Howie Mandel may be fashionably bald now, but as a teenager he brushed his hair in the girl’s bathroom (where we met his future wife), used a blacklight to scour his room for germs, and took thousands of showers, owing to Obessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Today Mandel says his off-kilter adolescence helped pave the way to an adulthood rich with success. ABILITY’s Chet Cooper caught up with the popular stand-up comic, television personality, and mental health advocate in his Los Angeles-area home.
Chet Cooper: You’re a pretty busy guy these days. How did you first make your way onto the stand-up scene?
Howie Mandel: In the mid-1970s, there was this huge boom of stand-up comedy throughout North America. I went to see a show at a club called Yuk-Yuks, in Toronto, and I was just fascinated. I ended up coming back for amateur hour on a Monday at midnight, and got up there without any thought as to what might come of it.
It was a cool feeling to garner that laughter, you know? I’d found a new passion in life, and a lot of people of like mind: outcasts who were getting up there and trying to make people laugh.
Cooper: What could be better?
Mandel: A few months later, I was in California on vacation and came across the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard. I decided I’d do something there. If I made a fool of myself it was okay because I was 3,000 miles from home. In that audience, there was a producer from Make Me Laugh, an old comedy game show. He hired me, which gave me a great story to tell about my vacation.
So I went back to my regular job, at a carpet place, and after that Make Me Laugh episode aired, I started getting calls from Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas to come out and do shows. Diana Ross saw me on Merv Griffin and hired me to be her opening act. I thought, “I love doing this. Why not do it full-time?” So I took the plunge.
Cooper: You left a good job in carpeting?
Mandel: Yes, and then one thing led to another, and now I’m in ABILITY Magazine! (laughs) I was always scared to death on stage, though. I didn’t really understand what I was doing, or why the audience was responding, so I would say,”What? What?” and somehow that became a catchphrase.
Cooper: That line wasn’t rehearsed?
Mandel: No. I don’t rehearse. I’m more comfortable in my discomfort.
Cooper: You just go up there with some ideas, and then ad-lib the rest?
Mandel: I hope to. Fear is my fuel. A lot of what I do is ad-libbed and improvisational. I do 200 live dates a year, and I don’t want every one of them to be the same. If I get in trouble on stage, or if I go blank, it makes for great moments of entertainment. That approach has worked for me in the past, and I hope it continues.
Cooper: I talked to Jay Leno, years ago, about ad-libbing, and he said, “Nobody ad-libs.” And I said, “What about Robin Williams?” And he said that Williams is the best at having a big bag of tricks he can pull from, material that he’s thought of and rehearsed on his own time.
Mandel: Well, I’m not saying nothing is repeated. There is a bag of tricks that, after 30 years, you know you can pull from. I have tried and proven pieces that I know will always elicit a laugh. People are paying money to see me, and they want to hear me do these cartoon voices, and some of the pieces I’m known for. But my favorite moments are those that have never happened before. Like this interview. It was not pre-written, by the way.
Cooper: Oh, it was rehearsed. I can tell this was all rehearsed.
Mandel: No! In fact, as you read this, you’ll see this is the first time I’ve ever said this stuff.
Cooper: Would you like to speak directly to the ABILITY reader?
Mandel: I don’t know. Can we break that fourth wall in print?
Cooper: Click here.
Mandel: This is online too?
Cooper: It’s both in print and online, but I’ve often thought about incorporating a hotlink on our printed page that takes the reader into a web-based hologram.
Mandel: I don’t believe anybody’s actually reading this magazine online. If they’re online, they’re looking at porn. [laughter] ABILITY is what they click to when their wife comes into the room:“What are you doing?” “Reading that article from ABILITY, honey.”
Cooper: When you’re on stage, do you interact with your audiences? I haven’t seen your live show.
Mandel: It’s phenomenal. I’m a huge fan of mine. I go to just about every show I do.
Cooper: (laughs) That’s dedication! Did you joke a lot when you were in school?
Mandel: Yes, but nobody thought I was that funny. I was kind of a misfit, actually. When you’re young, you want to be like everybody else, and I was like nobody else. I couldn’t sit still. I was impulsive. I still am. What is now called a “talent” did not serve me well as a child. I didn’t have friends. I was really an outcast.
Mandel: For one thing, this was in the mid-1950s. At that time, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) was not an issue in school. Or at least, nobody talked about it or labeled it. Today ADHD is very prevalent, but I would imagine there were just as many kids who had it back then as have it now.
When I was a kid, I was considered troubled. I wasn’t just the class clown who lobbed a funny quip from the back of the class. I was outrageous.
Cooper: How so?
Mandel: I once called construction companies to bid on an addition to the school library, so that there would suddenly be people outside, measuring the building.
“Who authorized this?” the principal would ask. The answer: “Howie Mandel.”
Cooper: (laughs) Teachers must’ve loved you.
Mandel: I thought that was funny, but nobody else did. I was mostly entertaining myself, though. My parents both had a great sense of humor, and always laughed a lot.
One night, when they were watching Candid Camera, I finally understood what comedy was all about. I heard the laughter on television, I turned around and saw my parents laughing, and that’s when I thought: “This is great. This is what I can do. I’m gonna prank somebody.”
Cooper: What grade were you in when you made that discovery?
Mandel: Second. [laughter] No. Twelfth.
Cooper: You were a senior?
Mandel: No. In Canada we had 13th grade.
Cooper: We call that college.
Mandel: I didn’t finish high school! Can I still be in ABILITY?
Cooper: We’ll have to think about it. So, were you ever officially diagnosed with ADHD?
Mandel: I’ve been diagnosed with ADHD and OCD.
Cooper: Watching you on television, I always wondered, who is the person who’s behind all of the nervous hand movement?
Mandel: It was me. Just not as medicated as I am now.
Cooper: When did you first start to feel you may have some kind of condition?
Mandel: I don’t remember a time when I didn’t feel there was an issue. But I wasn’t diagnosed until adulthood. I’ve always felt a little bit different, and I always knew I wasn’t as comfortable with life as everybody else seemed to be. But I didn’t know what I could do about it.
When I was a kid, I didn’t know anybody who went to a psychiatrist. There was always a stigma attached to mental health issues. I think there still is. But now I’m taking care of myself.
Cooper: When did you make the decision to get help?
Mandel: Not until I was in my forties. There wasn’t some lightbulb that went off in my head. It was just becoming harder and harder for me to function.
One issue that I talk about freely is my germophobia. I’m in public life, obviously, and yet I’m somebody who really is not comfortable out in the world. So that became an issue for me. I found it becoming harder and harder for me to get along, and I was spending longer and longer in the shower. I wanted to spend a moment outside. I needed help. So I got help. And once someone put a name to this thing, it all became easier.
Cooper: You’re taking medications now?
Mandel: Yeah. And I’m getting therapy. I’ve done everything. I’ve been doing this process for years and years and years. I’ll do whatever it takes to function and cope.
Cooper: That seems reasonable.
Mandel: Everybody in life needs coping skills. We..... continued in ABILITY Magazine
Excerpts from the Howie Mandel Issue Jun/Jul 2011:
Howie Mandel — Interview
Hamill — Bodyslamming a Theater Near You
Cerebral Palsy — The Power of Play
Zambia — Advocates for African Children’s Rights
Senator Harkin — Where Are the Jobs?
Recipes — Tasty, Cancer-Fighting Dishes
DRLC — Rescue 411
Articles in the Howie Mandel Issue; Humor — Jockey: A Horse Tale (Pt. 1); 8 Win Win — Tickets to Ride; Ashley’s Column — Let the Racing Begin!; Senator Harkin — Where Are the Jobs?; DRLC — Rescue 411; Bad Boys — United Airlines, H&R Block; Hamill — Bodyslamming a Theater Near You; Frankentongue — How I Licked Tongue Cancer; Paralympics — A Leg Up on the Competition; United Cerebral Palsy — The Power of Play; Zambia — Advocates for African Children’s Rights; Recipes — Tasty, Cancer-Fighting Dishes; Howie Mandel — Showered with Riches; Dyslexia — Tangled Up in Blues; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe