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 Obsessive-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.
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: (laughs) 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 all have stress in our lives. We all have neuroses, relationship problems, whatever. Yet very few people seek help. We take care of our dental health, but we don’t take care of our mental health.
Cooper: That rhymes.
Mandel: That’s why I say it. I used to say, “people should take care of their ankle health, and not their mental health”, but that never caught on.
Cooper: (laughs) Do you have children?
Mandel: Three. My daughter is 26, and is a teacher in East Los Angeles. My son is an actor on Scare Tactics, which is a show on SyFy, and just finished a movie. And my youngest is 18. She’s studying sociology in college.
Cooper: And your wife?
Mandel: She’s not in school anymore. (laughs) We just celebrated our 31st anniversary. She used to be in retail, but she sold that business and now does real estate.
Cooper: A lot of people in your life today have been there from the beginning.
Mandel: Everybody I work with has been with me for a long time. I’ve known my manager since I was 14, and my wife’s known him since they were in preschool. My manager and I are best friends. I like stability around me. There’s no stability in this business, so I like my world to be as stable as possible.
Cooper: When you were first getting to know your wife, how did you tell her about your germophobia, so that she could understand it?
Mandel: I don’t know that she understands it, even today, but she always knew about it. I would leave often to go home and shower.
I think she thought I was odd, but very clean. I took four or five showers a day. I didn’t want to touch things. I masked my germophobia for many, many, many years. I hid a lot of it. She was not in the bathroom with me while I was scalding my hands, so I didn’t really let her in on that, but she knew that I was obsessed with washing my hands.
Cooper: She didn’t suspect anything?
Mandel: I could sometimes cover my condition with logic: “Let’s make a path in this hotel room with towels, because you don’t know what was dripped all over this carpet.” So she would walk along my path. “Let’s take the comforter off the bed with the salad tongs, because we don’t know what’s on it.”
Cooper: Sure. I think that would freak anybody out.
Mandel: She liked the kookiness in me. I’ve been living CSI: Crime Scene Investigation my entire life. When I was a kid, my parents bought me Green Ghost. Remember that game?
Cooper: I’m not sure.
Mandel: It was a blacklight game. Anyway, I had that game, and I looked at my blacklight poster on the wall and I thought, “What is all this other crap that’s being illuminated?” [laughter]
It freaked me out. I went into a room to play a game, I turned on the blacklight, and I screamed, “Am I going to die? What are all these blotches!”
A lot of kids were afraid of ghosts and goblins. I was afraid of stains.
Cooper: What would have happened if you didn’t have that blacklight?
Mandel: I would have sat on some s–t I didn’t want to.
Cooper: Maybe it’s better not to know what germs we’re touching. Maybe ignorance is bliss.
Mandel: I wish I were ignorant. I didn’t get my General Educational Diploma (GED), but that doesn’t seem to have helped me.
Cooper: Your wife must have found your qualities endearing. That’s what matters…
Mandel: You know, she wasn’t all that attracted to me. It took me the longest time to get her. There was nothing attractive about me, and I had a reputation for being outrageous. But I was persistent in pursuing her, just as I have been persistent in this business. I would imagine she saw the charm in my persistence. Maybe. I don’t know what it was.
Cooper: I know you do some advocacy work in the field of mental wellness. Have you been doing any of that recently?
Mandel: Yes. I spoke on Capitol Hill for National Children’s Mental Health Day. I’m mostly trying to help remove the stigma that surrounds mental conditions and mental health professionals, because I don’t think there’s anybody alive who couldn’t benefit from a mental health professional being a part of his or her life.
Take a look at all the bullying and the shootings that happen in schools. Often the perpetrators have been identified as “problem children” long before any incidents happen, yet there’s nothing in the curriculum to deal with those kinds of problems. Our kids are spending eight hours a day in school, and a lot of their issues are easily identifiable, even to the untrained eye. Imagine how these kids might benefit from just having access to someone who’s trained to identify a situation and fix it.
Cooper: Were you bullied as a kid?
Mandel: No. People would just stay away from me. I was not invited to be a part of anything. Plus, I was always the smallest kid in school. I wanted to meet people, but everything I’ve ever joined was the worst possible scenario for whatever my issues were. The only team I could get on in high school was wrestling. I was 90 pounds, and I looked like a girl.
Cooper: I’m not going to laugh.
Mandel: And I wanted to meet girls.
Cooper: By wrestling them?
Mandel: (laughs) No. I didn’t wrestle girls. I didn’t want to touch anybody, and yet there I was, rolling on the floor, sweating with strangers, looking like a girl.
Cooper: Why’d you join the team?
Mandel: I thought I was going to meet people. I thought I was going to be part of a team, and that girls were going to like me because I wore a uniform. I didn’t realize the uniform was a ‘onesy.’
A lot of people thought I was a girl at that time, because I had long hair. So I figured out that the only way I could talk to girls was to go into the girls’ restroom, brush my hair in the mirror, and talk to the ones who came in.
Cooper: You really did that?
Mandel: Yeah. That’s where my wife met me, actually: in the girls’ restroom. I could hear girls talking in there, so I went in, stood at the mirror, brushing my hair, and girls would come in, and we’d talk. They didn’t know I was a boy.
Cooper: I can’t tell if you’re joking or not.
Mandel: I’m not. I weighed 89 pounds, I didn’t shave, and my voice was high. Plus, I had long, beautiful, flowing hair.
I remember I had a job once, selling egg-salad sandwiches at bingo. My mom drove me to work and, while we were in the car, guys would honk and whistle, trying to pick me up. That was my world in the ‘80s.
Cooper: You’ve come a long way.
Mandel: I was defintiely a late bloomer. I even tried to talk with my voice lower for a while. My mom kept hearing “How old is your daughter?” wherever we went.
Cooper: How did your book come about? I like the title: Here’s the Deal: Don’t Touch Me.
Mandel: I wrote the book to collect a lot of really funny stories about my experiences in this business. It was put together in partnership with a guy who could help me organize my thoughts, because organization is not my strong point. We’d hang out for hours and hours, every day, for a couple of months. He’d ask questions and I’d answer them. When we finally printed out the transcripts of everything I’d said on tape, it was something like 900 pages.
Mandel: My original intent had been to write something less personal. I didn’t want to talk about my issues—not because I was hiding them, but because I didn’t think that’s what the book should be about. So I was a little taken aback by how much of the book really turned out to be about the trials and tribulations of being me. And I was embarrassed and afraid when it got published. But as it turned out, that book has prompted a lot of people to come up and say, “Me, too.” And that experience has helped me become more comfortable with my mental health issues. Enough people related to my experiences that revealing those experiences didn’t turn out to be as embarrassing as I’d thought it would.
Cooper: You’ve got nothing to be embarrassed about. You’ve built quite a successful life.
Mandel: It’s a constant journey.
[Mandel’s wife, Terry, enters the room.]
Mandel: There she is. (to Terry) The first time we met, was I in the girls’ bathroom brushing my hair?
Terry Mandel: [laughter] Yes. I knew you were a guy, even if nobody else did. You had a reputation.
Mandel: What was my reputation?
Terry Mandel: Crazy and wild.
Mandel: Not good, right?
Terry Mandel: No.
Cooper: You liked him because he was crazy and wild?
Terry Mandel: Not at first. At first, I said, “No way.” He had this horrible reputation. As a matter of fact, we once got in a car accident while he was driving. It was so bad we flew over to the parking lot and spun out. I turned to him afterwards, as everybody was screaming, and I said,”Very funny!” Because I thought he had done it as a joke.
Cooper: And it was not a joke?
Terry Mandel: No. He just looked at me like I was nuts. And then we fell in love.
Cooper: Howie told me that, when you first talked to him, he was very upset with you because your hair was better than his hair.
Terry Mandel: (laughs) His hair was a mess. He had really long hair.
Mandel: Hair today, gone tomorrow.
Cooper: If you knew Howie had this bad reputation, why did you talk to him?
Terry Mandel: He was cute.
Mandel: And little.
Terry Mandel: He was adorable. He was shorter than me.
Mandel: All right. [laughter]
Cooper: Terry, when you first started dating Howie—when you noticed he washed his hands a lot, showered a lot—what were you thinking, other than that he was cute?
Terry Mandel: He was the cleanest guy I had ever seen.
Mandel: (to Terry) Did you think I was nuts?
Terry Mandel: You know what? Because I didn’t live with you, I really didn’t know how much you used to shower. But I know you used to go home a lot. “Where are you going?” “I’ve got to go home and shower.”
Cooper: (to Terry) If you were going give some advice to someone who’s dating someone with OCD—
Mandel: “Run!” [laughter]
Cooper: —would you think that maybe for a period of time it’s actually a good thing to hide some of those differences and just let the love occur? Or should it all be out there in front?
Terry Mandel: I don’t think Howie knew that he had OCD, especially back then. I think he just did these rituals and had these thoughts, and he didn’t share them until later.
But I didn’t think it was weird. There were certain things I thought were weird about Howie, but I didn’t live with him then, so I didn’t really know all of his stuff. Nobody really thought about those things then. Now people are much more aware of these things. Everything’s out in the open. People are talking about their differences. It’s good. It helps Howie to talk.
Mandel: And I seem to be much better.
Cooper: Did you see a transition?
Terry Mandel: I’ve seen ups and downs, depending on Howie’s stress levels. He’ll be better sometimes, sometimes worse. He fought against taking medication for a long time, and then he started taking it.
Cooper: I think there’s a tendency to fight taking medications, because they think their creativity might diminish if you’re taking them…
Terry Mandel: He thought it would change his whole personality. It really didn’t. It just helped his thoughts, I guess. Even with medication he has the same thoughts, but now they don’t give him anxiety attacks or affect how he functions.
Mandel: I also spend less time in the hospital.
Terry Mandel: (to Howie) You weren’t there that much. I think you’re better now, don’t you?
Mandel: Yeah. I’m fine.
Terry Mandel: Your head’s better. Therapy has helped.
Cooper: It’s about coping skills.
Terry Mandel: He’s a good coper. He’s better than I am at coping. I can fall apart over any little thing, but Howie will just help himself and get through it. He’s even better today than he ever was.
Mandel: I’ve gotten a lot of help.
Cooper: Do either of you have any words of wisdom for relationships that might have these kinds of challenges?
Mandel: I’m on the road a lot. That works for us.
Terry Mandel: [laughter] Communication is so important. A lot of people give up so easily. You just have to care enough, believe enough.
Mandel: She’s pretty smart, my wife. Those are great words of wisdom from Mrs. Mandel.
Terry Mandel: (to Howie) I’ll let you go back to talking about your abilities. Can you talk about Mobbed?
Mandel: Yes. Mobbed is a flash-mob television show.(to Chet) Do you know the phenomenon of flash mob?
Cooper: We just had one outside your house.
Mandel: If you’re alone, it’s just flashing. There’s got to be a bunch of you for it to be a mob.
Cooper: 4 folks, 2 squirrels and a dog.
Mandel: It’s become this viral phenomenon that I thought would be great to capture for television. In some sense, television has tried to do this before, but it has never really worked. There’s never been a hook, you know? A story to tell.
Cooper: Do tell.
Mandel: I thought, what if somebody has a message they want to relay to someone else? A very private, intimate message. Like, maybe they want to tell their boss to take this job and shove it, or they want to come out of the closet to their family, or they want to ask somebody to marry them.
Cooper: Through a flash mob?
Mandel: Right. What if we took the recipient of the message to a public area and had a thousand people relay this message in a giant musical?
Cooper: (laughs) I like it.
Mandel: So we’re doing it. The first show aired a couple of months back, right after American Idol, on Fox. We have a production company. We’re shooting a lot of stuff right now.
Cooper: Good luck with it.
Mandel: So now that I’ve told you my life story, can I still be in ABILITY?
Cooper: I’ll let you know.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is an anxiety disorder characterized by recurrent unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and/or repetitive behaviors (compulsions) such as hand-washing, counting, checking or cleaning. These so-called “rituals” are often performed with the hope of preventing obsessive thoughts or making them go away. Though rituals provide only temporary relief, not performing them markedly increases anxiety.
People with OCD may be plagued by persistent, unwelcome thoughts or images, or by an urgent need to engage in certain rituals. They may be obsessed with germs or dirt, and wash their hands over and over. They may be filled with doubt and feel the need to check things repeatedly. Effective treatments for obsessive-compulsive disorder are available. New, improved therapies can help most people with OCD and other anxiety disorders lead productive, fulfilling lives. For more information, locate mental health services in your area, affordable healthcare, NIMH clinical trials, and listings of professionals and organizations. National Institute of Mental Health
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