BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — It’s not like he’s jobless, but for nine years Howie Mandel has been dying to return to his nail-biting game show, “Deal or No Deal.”
“I’ve been in this business for 40 years and I do every kind of performance, from live to animation to drama,” he says. “In 2005, when I got asked to do a game show, there was no comics hosting game shows. And I said no to it three times. My wife told me to take the deal, and I took the deal,” he smiles.
“There is no show I’ve ever been part of or no project I’ve ever been part of that has changed my life, that has changed my career, that is more exciting to be part of than ‘Deal or No Deal.’ And ... I’ve been trying to scratch and claw my way back onto this stage.”
Well, all that clawing and scratching worked because Mandel is back hosting “Deal or No Deal,” this time on CNBC.
While most people may know him from his antic judging duties on “America’s Got Talent,” the Canadian-born entertainer began as a stand-up. “I never thought I was funny,” says Mandel, who originally owned a carpet company in Toronto.
“I thought I could be funny to my friends, and I went on stage during amateur night at the Comedy Store while on vacation here.” He did it as a lark (like a lot of things that Mandel did). But a game show producer was in the audience who talked him into hosting a few segments of the series “Make Me Laugh.”
When the show aired a month later, Mandel had gone back to his carpet store and forgotten all about his 15 minutes of fame. He was astounded when the producers phoned and offered him a development deal. He sold his carpet company “to put a rubber glove on my head” (part of his comedy routine) and perfected his stand-up as the opening act for Diana Ross.
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“I got HBO specials, and I did really good as a comic,” he recalls. “And then as luck would have it, I wanted to do (television) because every comic can transition and get a sitcom. So I went to MGM — and for whatever reason — they thought I was right, and they put me on ‘St. Elsewhere.’”
“St. Elsewhere” was an exemplary medical drama that set the high watermark for ensemble medical shows that were to follow like “ER,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “New Amsterdam” and “Code Black.” Mandel, 62, never intended to be an actor either, but found himself spouting medical terminology for a coterie of NBC executives one day when he’d really come to try out for the sitcom.
“For six years, I spent time on probably one of the greatest dramatic series in anybody’s lifetime,” says Mandel.
“And at that time, before there was social media, I would get mail every week, saying, ‘I have a bet with my husband that Dr. Fiscus is not the same as that goofball (comic) that puts a rubber glove on his head.’ So those two audiences never melded ... Then I did Saturday morning cartoons, and I was ‘Bobby’s World.’ ... And then as a comic — which I continued to do throughout everything else I was doing — I got offered in 2005 a game show. And I don’t know if you remember, but before 2005, aside from maybe Regis Philbin, who is not really a stand-up comic, nobody was hosting game shows. So I said, ‘No.’ And they said, ‘This is the biggest game in the world.’ I thought these guys were punking me. They showed me it, and there was no game. I said, ‘How do I sustain this for an hour? How do I? I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to just read trivia questions.’ My wife said, ‘You’ll see. It’s good.’ And I listened to her.”
He’s glad he listened to his wife of 38 years but admits he was nervous. “I remember going on stage, and (the producers) allowed me to hire a comedy writer. I was watching tapes of Groucho Marx and Johnny Carson do their shows, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be (simple) if nothing else because all we’re doing is opening cases. This is going to be a great showcase for me.
“I told the people at CNBC this story. I walked out on stage the very first show, and I’ll never forget her. Her name is Karen Van. Karen Van is the very first contestant. She was this young lady. And I said, ‘Karen, tell me about yourself.’ She told me she’s a single mother with three children who has never owned a home. She rents. She has no health insurance. The three boys are sitting in the audience. And that’s when I first realized that this is real. I got so afraid to kind of do comedy and distract her because, when you watch a person who has never been on a stage, she glazed over and it changed even my cadence. My whole force became about making sure that, ‘You, Karen, make the right decision.’
“The first thing that came out is my empathy as a human being, as a father, as a husband. And I just wanted her to just listen to me and make the right decision. I went and taped six shows, and I’ve never been more embarrassed in my life, because it was the first time I didn’t show up with an act. I didn’t show up with lines to recite. I didn’t show up with anything prepared. I just thought, ‘You know, I’m just Howie.’ And some people won money, and some lives were changed.”