Howie Mandel: 'I censor myself more than I ever have'
Howie Mandel has got himself one heck of a deal. The hit gameshow he hosts, "Deal or No Deal," returned to a new network, CNBC, for a new season last week after a nearly 10-year hiatus. Next month, "America's Got Talent," for which he serves as a judge, returns to NBC with "The Champions," featuring the winners and near-winners of previous seasons battling it out in what Mandel calls an "Olympics of talent": only the best. Meanwhile. he's been honing his stand-up set on the road.
Ad Age caught up with Mandel, who has recently been outspoken about the havoc that political correctness has played on comedy. He shared his thoughts on hosting gameshows — which a generation ago he says would have been career suicide — and the perils of social media. This interview has been edited for brevity and flow.
I was a fan of yours as a kid growing up in the '80s. Do you ever go back and watch your stuff from then? You have a totally different on-stage persona now.
My persona has always been just me. Even in the '80s and '70s, that kind of nervous hyper energy was real. I didn't really put it on. I don't know that I'm different so much as I'm older. I still have that same nervous energy. I'm probably more able to physically contain it. I don't physically contort as much as I did, but I feel it on the inside. But my stand-up is loose and improvisational which is what it's always been.
You've been outspoken lately about stand-up and how it's not as fun as it used to be. You complain it's gotten too PC. I'm wondering if you'd elaborate on that.
I am a child of the '50s and '60s. As somebody who got in trouble a lot, everything I got punished for, expelled for, is what I seem to get paid for. The saying was "there's a time and a place for that." It wasn't the classroom; it wasn't my grandmothers house. In 1978 on a dare I found that time and a place. That time was right after someone said "Ladies and gentlemen, Howie Mandel." And the place was the stage.
It was that instantaneous?
Shortly after when I moved out to Los Angeles I watched Richard Pryor put together "Live on the Sunset Strip." Every night he came to the Comedy Store. It was like a workshop: He went through a litany of ideas and hunks of material which eventually got honed down to a masterpiece of standup comedy on film. Today you can't do that work in progress.
Well, you can …
At best in the '70s and '80s, you had a joke that went to far; you had a joke that crossed the line. You said something that maybe you shouldn't say and you learn that, "hey that doesn't work." But I was just joking; I'm a comedian. Now that doesn't exist any more. You can't do that. You don't know exactly where that line is and many of my friends are surprised where the line is. Comedy just by virtue of what it is comes out of dark places. And negative and taboo places. That's what it is.
And yet you still do it.
I'm just hopping on a flight now. I'm touring right now; going to do what I'm saying is hard right now.
Have you found yourself censoring yourself?
I censor myself more than I ever have. And I have a fear that I didn't have. With today's technology there isn't anybody sitting in the audience that doesn't have a recording device. They can record what I'm doing and play a piece of it out of context. And context is everything.
What extent of this is you being older and not being in that younger cultural context that has a natural sense of where those boundaries might lay?
Everyone is welcome to set their own boundaries. Look, the title is "social media." I'm talking to you and you are media. I remember when I went into this business, "media" was a writer for an acclaimed magazine or television station or radio. Now some guy sitting alone at home in his underpants on his bed has become media. Now what happens is they take a piece of something I said on stage. They say, "that's not right!" They take a piece of it and say, "I heard Howie Mandel was on stage last night and he said this." Somebody else picks it up and retweets it. It's just amazing to me and scary to me and a very different environment from where I come from. But at the same time I enjoy the challenge of working with the confines of something that's tough.
I would imagine network TV is the most constraint-filled environment to be working in.
I don't mind putting those constraints on. If you go to church on Sunday, you have constraints on how you act, how you dress, what you've got to do. Restraint is not the issue. There's a time and a place for it. It's when it's all the time and there is no place that you have to be concerned.
You're back on with "Deal or No Deal" after 10 years. What's changed?
I have been fighting and scraping and clawing to get "Deal or No Deal" back on the air since it went off. I love that show. There is nothing I have done in my carer that has changed my outlook on humanity or outlook on life more than "Deal or No Deal." It's just raw humanity. There's greed and investment and trust and playing the game — it sparks on so many chords. It's more than a game and I didn't know that [at the time]. Now it's newer and bigger than it was because of the advancement of technology. It's brighter. There's a female banker. We added a tweak where the contestant can have a little bit of control where they can negotiate once an episode. I don't know if it's the climate now but people seem more electrified than they ever were.
Why do you think that is?
"Deal or No Deal" or "America's Got Talent" are shows where real, relatable people's lives can change in a moment's notice. It's a respite from the drudgery that is everyday life.
Did you have a favorite game show as a kid?
No and I didn't even want to host a game show. Now the top priority of my life is "Deal or No Deal." I love it. I'm drained at the end of the day. It's the most exciting visceral thing that I do.
Why didn't you want to do it?
Because in 2005 when it was offered to me, being a gameshow host was a nail in the coffin of a career. As a comedian whose currency is irony, being a gameshow host is something of the punchline. When I did it — my wife made me do it — I was so embarrassed that I went to the Caribbean so I wouldn't be here when it aired and I wouldn't have to see the reviews. Nobody was more surprised than me that it became what it became.
What are your current obsessions on stage when you're doing stand-up?
The moment. I live in the now. After 40 years, I have a plethora of material. I show up, hope to be taken off the beaten path. I look at it like 90 minutes of escapism. I don't really talk about current events or news, just talk bout what's happening in that moment in that room. I look it at like a giant party and I'm just trying to be the center of attention.
is that by design because you don't want to potentially alienate half your audience?
No, no. It's because I've never been political. I've never been a news person. It's not what I am. It's not what interests me interns of entertainment.
You were talking about social media — do you have a favorite platform or app?
Myspace. [Laughs.] No I have it all. I'm on instagram, Facebook. I follow it. I'm just afraid of it. As much as I'm intrigued by it, I'm terrified by it.
That sounds healthy. You've also been pretty outspoken about your struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder and mental health in general. Was that difficult for you to come out and start talking about?
Absolutely. It was really difficult and it wasn't a choice. By accident I blurted it out on a Howard Stern broadcast. I didn't know it was still airing; I thought it was on a commercial break. I was devastated. But it was serendipitous that people were listening and approached me and I learned I wasn't alone — not just OCD but mental health. Just remove the stigma. There isn't anybody at some point in their life who doesn't need a coping skill.
You were expelled from high school on three occasions. Do you have a message for those principals?
Yeah — I don't know how to write this but nyah nyah nyah nyah.