The Anxious Comedy of Howie Mandel – Rolling Stone
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The Anxious Comedy of Howie Mandel

On the eve of his first stand-up special in 20 years, the comedian and TV personality reflects on his lifelong battles with mental illness and trying to get laughs in the age of PC culture

Still from HOWIE MANDEL PRESENTS HOWIE MANDEL AT THE HOWIE MANDEL COMEDY CLUB. Photo: SHOWTIME

Howie Mandel performs at the Howie Mandel Comedy Club in Atlantic City.

Showtime

These days, Howie Mandel is hanging in there OK, all things considered. “In my humble opinion, I’m doing fine,” is what he says. On the plus side, he’s got his nine-seasons-and-no-stop-in-sight judging gig on America’s Got Talent; he’s presiding over a reboot of Deal or No Deal on CNBC, the game show that brought him, his whisk-broom soul patch and his shaven pate to super-duper-size national attention from 2005 to 2010; and he’s got his famous name working overtime on his new Showtime special, Howie Mandel Presents Howie Mandel at the Howie Mandel Comedy Club, which is his first solo stand-up special in 20 years (it premieres tonight). Plus, he continues to tour, playing as many dates as he can during any given year. All good stuff.

On the other hand, a long, long time ago, during a childhood vacation trip to Miami Beach, a sandfly landed on his leg, dove in with its mouthparts, deposited some eggs, the eggs turned into larvae, and the larvae began to squirm about under his skin. Pretty soon, he had 20 longish little bumps on both his legs, twisting and writhing, presumably working on an exit strategy. It was a grotesque spectacle. No wonder CBS News once called the sandfly one of “the 10 most terrifying parasites ever.” Back home in Toronto, doctors tried to destroy the blood-sucking dipterans with liquid nitrogen, but it was so painful for Mandel that his mom cut the exorcism short and spent the next few weeks laboring over her son’s legs, scouring them with a coarse washcloth until his skin split open and out oozed the creepy crawlers’ remains.

These things happen, of course, but in Mandel’s case, the repercussions and reverberations of that month-long horror story have remained unsettlingly steadfast right into his sixty-third year. He’s a germophobe like no other, a fact that he doesn’t hide and has put to good use in his comedy. “I don’t like touching hand to hand and I don’t like touching anything that anybody else has touched with their hand,” he says. “It makes no sense intellectually. But I just can’t wash my hands enough. I mean, I’ll miss important things because I’m [busy] scalding the skin off my hands.”

Today, in the waning light of another pleasant Los Angeles day, he’s on Santa Monica Boulevard, behind the wheel of his Tesla, driving home from a business meeting, dressed in a black Nike sweatsuit. He’s a friendly guy, affable and forthcoming. On his feet are a pair of sneakers, very loosely laced, with the heel smooshed down, turning them into slides. There’s no need for him to ever touch the laces — which, in fact, is the point. It’s the germ thing again.

“Yeah, I don’t touch shoelaces,” he says, almost bristling with disgust. “I just won’t.” Then he brightens and says, “I’m not as bad as I was [with these things]. I have OCD, I have ADHD, I have anxiety, I have depression, I go see somebody, I’m heavily medicated, and I’m constantly in fear and constantly uncomfortable and constantly fighting. But it’s gotten to where I’m really comfortable with discomfort. I’ve learned that’s who I am, and that’s what makes me feel alive.” So, he’s adapted to his circumstances. But circumstances change, and you never know what’s going to happen next.

Actually, Mandel isn’t driving his Tesla. It’s mainly driving itself, on autopilot mode, with him basically just along for the ride, as he talks nearly nonstop. “My mind is a mess,” he’s saying. “It’s just the noisiest place. As soon as I open my eyes in the morning, it’s just noise, a cacophony of thoughts and noises and fear and anxiety. A constant bombardment of fear and thoughts that include fear.”

Outside, there are tons of germs lurking, but in his car, Mandel is OK. A longtime, outspoken critic of P.C. culture and social media, he’s talking about how the world of stand-up comedy has changed since he started 40 years past, when he could go to L.A.’s Comedy Store night after night and watch Richard Pryor hone his act, taking cues from the audience and not once having to worry about some guy with a cell phone filming him, looking to document even the smallest misstep to stir up a career-devastating shitstorm with just a few tweets or Facebook posts. “It’s really scary out there,” he says. “In school, it used to be if you said something wrong, you could go, ‘Hey, hey, just joking!’ But now you can’t. That ain’t going to work.” Or, as he jokes in his Showtime special, “I’m at a point now, as a white heterosexual male comedian, at this point, with political correctness, if I see an African American man on the beach that I don’t know, as a white male heterosexual comedian, I’m not allowed to tickle his tummy with my lips.”

As it happens, though, Mandel’s stand-up act isn’t exactly edgy or filthy-language filled. It’s not as family-friendly as Deal or No Deal, and he didn’t let his kids see his stuff until they were 18. But it doesn’t court controversy. Mostly he hews toward genial observations about his marriage and life as a germophobe, with a lot of easygoing audience interaction that he often uses as a springboard to talk about his fairly vanilla-sounding sex life and to offer guffaw-getting warnings such as “never put a parrot in your vagina.”

About the only time he’s really stepped in it was in 2015 on America’s Got Talent, when he said to a contestant who called himself a professional regurgitator, “This is probably going to come out wrong, but you, sir, make bulimia entertaining.” Pretty funny and pretty inoffensive but lots of folks on social media didn’t think so, forcing Mandel to speak up with bunch of mea-culpa apologies and George Carlin to wretch in his grave while recalling what went over so well in 1992, when he joked, “Speaking of places to eat and what they’re called, or named, Beverly Hills has a brand new restaurant specifically for bulimia victims. It’s called the Scarf ‘n Barf… How do we come up with this shit in this country?” But that was then and now no longer.

Still making his way home in his Tesla, Mandel is suddenly growing a little uneasy. A certain amount of fear has crept into his voice. The discussion has turned to Norm Macdonald, one of the greatest comics of all time, and what happened to Macdonald last December, when he started making the rounds to promote his new Netflix talk show. First, in one interview, he seemingly slighted the #MeToo movement while coming to the defense of disgraced fellow comics Louis C.K. and Roseanne Barr. Pandemonium ensued, leading to an appearance on Howard Stern, where he was supposed to beg for forgiveness but instead only made matters infinitely worse by saying, “You’d have to have Down Syndrome to not feel sorry for” victims of harassment. Since then, it’s become anyone’s guess if his Netflix show will be renewed. He got pilloried.

Mandel says he was listening to Stern that day and has a theory about what happened. “Being from his generation, he probably without any thought would have used the R word.” R for retard. “But he knew that was wrong, so he was trying to find a different word for the R word and he chose the wrong word once again. And listen, I get that people with Down Syndrome and people who —.”

And here he stops talking, making a small fluttering noise with his lips. Seems that the catastrophizing part of his brain has all at once jumped to life. Wherever he was going with that thought, he’s not going there any longer.

After a moment, he says, “Now you’ve got me stuttering.” He goes on, “I feel like I’m wading into waters that could be troublesome. I mean, even if what I’ve said is exactly what’s written, I promise you, certain people would take that as a total defense of everything Norm said and did and, to take it one step further, they might even perceive it as condoning what he said, which it isn’t.

“You don’t know about this snowball,” he continues, sounding gloomier and gloomier. “It’s not about you. It’s about how somebody perceives what they’re reading and then what they do with that perception. I didn’t live during the McCarthy era but for whatever reason, people who speak and who are entertaining are just being shut down. And I’m scared. I’ve never been scared of doing an interview. I was never scared of being on stage. But I’m scared now.”

He sighs. He’s got a wife, Terry, of 39 years, and three kids, daughters Jackie, 34, and Riley, 26, and a son, Alex, 29. He’s got a widely-reported net worth of some $40 million, reportedly owns a couple of mansions in L.A. and a few condos in Santa Monica. He’s an empire unto himself. And all of it, given the current state of affairs on the comedy scene, seems to be at some kind of risk — or at least it does inside the feverish Mandel mind.

OCD and germophobia. Here’s how that goes with Mandel. He won’t shake hands with anyone, preferring to fist bump instead, as seen all the time on Deal or No Deal. At certain hotels, he has the staff remove their comforters with tongs, preparatory to him spreading out his own comforter. He orders two dozen towels to be in his room on entry, so he can make paths with them and avoid stepping on the carpet. Public bathrooms freak him out entirely, obviously, but he can often be found in them washing his hands again and again. And then doing it again. His money has to be washed before he touches it. He shaves his head bald because he likes how “streamlined and so clean” it feels. Handrails are anathema. It once took him 32 checks of the lock at his house to convince himself that it was, in fact, locked. If someone in his family gets sick, on go the surgical gloves and a surgical mask. Or he repairs to the small outbuilding on his property built especially for times like those.

In 2007, on some NFL Network show, cohost and former NFL running back Marshall Faulk refused to fist bump him and instead grabbed at his hand. Mandel bellowed as if gored and fled the stage, apparently spending the next 20 minutes scrubbing clean the offended appendage, then calling his shrink. Later, Faulk and his asshat TV-show buddies had a good laugh about the whole thing.

And so that’s what he’s dealing with, day after day. And now this new thing, folks in the audience with cell phones. “I’m thinking of what they’re going to do. I’m thinking they could take many things I say out of context or even in context. Comedy has always been my kind of safe place. But no longer is that the reality. Comedy as an art form that symbolizes freedom of speech has been totally destroyed.”

A few cars are honking at him. He and his Tesla seem to be driving a little erratically. He’s thinking of pulling over. There’s an ally up ahead. It looks like an OK place to stop for a while, let the fires in his head simmer down.

As a kid, Mandel was an almost freakishly weird outcast. His only safe place then was at home, where he spent much of his time chuckling and chortling while watching TV shows like Candid Camera with his younger brother Steve and his parents, Al, who worked in the lighting business (and once invented a clothesline that didn’t need clothespins), and Evy, a homemaker. “I had the best upbringing anybody could possible ever have,” he says. “I’m not the usual comic who has all these sob stories. My house was continually filled with laughter.” Elsewhere, however, Mandel was always the odd kid. “A pariah,” he has often called himself. “I didn’t have a friend. I wasn’t invited anywhere. And everyone knew I had behavioral problems.” How could they not? He was continually acting out, blurting whatever was on his mind, mostly jokes of one sort or another that nobody got, and coming up with pranks (like getting a construction company to visit his school to take measurements for a new library wing) that nobody thought were funny and only got him expelled, from three high schools in all. And then there was his attempt to get girls. He saw the jocks getting them. So what did he do? “I got on the wrestling team. And I was 4-foot-10 and weighed 88 pounds. Tiny and waiflike. They gave me a singlet to wear, which is like a one-piece woman’s bathing suit, and I’m a germophobe rolling around with other tiny guys who are sweating all over me.” Pauses. “No plan I’ve ever had has worked in my favor.”

Eventually, he dropped out of school and became a carpet salesman, rising up to own two of his own carpet stores. “I’m color-blind and knew nothing about carpets, but I was a really, really good carpet salesman,” he says, still sounding pretty darn pleased about it. “I’d put on an outrageous show for the customers, measure the house, take my shirt off, draw the outline of the floor plan on my chest, say, ‘The green shag goes here’ and, well, I was really good at selling.”

One evening, though, he wound up at a Toronto comedy club called Yuk-Yuks on amateur night and took on a dare to go on stage. Just like that, he found himself “accepted for the first time in my life.” It was 1978, and he was 23. He was soon being billed as “a wild and crazy borderline psychotic” and became known for inflating a latex glove with his nose, until the fingers stood up straight like a rooster’s coxcomb and the thing blasted off into the air. Next stop: Los Angeles, where an appearance at the Comedy Club led to a gig on the TV-game show Make Me Laugh and, in 1982, a six-season co-staring role on the television series St. Elsewhere. In 1984, he gave squeaky voice to Gismo in the flick Gremlins, went on to create the hit children’s cartoon series Bobby’s World, did hidden-camera segments for the Tonight Show With Jay Leno, showed up in movies that mostly went nowhere but still, he was working and working constantly. In 2005, he turned down an offer to host a show called Deal or No Deal, figuring the move would kill his stand-up career. His wife begged to differ and from there, one thing has led to another, right up to present moment, Mandel in his car, turning off of Santa Monica and coming to a halt.

A bum is digging through a Dumpster at the far end of the ally. “He’s shopping, looking for treasures,” Mandel says, somewhat humorously. The Tesla is silent. It’s not dark outside yet, but it’s coming soon, and the street lights are on. Mandel is peering though his windows. “I know they call this the magic hour,” he says, “but I don’t think any magic is happening in this ally. It’s kinda creepy.” He continues scanning. He frowns. “I don’t know, I might not even be in a good part of town.” This idea stops him short, but then, him being him, the terrors start to get a grip and he says the only the thing he can say, which is the first thing that pops into his mind.

“This might be the end of the line for me,” he says. His impending demise hangs in the air. And then he says, “And then it won’t matter what I said.”

At first, it’s hard to tell exactly what he means by this, but it soon becomes clear. In his mind, he’s going back over a few things from earlier. Norm Macdonald and the R word and his wading into waters that could prove treacherous and not only spell the end to his career but also take away the one place in the world where he feels most safe. “The stage has always been my security blanket,” he says. “The only place where I’m legitimately comfortable is when I’m swathed in strangers laughing at me.”

With the light fading, more fears descend. “I mean, I’ve never been open to using words that are controversial, beyond literally just swearing and using the F word and the shit word, but even that could be a big deal now.” Dark times. Dark enough for him to think there could possibly be a bright side to his passing. Not really, of course. But there’s a little nugget of truth there (and no, not a germ), peace at last, no more terrors.

Anyway, he gets the Tesla rolling again, headed toward home. “In my humble opinion, I’m doing fine,” he’d said earlier. And indeed he is this evening. As well as he can.

Howie Mandel Presents Howie Mandel at the Howie Mandel Comedy Club airs Friday, January 18, at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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