontaneous style of comedy.
“That first time I did stand-up comedy, I was nervous and scared to death, and I still get nervous before I go onstage,” he said. “It was like riding on a roller coaster, and you reach that height before the first drop. I started to giggle nervously and make some strange sounds, and the audience went with it and were with me throughout the show because they thought it was part of my act. Although I have to admit, I am not as manic as I used to be.”
“Also, I don’t do much preparation material-wise, because I like to live in the moment and make it real. If I prepare some material about two days before a show and then leave it alone, it’s like overthinking it. I don’t like to think about what I am going to say onstage; I just spew it. That helps me become a more honest comic,” he added.
Perhaps Mandel’s best-known non-comic performance was as Dr. Wayne Fiscus, the Boston Red Sox cap-wearing young physician on the acclaimed NBC medical drama series “St. Elsewhere”, where he was a regular cast member throughout its entire six-year run from 1982-88. It was there that he met veteran actor Norman Lloyd, who portrayed Dr. Daniel Auschlander and was known for his long time professional association with director Alfred Hitchcock. During his six years on “St. Elsewhere”, Lloyd became his mentor.
“I never went to acting school, and when I was about to begin work on ‘St. Elsewhere’, I was actually a replacement; I wasn’t the original choice to portray Fiscus. Bruce Paltrow (who was the show’s executive producer) told me that being chosen as part of the cast of this show was like being accepted to one of the best college acting programs,” he said. “I struck up a friendship with Norman from the first time I saw him on the set, and he not only told me about how to become a better actor, but he also regaled everyone in the cast with his stories about working with Hitchcock. I also learned from the other veteran cast members like Ed Flanders and William Daniels. It was like being surrounded by some of the best actors around.”
Besides “America’s Got Talent” and doing 200 stand-up shows every year, Mandel continues to do guest appearances on TV (such as the FOX sitcom “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and the HBO series “Girls”), and is shooting pilots and producing new TV projects for his production company Alevy Productions (which is named after his parents Al and Evy Mandel). However, Mandel believes the secret to lasting nearly 40 years in show business and stand-up comedy can be summed up in one word: “Yes”.
“I always tell my kids that if you want to succeed in life, just say yes … and then think about why the f— you said yes,” he said jokingly. “There are more real reasons for you to say no, but you don’t know what opportunities await you unless you say yes. For example, when MTM approached me about ‘St. Elsewhere’ and asked me if I can act, I said ‘yes’ and I spent the next six years on that series. And when I was asked to create a cartoon series featuring my Bobby character – which was originally a very dirty part of my comedy act – I said ‘yes’ to it; people thought I was driving a nail into the coffin that was my career, but ‘Bobby’s World’ became a major hit that ran for eight years. So the secret to longevity in show business? Just keep on saying ‘yes’.”
The Just For Laughs Videotron Gala with host Howie Mandel takes place at Salle Wilfrid Pelletier of Place des Arts on July 25 at 9:45 p.m. Joining Howie on the gala line-up are special guests Pete Holmes, Reggie Watts, Fortune Feimster, Marina Franklin and the British magic duo of Barry & Stuart. Ticket prices range from $29.73 to $78.22.