Howie Mandel: Life Is Funny That Way

Comedian, actor, author and judge on Canada’s Got Talent: Season 2, Howie Mandel is one of the busiest and most versatile people in entertainment.

April 19, 1977, was a Tuesday, and then-21-year-old Howie Mandel went out with some friends for Chinese food in his hometown of Toronto. His fortune cookie that evening read “Tonight the path of your life will change.” After dinner, Mandel and his pals went to Yuk Yuk’s comedy club, where, during the open-mic segment of the evening, his friends dared him to go up on stage. He did, and he killed it. It was one of the three most important career moments in Mandel’s memory.

“April 19, 1977, I was successful,” says Mandel in a recent interview with City Life from Niagara Falls, where he was shooting season two in his role as a judge on Canada’s Got Talent. “I finally found something that was causing me a lot of failure and a lot of angst, but I found that that same energy and behaviour was something I could do and have fun with. As others have said, if you find something you enjoy, you’ll never have to work a single day, so what I do doesn’t feel like a job.” In standup comedy, Mandel had found his calling after a youth spent looking for direction. Two themes emerge from Mandel’s early days growing up in Toronto’s Willowdale neighbourhood, near Bathurst Street and Finch Avenue: he worked a lot of jobs, an awful lot. And he got fired a lot, an awful lot. He ran a ride at the Canadian National Exhibition — he got fired.

“As soon as I found standup comedy, it was the first time I was accepted and I just needed to do that.”

He found another job at the Ex – he got fired from that one, too. He worked in the basement of a Shoppers Drug Mart breaking down boxes from deliveries and he got fired for refusing to wear a tie. He was kicked out of three high schools, including one where he impersonated a school official and hired a construction company to build an addition to the school. He was a comedian in the normal humdrum of everyday life looking for a stage, but he never got discouraged because of the encouragement given to him by his parents.

“My mother always said that if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” he recalls. “I got my confidence from my parents, who have always been incredibly supportive regardless of what was happening in my life — they were always my biggest fans. Because, ultimately, there was a story to tell that came along with each failure. Everything I was ever in trouble for, got expelled for, got fired for seems to be what I can get paid for today.”

Life can be funny that way, and with his natural humour and observations about everyday people and everyday situations, Mandel flourished. He found his stage with that impromptu appearance at Yuk Yuk’s, and by September 1978 he had a week-long booking there as a featured act, billed as “a wild and crazy borderline psychotic.” His career took off like a rocket. In the world of Canadian standup, he was the guy.

The sets he did as a young, bushy-haired comic in the smoke-filled comedy clubs of the late 1970s were legendary, maniacal, magical, and majestic. A high-energy ride unlike anything ever seen before. Observational comedy before observational comedy was in vogue. Using his personal angst as a weapon. Unsheathing his vocabulary on his mesmerized subjects. Taking everyday things and occurrences and twisting them with his unique, yet simple, but always hilarious takes on life. Mandel in those days held the crowd in the outstretched and upward-facing palms of his hands — his physical trademark. He was that comic who made his audiences think, “Why hasn’t somebody said that before?”

“As soon as I found standup comedy, it was the first time I was accepted and I just needed to do that,” says Mandel. “Regardless of everything else I may do, I just need that because standup comedy is my home base. That’s what is closest to me, the thing that keeps me in the here and now. That’s the primal scream at the end of the day for everything else I do.”

Everything else he does makes Mandel arguably the busiest man in show business, where he has been a dynamic force for more than 30 years. In addition to his work on Canada’s Got Talent alongside Lilly Singh, Kardinal Offishall and Trish Stratus, Mandel serves as a judge on NBC’s America’s Got Talent: All-Stars, where he has served for 13 years. He can also be seen as the host of the hit Netflix series Bullsh*t The Game Show.

Other recent projects include his documentary Howie Mandel: But, Enough About Me, currently streaming on Peacock, his annual CW special, Howie Mandel & Friends: Don’t Sneeze on Me, now streaming on fuboTV, NBC’s America’s Got Talent: The Champions, and co-hosting National Geographic Wild’s Animals Doing Things with his son Alex. He also executive produced the Quibi series Kirby Jenner. In 2019 he released his first solo special in 20 years, Howie Mandel Presents: Howie Mandel at the Howie Mandel Comedy Club.

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Mandel’s additional projects as a host, actor and/or executive producer include Take It All and Howie Do It for NBC, Deal With It for TBS and Mobbed for Fox, as his versatile career has encompassed virtually all aspects of the entertainment spectrum, including television, film and stage, including the international animated children’s series Bobby’s World.

His other digital offering is his podcast Howie Mandel Does Stuff, which he co-hosts alongside his daughter Jackelyn Shultz, available on all platforms with new episodes available every Tuesday. His third child, daughter Riley, is a personal trainer and keeps him in constantly good shape for his many appearances. “My children are my fuel for everything I do in life,” he says.

Those appearances include his first love, standup. He still performs more than 200 shows a year in clubs across Canada and the United States, never losing that bug let loose on that fateful Tuesday night in April 1977. Buoyed by his success in Toronto that night, on a trip to Los Angeles Mandel performed a set at The Comedy Store, which resulted in his being hired as a regular performer.

“When you look at those two masks in the theatre of comedy and tragedy, they’re very close – tragedy is just an upside-down smile.”

The exposure at this legendary club led to his booking to open for David Letterman at a show during the summer of 1979 and a TV special on CBC-TV later that same year.

Then, the second most important moment in his career happened when he was booked as one of just four comedians in the television special Young Comedians Special, presented by the legendary Smothers Brothers.

Young Comedians Special changed the trajectory of my career,” says Mandel. “It was a TV special hosted by the Smothers Brothers featuring me, Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Lewis and Harry Anderson. Right after that aired, I started selling out 10,000-seat venues.”

In 1982, that exposure led him to begin a six-year run as Dr. Wayne Fiscus on the critically acclaimed and Emmy- Award-winning St. Elsewhere, which provided him with national attention in the United States.

The third seminal moment in his career, according to Mandel, was his decision to host the game show Deal or No Deal for NBC in 2005, which ran for seven seasons. Never thinking of himself as a game-show host, Mandel turned down the offer three times before his wife of 43 years, Terry, told him to take the gig.

Preparing for the first taping, he reverted to his natural instincts as a standup and prepared comedy material he would interject as he hosted. He needn’t have bothered. From the very first contestant on that very first taping, Mandel became absolutely enthralled with the drama of the decisions the contestants had to make — financial decisions that could change their lives.

He remembered how Groucho Marx had hosted the quiz show You Bet Your Life in the late 1940s and 1950s. The Great Groucho, perhaps the fastest wit in history, understood the contestants were the true stars of the show and his comedic interplay with them, unprompted, was the true essence of the show. Mandel’s engagement with his contestants on Deal and his natural empathy with their decisions is what made the show an immediate hit. It was Mandel at his finest, an impromptu tour de force. It also put his career into the upper stratosphere.

As he told Alex Trebek several years ago in Trebek’s excellent documentary Game Changers about the unique talents it takes to host a game show, “The day after the first airing, I was walking through the airport and people were literally running up to me and screaming ‘DEAL OR NO DEAL!’ and I thought to myself, my God, I’ve got a catchphrase!”

However, the full story of Howie Mandel cannot be told without addressing his darker side, his mental health issues. A well-known germophobe, throughout his life he has faced depression, anxiety and has been dealing with OCD and ADHD, all of which he openly discussed in his frank, funny, no-holds-barred 2009 memoir, Here’s the Deal: Don’t Touch Me, which made the New York Times bestseller list on the first week of its release.

With endearing openness, he even included these personal struggles and obstacles in his standup routines — again separating himself from the rest of the comedic pack in tearing off the mask and baring himself to his audiences.

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“I have found that laughter, for me, is the best medicine, as it’s sort of a distraction,” says Mandel. “When you look at those two masks in the theatre of comedy and tragedy, they’re very close – tragedy is just an upside-down smile. Comedy comes out of darkness, it always does. If you’re laughing at a clown falling down or getting a pie in the face, you’re laughing at the misfortune of somebody you don’t know.”

Mandel serves as an ambassador for Bell Media’s Let’s Talk, an initiative to raise funds for mental health research and to eliminate the stigma around those issues. As someone who knows first-hand, Mandel has some advice, especially to the younger generation who may be struggling with the complexities of life.

“My biggest platform is to remove the stigma, as mental health is just as important as physical health,” says Mandel. “I always say I wish people took care of their mental health the way we take care of our dental health. You don’t have to have specific issues like I do. How do you cope with somebody near and dear to you being diagnosed with something traumatic, or losing somebody, or breaking up a relationship or being under the pressure of work?”

“You must reach out, talk about it, talk to a friend, talk to a caregiver and look for help,” he continues. “And don’t give up until you find the answer to whatever your coping skill is — whether that’s the need to be medicated, or have therapy, or the need to meditate, do breathing exercises, or sit down and talk to a close friend. Whatever that is, just keep reaching out. If you don’t reach out, it’s kind of like drowning — if you don’t surface for a moment and yell help, nobody is going to throw you a life preserver. You need to keep yelling help.”

Known for the distinctive glasses always adorning his chrome dome, in the summer of 2021 Mandel launched his own eyewear collection with SEE, with a portion of sales from the collection going to Seth Rogen and Lauren Miller Rogen’s national non-profit organization whose mission is to care for families impacted by Alzheimer’s disease. In 2020, Mandel teamed up with ePlay Digital Inc. and launched the charity Breakout the Masks in a mobile-game campaign to give back to those involved in the fight against COVID-19.

Via Howie’s Games, the first challenge was Outbreak, where players’ points translated to donations of N95 face masks, portable ventilators, gloves and other personal protective equipment to doctors, nurses and other front-line workers during those critical early days of the pandemic.

Mandel’s genuine caring and compassion for people comes across even via a screen in his work as a judge on Canada’s Got Talent: Season 2. More cheerleader than judge or jury, he genuinely cares about the contestants and his enthusiasm in willing their success is infectious. He promises even more amazement in this second edition.

“If you enjoyed last season, I can say with great pride — you ain’t seen nothing yet,” says Mandel. “This season far outshines anything, ANYTHING, you saw last season. I think the contestants who end up showing up are inspired by what they have seen before and they try to do better — and they are doing better. Some of the acts I didn’t understand what I was seeing, I didn’t know what category they belonged in. I promise you many viral moments this season.”

Where does Howie Mandel rank amongst the greatest comics in history? That’s a silly argument with a bar impossible to determine, such as the greatest hockey player, actor, rock band, pianist, painter, opera singer or footballer — too many variables, generations and trends are in play to settle that with any consensus.

One thing is for certain though. For a young kid fired from virtually every job he ever had to rise to the heights he has, overcoming his personal struggles and demons and in the process turning those into the foundation of his material for the amusement of us all, Howie Mandel can be funny that way.


Interview by Estelle Zentil


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Rick Muller

Rick Muller