Howie Mandel Discusses AGT and OCD During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Howie Mandel Discusses AGT and OCD During the COVID-19 Pandemic

He has only taken one shower today, if you must know. Which is important.

“Oh, one. One,” he says, answering the question, rubbing his head—his famous, bald, Howie Mandel head. He looks down, his voice softens. “One.”

He rubs his head some more.

“I used to take many, many showers. My medication and my therapist are doing wonders. I take one shower every day. That’s it.”

Now, to be clear, this was not intended to be yet another interview with the famous germaphobe—Mandel is famous and a germaphobe, though he was a germaphobe long before he was famous—about how he’s “holding up” during the coronavirus pandemic, with questions like how many times a day he showers.

No, what I wanted to know was how Howie Mandel endures.

A much bigger question.

Mandel was photographed for Esquire by his son, Alex.

Alex Mandel

Because he does. The version of Howie Mandel that first pops into your head depends perhaps on how old you are. They are all the same Howie Mandel, of course, and they are epic: the zany! stand-up comic who rose to fame shrieking “What? What? Why are you laughing?” and putting a rubber glove over his head; Dr. Wayne Fiscus on the groundbreaking 1980s hospital drama St. Elsewhere, in which he starred alongside Denzel Washington, Ed Begley, Jr., and Dustin Hoffman’s dad from The Graduate; the voice of Bobby on the semiautobiographical Bobby’s World, the number-one Saturday-morning cartoon, which Mandel created and which ran for eight years; the charming, sometimes dead-serious host of Deal or No Deal (“Open the case”), which had up to 16 million viewers per episode in its first season on NBC, ran until 2009, and was rebooted in 2018; the judge, for the last eleven years, most likely to be visibly blown away by contestants on America’s Got Talent; and the guy on TikTok lipsync-dancing in his foyer dressed as a boat captain for 7.2 million followers.

How does a career like that happen?

And yet, two and a half hours in, we’re talking about showers and therapy, because I’m starting to see that Mandel’s fear of dying from a germ is not only real—so real it haunts him, so real it has pushed him, at times, to the point of contemplating whether he belongs among the living—but also tightly linked to his endurance over four decades in Hollywood, to his becoming a rich and famous man with a wonderfully weird career.

But…the pandemic? How has 2020 been for the man who turns on faucets with his foot, who wore a mask in the house when his children were little, who even lived in a separate house from his wife and children sometimes because of the germs?

Not so different, as it turns out—aside from the obvious: confinement to home in Los Angeles, lack of personal contact, Zoom. “I have grandkids who I can’t go inside and hug, so I go over there and I climb a tree and I look in the window,” Mandel says. “It’s kind of this weird zoo, where they see their Poppy outside in a tree. I don’t know if I’m helping or harming.”

And just the one shower then?

“I’m not more triggered because of the pandemic. I’m equally triggered.”

“I’m not more triggered because of the pandemic. I’m equally triggered. It’s not like, ‘I told you I told you I told you this was gonna happen!’ I don’t feel vindicated. I didn’t say a pandemic was going to happen. My OCD I can explain really easy: It’s triggered by germs just on the hands. Me not shaking hands is just me avoiding a trigger that might get me into the loop—like a skipping record. And if the pandemic makes my handshake fear real, I’ll turn to something else. Here’s an example: You might have the thought that you didn’t lock your door. And you would get out of the car and you would shake the lock to make sure—oh, I locked it. I get back in the car and I go, Maybe I didn’t shake it enough. So I get back out, I do it again. And I get back in the car and I go, I don’t think I really pushed it hard. And I get back out and I do it again. And I’ve been locked in to that ritual of keep going back and check for over an hour, where my life stopped. I missed my meeting. So much so that I almost broke my knuckles because the thirtieth time I went back to my door I took my fist and I smashed it on the knob so that when I went back in the car I’d have so much pain in my knuckles that I’d go, Listen, Howie, this pain should be the message that you’ve already over-checked it. I have pain, but I go, Maybe I loosened it with the punch. And it gets exacerbated because intellectually I understand: I’m being ridiculous! And I can’t stop myself. And the fact that I can’t control my own mind is what bothers me.”

The fear in Mandel’s life is crushing, and it never ends. It makes him cry, it makes him wash his hands until they’re raw, it eats at his gut. As a young man, it drove him to carry latex gloves with him everywhere, to protect his hands from germs.

But he uses it.

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“I like fear. I’m a product of fear.”

Alex Mandel

“There is nothing I’m not afraid of. How I’m being perceived, how I look, what’s going to happen tomorrow, how yesterday went. Fear is my fuel, and also my poison,” he says.

“I like fear. I’m a product of fear.”

AMERICA’S GOT TALENT

There’s no reason it should happen on the set of America’s Got Talent. Right in the middle of the show.

That’s what so frustrating.

The set, you have to understand, is fantastic—to even call it a set is wrong, because that implies it’s not real. AGT is real. Contestants—people—sing a song or dance a dance or perform a trick they hope will impress the judges because then the person might go on to win, which means a ton of money and some fame and maybe their own show in Las Vegas, when that becomes a thing again. There are lights and cameras everywhere, and vast crews of people hustling in every corner, behind the scenes. There is an audience of three thousand people, many of whom have tried and tried to get a ticket, then finally got one, and saved up and flew to Los Angeles to attend what feels, when you’re sitting there, like the center of the entertainment universe.

And Mandel? He gets to see it all, up close.

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“I’m there,” he says. “I’m close enough to see—and it reminds me of myself. Somebody walks out from that wing, and I’m looking at their face and I see their eyes. Ninety-nine percent of them have never been on a stage of that size. I see them looking around in awe and taking it in, knowing that this moment will never be recreated. That first moment. And then we talk to them and we learn that they have hopes, and they have dreams, and this is something they’ve been wanting to do their whole life, and whatever hurtle they couldn’t get over—they didn’t have the opportunity to even be there before. And then when that moment hits, and whatever they’re doing clicks, when the audience gets to their feet and you can feel the room just erupt? It’s like magic.”

Simon Cowell, who created the show and is now one of its four judges, with Mandel, Heidi Klum, and Sofia Vergara, has become a close friend of Mandel’s. Cowell says he sees raw excitement on his friend’s face, perhaps more than on any other judge’s, every time a contestant walks out. “I watch his face when he watches the acts,” Cowell says. “He looks at life through a child’s eyes. He looks at everything in a very uncomplicated way, even though you could argue he’s quite a complicated person.”

And then, when the act is over?

“Cut!”

The crew in black t-shirts run around moving the set, the lights come up. The audience is murmuring. The next act is preparing. And Mandel? He is far away from this fantasy land that is very real. He is attacked, all of a sudden, by his own depression, an outgrowth of his fear.

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Mandel appears on Season 15 of America’s Got Talent.

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“It’s hard to even hold my head up,” he says. His eyes are wide, his eyebrows up as he says this, as if he can hardly believe it himself. “Physically. I do it. I can pretend in that moment. But the dichotomy between where I am, who I am, and what I’m doing versus how I feel makes no sense. I’m always searching for a way out or a way up. I can’t control when I’m overwhelmed. I go, ‘Look where I am! I’m in a fucking ray of sunshine! I’m here. There’s music and lights and people straightening my shirt!’”

He digs deep in his mind for some problem that might be causing the attack, because if there’s a problem, he could solve it, and then he won’t have to fight the crushing realization—for the millionth time—that he feels this way for no reason at all.

His hands are fisted as he tries to explain all of this. He keeps saying he knows it’s all pathetic. He pauses, then breaks it down, in a tone that shows his desperation to make you understand something that is impossible to understand unless you’re him, or someone like him: “If you love somebody and they leave you, you’re gonna be sad. If you have something that’s precious and you lose it, you’re gonna be sad. But if everything’s going your way, and there’s nothing wrong—but you’re sad? That’s almost harder. And that’s why it’s harder to talk about. Because I know that there’s people who are suffering, who have so much less than I have. And how do you outwardly say, ‘I’m having a hard time.’ ‘Oooo, you’re having a hard time? Look at what you have!’ You know? But honestly, I have a hard time. Nothing’s happening, and I’m going, Oh my god, I’m back here again. I’m back here again. How can I be back here again? I’m looking at Heidi Klum, she’s stunning, she’s sitting next to me, and all these people who are so excited to be here. And it really is an amazing, dreamlike environment on the set of AGT. And I’m going, What’s wrong with me? The fuck is wrong with me?”

He lifts his head up in those moments, and he sees Klum, and Cowell, and the three thousand people, and the stagehands and the dizzying lights. He sees everything but the thing this fantastical room does not have, which is an escape.

DEAL OR NO DEAL

“There’s ebbs and flows in everybody’s career, and mine had ebbed,” Mandel says. “Or flowed? What’s the lower one? I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m flowing or I’m ebbing, but anyway I wasn’t doing well.”

This was around 2004, 2005. He wasn’t selling many tickets to his stand-up shows. He wasn’t on television. He had been acting for years and selling out theaters, and suddenly he found himself sitting in a series of folding chairs in casting offices. Auditions! It was humiliating.

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Mandel was reluctant to take the Deal or No Deal job, but it ended up being a catapult in his career.

Alex Mandel

He had gotten into real estate. He could make a living. “I just felt beat-up,” he says. “I thought, I don’t need to be kicked in my emotional nuts each and every day. I’m not gonna do this.”

And then his manager, Michael Rotenberg, called with an opportunity: NBC wanted Mandel to host a game show.

He and Rotenberg had been best friends since they were 13. Mandel said into the phone five words: “Are you fucking kidding me?” And he hung up.

“I’m not knocking game shows, but when your currency is irony, the game show host was not the highest rung on the ladder,” Mandel says. “You don’t want to see yourself as giving up your whole career to hold a little card and read trivia questions. ‘Alright, this is Round Two!’”

He ended up doing Deal Or No Deal, of course—“I think my wife wanted me out of the house”—and it became the biggest thing he’s ever done. One of the most successful game shows of all time. A catapult.

But when he went to do it, he was resigned to the fact that it was going to be the biggest disaster of any comedian’s career in the history of comedians.

“Whew! I didn’t say anything to make them hate me!”

The plan was to launch the show with five consecutive prime-time nights. Mandel went to tape all the shows for the five nights. (For you over there, sir—the one who hasn’t seen the show: One contestant plays at a time. When the contestant steps to the stage, twenty-six female models appear, each holding a briefcase. In each case is dollar amount, ranging from one penny to $1 million. The contestant chooses a case, which she hopes contains the million bucks—that case stays shut. She proceeds to choose cases for the models to open, because to find out what’s in the case she chose, she has to open the others one at a time—hoping that none of the models has the million-dollar case. Along the way, as more cases get opened—eliminating some bigger amounts and some smaller amounts—and the odds on how much is in hers swing one way or the other, the show’s banker makes offers to buy her case. The contestant can take the banker’s offer and walk away, or turn it down—“No deal!”—and keep opening cases, until she either takes a deal or there are no more cases to open. Every time a new case is to be opened, Mandel, addressing each model by name, says, “Open the case.”)

Before the first filming, he’d prepared witty material for himself. He had hired a writer to write jokes. He had brought his Howie A-game.

Then the first contestant walked out onto the stage.

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Mandel was resigned to the fact that Deal was going to be the biggest disaster of any comedian’s career in the history of comedians.

Trae Patton/Nbc-Tv/Kobal/ShutterstockGetty Images

“I’ll never forget her name: Karen Vann,” Mandel says. She came running up to the stage, and they hugged. He said, “Tell me about yourself.” Vann told Mandel she was a part-time notary public. She told him she was a housewife. She told him she had been married for twenty-three years and had never owned a home, and with her winnings she hoped to be able to make a down payment.

He looked at her, just for a second—he comes from sales, he used to sell carpets, he knew how to read people—and in that moment he became concerned. Really concerned. Here was a person, a real person, who had never owned a home, who had kids, who had a grandchild, who worked part-time as a notary. Who wanted a home to call her own. But what happened to Karen Vann as she stood there, in Mandel’s salesman’s estimation, was that “a glaze came over her.” The audience, the cameras, the cocoon of a television game-show set.

Mandel wondered, in that moment, did she get what was going on here?

Mandel says of that first episode: “I started thinking, Oh, shit.”

After Vann successfully picked six low-value cases, the first offer came in from the banker, and Mandel relayed it to her, per the game’s protocol: $21,000. Right then, she could have walked away with $21,000 cash. “Guaranteed,” Mandel said. But there were still a lot of big amounts left in the briefcases. After just a few seconds, Vann said, “That’s a lot of money, but it’s not enough! No deal!” She waved her arms in a no-no motion, and giggled and hollered “No deal” as if she were buying a round of drinks for the audience.

Mandel says of the moment: “I started thinking, Oh, shit.”

He threw out all the witty material he had been working on. Karen Vann? She opened almost every case in pursuit of a million dollars and a new life and a house her grandchild could visit.

Along the way, the banker’s offers kept going up. Late in the first-ever game of Deal Or No Deal on American television, hosted by Howie Mandel—who was, in real time, starting to wonder whether this obviously smart woman, whether any contestant, could stay grounded in the real world or whether that glaze that came over her was a parallel game-show universe in which money was not money but an abstract idea—the banker offered Karen Vann $138,000.

And Karen Vann said no deal.

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As she opened more cases, the big dollar amounts started to disappear, and the banker’s offers started to go down.

She walked away with $25,000 that day. That’s still a lot of free money. But, holy…

All of this is relevant to Mandel because as the show went on, it went from being a stupid thing he did at the nadir of his career to being a way for him to help people. Maybe even to save them. Suddenly there were stakes. Mandel had been a short boy, a pale boy, a friendless boy. Adored by his family but ignored by other kids. And here was a mechanism by which strangers might clap for him for helping someone get a million dollars, and that felt good.

It was also terrifying.

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On hosting Deal, Mandel says “The only emotion I had was empathy: I just want you to do good.”

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“When I was cognizant of somebody making ridiculous choices, that was heartbreaking inside,” he says. “Did I give them this air that it’s a fantasyland? Was it because of me? It changed my cadence. I would say to people: ‘The banker is offering you [deep look]: Twenty. [pause] Thousand. [pause] Dollars.’ And I talked like that because I wanted them to hear it. ‘Before you make a decision, how long would it take you to accumulate $20,000?’ ‘Oh, I’ve never had $20,000.’ ‘At the last job you had, how long would it take—?’ ‘I’d have to work two years two get that.’ And then in the teleprompter they would say, ‘Stop prompting, let her make a decision.’ But my whole goal for everybody who came on—I threw all the comedy by the wayside. It was the first time I didn’t play Dr. Wayne Fiscus, I didn’t play the Howie Mandel comedian, I didn’t do the Bobby voice. The only emotion I had was empathy: I just want you to do good.”

If the person opened case after case and luck was going their way, and Mandel felt like he was helping them? Everyone clapped! But then when one of the models opened up a case with $500,000 or $750,000 in it, taking that amount off the table, and the audience went “Awwww,” Mandel felt it, physically, in his gut. He wanted people to clap again. So he’d say, “But! There’s still $300,000 out there!”

And people would clap again.

THE LIGHT

In every comedy club in every city Mandel has ever played, there’s a red light in the back of the room, visible from the stage. You tell the place ahead of time how long your set is—four minutes, nine minutes, whatever it is—and they turn on the light at the end of your nine minutes. You’re done.

Now, some comics are notorious for going over their time. After, they’ll say, “But I had the audience!” They’ll say, “I couldn’t stop!”

Not Howie Mandel. If he was doing a five-minute set, he gave you five minutes. Maybe four and a half. Because if you’ve still got them laughing at four and a half minutes?

Stop.

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Mandel in 1980.

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“The next line could lose them,” he says. “The next line could turn on me. So I’d give you four and a half, and then, Whew! They liked me! I didn’t say anything that made them hate me. So even if I’d be in the middle of the joke, if I’d get the laugh, I’d be comforted by that blanket of laughter. But if you pulled the blanket away? I’d need to get the blanket again. Give me the blanket again! Give me the blanket again! Give me the blanket again! Give me the blanket again! I’m always afraid that the next one won’t work.

“That’s that fear.”

Give me the blanket again.

ST. ELSEWHERE

In the 1970s and 80s, stand-up comics started getting sitcom deals. Robin Williams was doing Mork & Mindy. Billy Crystal had Soap. Freddie Prinze had done Chico and the Man. Newhart. A path was being beaten from L.A. comedy clubs like the Comedy Store and Catch a Rising Star to the television studios of Burbank.

So in 1982 when Mandel got a call about a TV audition at MTM, Mary Tyler Moore’s production company, which was producing Newhart and The Tony Randall Show, he figured: sitcom!

He did the audition. When he got home, his wife asked him how it went.

He told her: “They had me read for something. I went into a room with these producer guys, and halfway through they stopped me. So it was shit. It didn’t go well. But I’ll be honest with you: It’s not funny. Like, I had no context to what I was reading, and I don’t feel bad that I didn’t get this sitcom because it’s not funny. I was saying words I don’t even understand.”

He got the show, but it wasn’t a sitcom.

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Denzel Washington and Mandel in St. Elsewhere.

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It was a medical drama about young residents at a rundown hospital. He showed up on the set and met Ed Begley, Jr., who played Mindy’s brother on Robin’s show; Steven Furst, whom he knew as Kent “Flounder” Dorfman from Animal House; David Morse; and a guy named Denzel Washington, who he had vaguely heard of. He met Bill Daniels, from The Graduate. (“I just wanted to go up to him and say, ‘Plastics.’”) He met Norman Lloyd, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound.

Mandel was excited and a little freaked out. He went up to the producer, Bruce Paltrow, on the first day of filming, and said, “I gotta be honest: I’m not an actor. Can you recommend a school, or a class or something?”

“And Bruce goes, ‘Buddy, you’ve just been hired to be in the best class you could ever be in. Don’t take any lessons. Just listen.”

A TV drama was a world away from Mandel standing at a comedy club screeching “What? What?”

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Mandel used to carry rubber gloves to fight germs. Onstage, he found a different use for them.

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“He was like a fine musician who could play jazz and he could play classical,” says Begley. “He could do the jazz work of his wonderful standup, which he’d been doing long before St. Elsewhere, and he could do the classical work, if you will, of the show. He realized what was always going to grab the audience on stage was to involve them in some truth, so they play along with you whatever way you think you’re headed—but then you make that sharp right turn to a comedy moment. And he did the same thing on camera, where you have to really be invested to totally believe that you are that guy in the emergency room. He committed.”

Daniels, the veteran, now 90, says, “Howie could have gone on as a straight actor and had plenty of success, because he was very talented. He chose standup, which I imagine was more satisfying for him artistically, and he’s had great success at that. But I remember him as a very talented actor. And also as a really sweet, nice man.”

“I didn’t know for a long time that this was his first acting job. I had no idea.” —Bonnie Bartlett

“He fit in beautifully to the cast,” says Daniels’s wife, the actor Bonnie Bartlett, who was also on St. Elsewhere. “I didn’t know for a long time that this was his first acting job. I had no idea. Then I began to learn things about him, that he didn’t like to touch people, things like that. But basically he was always just such a sweet man. Very caring man.”

St. Elsewhere went on to win thirteen Emmy Awards in its six-year run and is considered to be one of the most influential shows of its era, a forefather to hits like ER and Grey’s Anatomy.

The youngest cast members saw the show change their careers, and their lives. After a couple of seasons, Mandel’s wife, Terry, and Washington’s wife, Pauletta, became pregnant around the same time, and Howie and Denzel became fathers around the same time.

“Us young guys hadn’t done a ton of stuff and hadn’t gotten a ton of exposure, so we were both gaining awareness in the public eye,” Mandel says. “We were both becoming parents. There was a lot of camaraderie. We evolved in this little nest of young people. We hatched as parents. We got a little more known. We hatched into the world a little more together. We were these little birds nesting, and we just flew. We left the nest,” Mandel says, pausing. “This is so beautiful, I’m tearing up.”

Another pause, and he smiles: “By the way, what’s Denzel doing now? Is he doing anything?”

YUK YUK’S

The first time he really felt the fear was at a place called Yuk Yuk’s.

It was a comedy club in Toronto, and Mandel was there with some friends one night in the spring of 1977. It was amateur night, and his friends urged him to go up and try it.

Mandel was a carpet salesman back then. No kind of performer. But he was their nutty friend. Outrageous. Funny. The kind of guy you shove up to the stage on amateur night at the comedy club.

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Mandel during his early stand-up days in 1978.

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Well, Howie just slid right into it. He didn’t think—he tries never to overthink anything. There he was, standing there, under his big hair, smiling into the lights. People started laughing. He kept smiling a big dumb grin and said, “What? What?” So loud. And people laughed more. He didn’t know what else to do. By the end of the few minutes he stood on the stage, he had yanked one of the latex gloves from his pocket—the ones he always carried, to keep the germs off his hands so he wouldn’t die—and pulled it down over his head, down over his eyes, over his nose, and breathed out through his nose so the glove blew up over his head like a balloon with fingers.

And the crowd went nuts, and it was like a blanket wrapping around him, because as a boy, Howie Mandel didn’t have a lot of friends. He hit puberty late, he had long hair, and he was…a little crazy, it seemed to the other kids. He had good parents, a good brother, a nice life at home. But you want to be loved by someone other than your mom and dad. And so when he stood up there causing strangers to laugh, he felt loved. It was a new feeling for him, and he never wanted to not feel that way again.

He was, in fact, afraid of never feeling that way again.

A while after the night at Yuk Yuk’s, he was on vacation in Los Angeles and went to the Comedy Store. It was amateur night. He got up. He got laughs.

And then he got phone calls. Merv Griffin’s people. Mike Douglas. They wanted him on television.

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Mandel said watching Richard Pryor helped him learn about “the process” of stand-up.

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Mandel was doing his thing. The “What? What?” The rubber glove. It was working, whatever it was.

He met Richard Pryor at the Comedy Store, on Sunset Boulevard. And you talk about fear.

“I knew people who did jokes, and I watched people on The Tonight Show,” Mandel says. “But I never really watched…the process? Pryor was working it out, and from a place of such honesty and hurt. Take all the funny voices away, and he’s talking about growing up in a brothel. He’s talking about addiction. He’s talking about failed relationships. He’s talking about everything from a dark place. And he’s making it incredibly relatable to a middle-class Jewish kid from Toronto. He’s making you laugh about it. And I would watch Richard Pryor maybe take it too far with his language, or talking about religion. But he used that room as a workshop to say, Okay, maybe that’s not gonna fly, and comes back the next night with just a little tweak, and maybe it’s better for the masses.”

“All comedy comes from darkness.”

Mandel watched Pryor’s wide eyes, watched his skinny frame lope back and forth across the stage, scaring the audience, scaring himself even. He saw the fear make Pryor better, and the better he got, the more fear he summoned.

Mandel became a student of his own act. He thought back to that night at Yuk Yuk’s. He thought about Richard Pryor. He thought about the red light.

And he thought about why people laugh. “All comedy comes from darkness,” he says. “If you’re laughing at a clown in the circus who falls down, you’re laughing at a stranger’s misfortune. Why are you laughing at somebody falling down? Or a pie in the face? Or if you’re telling a joke—two guys walk into a bar—you’re waiting in anticipation for something really uncomfortable to happen to one of them. Comedy is laughing at somebody else’s tragedy.”

There were so many comics coming up at the time, and HBO was getting into it, airing showcases and specials—Mandel’s HBO “Young Comedians” showcase in 1981 also included Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Lewis, and Harry Anderson. In 1986, he booked two shows at Radio City Music Hall in New York, and they both sold out in a matter of hours.

That’s around 12,000 tickets.

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Mandel performs at The Comedy Store in 2003. When there’s not a pandemic, he still does over 100 shows a year.

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And he and Terry were in his dressing room between the two shows, looking out onto 6thAvenue. The 6,000 from the first show were walking out of the theater, and the 6,000 people for the second show were lining up. A mass of people, there for him. Cops directing traffic. Stanchions corralling the crowds.

“All for you,” Terry said.

And what did Howie think? “In a city of 8 million people, 7,988,000 of them don’t give a shit about me being here tonight.”

Ha. A comedian talking. False modesty. But no, “I wasn’t trying to be funny,” he says. This is how Mandel thinks. This is how he works. He doesn’t quite understand it, but it’s gotten him to his sixty-sixth year, and he has 7.2 million followers on TikTok, so something is working.

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Mandel photographed promoting AGT’s 12th season in 2017.

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If he’s doing a show for a thousand people and 999 of them are laughing, he focuses on the one guy who isn’t. Just the thought of it.

Work harder. Do better. Make him laugh.

Before the medication, before the therapy, and even sometimes withthe medication and the therapy, his mind goes to that one germ on his hand that he can’t get off no matter how hard he scrubs and how hot the water, until he takes his fifth shower of the day and can finally, somehow, talk himself into stopping.

Is there a connection between the one germ and the one guy who’s not laughing?

“A germ could cause me a disease which could be fatal,” he says. “That makes sense. Probably not if somebody touches my hand and I wash my hand and I’m okay. But because it’s me, I gotta wash my hand again. Because it’s me, I gotta wash my hand again. Because it’s me, I gotta wash my hand again. By the same token, I want to go into a room of strangers and be accepted and applauded and enjoyed—and loved. If I went into a room that has 6,000 people that are applauding and loving, but one person who isn’t—like that one germ on my hand—why do I keep going back to that? Why do I keep going back to that? Why am I stopping my show to go to that? Why do I have to go to that? It’s the same thing.”

He stops talking, just for a few seconds.

“That’s the connection, you’re right.”

Before the pandemic, Mandel was still around 100 stand-up shows a year. He used to do 300. He loves it. He’ll do it again whenever the pandemic is over. But when he goes to do a show in Chicago or Dallas or Atlantic City or anywhere, the show itself is not enough.

“Why do I need to stand in front of strangers and try to tickle people who may not be ticklish? Why? I don’t know! It bothers me. I love it. I crave it. I need it. But it also bothers me. I’ll go fly to Cleveland and play a concert and then find out that at 2 o’clock in the morning that there’s another club open and there’s three people left, and I need get on that stage and try to entertain those strangers. Why? Just go home, Howie. But I need that. I need that.”

Howie Mandel is afraid of not being afraid anymore. Because if he is ever not afraid, he will stop moving, and if he stops moving, he’ll go to the dark places, the places where the audiences who love him on AGT, who love him on Deal Or No Deal, who love hearing him do Bobby’s squeaky voice, who crack up when he goes “What? What?” and who crack a smile when he makes a funny TikTok of himself during the pandemic eating a cookie and drinking milk through a surgical mask—the places where those people can’t imagine Howie going, because Howie is so happy and fun and Howie brings such humanity to everything he does.

“I need to feel a little piece of that tickle that I felt at Yuk Yuk’s on April 19, 1977.”

He says he doesn’t know why he goes to those clubs at 2 a.m., why he never says no to anything, why he’s still doing AGT and making TikToks with David Dobrik and doing a Twitch show with his son, Alex, and hustling all day long, even on the Zoom during quarantine, doing real estate deals and talking to Simon and searching for TV production deals from the time he gets up until he can’t keep his eyes open…

Why does he do it?

“I need to feel a little piece of that tickle that I felt at Yuk Yuk’s on April 19, 1977,” he says.

On that night, weird, crazy Howie Mandel put one foot in front of the other until he was standing on a stage in front of a couple hundred strangers, and what he did and what he said made them laugh. That made Howie feel so good, and to this day, in his sixty-sixth year, he is full of fear every day that he might never feel that good again.

Howie Mandel was photographed by his son, Alex Mandel. You can follow his YouTube vlog here, and find him on Instagram here.

Ryan D’Agostino is Editorial Director, Projects at Hearst, and previously served as Editor-in-Chief at Popular Mechanics and Esquire’s Articles Editor. 

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