By Bill Brioux
Howie Mandel knew exactly where I was going with the question.
“Did you ever imagine,” I began, “that a briefcase holder on one of your shows…”
“…would become a duchess?” he said.
We were referring, of course, to Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, who, before marrying a fellow named Prince Harry worked as one of 26 briefcase-clutching models on the Mandel-hosted game Deal or No Deal.
“To be totally honest with you, I don’t remember her at all,” confessed the comedian, in Toronto last June to help promote Citytv’s No. 1 series and, once again, the hit of the summer, America’s Got Talent.
There was no invitation to the wedding, added Mandel, although he says he hasn’t gone through all his emails. “I didn’t even know where they were registered.”
It’s not surprising that something as newsy as a Royal Wedding escaped Mandel’s radar. The 62-year-old funnyman has a schedule that would confound the Queen.
First there is America’s Got Talent. It’s his ninth season on the series, a longer run than any of his previous TV gigs, including his Fox network children’s show Bobby’s World (eight seasons) or his time hosting Deal or No Deal (five seasons).
In between were HBO specials, a CBC series and, briefly on Global, a Canadian version of Deal. Then all the new projects he’s got on the go, plus his usual 200 live show dates a year.
Not bad for a guy from Willowdale whose entry into showbiz was getting on stage at Yuk Yuk’s on a dare.
“That dare turned into a career,” says Mandel, who repeats what is basically a mantra for him by now:
“Anything I’ve ever been expelled for or hit for or punished for is what I get paid for.”
He started pulling pranks as a student at Northview Heights Secondary School, where he once commissioned a construction crew to build an addition on the library. This was news to the not-so-amused principal.
At Yuk Yuk’s Mandel once talked his audience into following him across the street into a restaurant, where he kept right on performing. In 1979, he headed to Hollywood, took another dare and did his shtick at The Comedy Store. A producer in the crowd hired him to appear on the game show Make Me Laugh; soon he was opening for the likes of Diana Ross and sharing club stages with the likes of Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy.
By 26, he found himself co-starring on an American network series. “Can you act?” he was asked at the audition. “I don’t know,” was his honest reply. Mandel was tested and after a day of production was thinking, “This sitcom is so not funny.” The show was St. Elsewhere, an Emmy Award-winning drama which made stars of Denzel Washington and Mark Harmon.
“I could never dream that, well into my 60s now, that I’d still be working and doing it and busy,” says Mandel. His dream was to get the wink and nod of approval by the man who could make or break a career faster than a win on America’s Got Talent: Johnny Carson.
For years, the comedian was told his style just didn’t suit Carson’s late night place to be, NBC’s Tonight Show. When Mandel heard, however, that Carson’s frequent guest host, Joan Rivers, was playing The Comedy Store, he dragged himself out of a sick bed and sweated through his best stuff. Rivers was so impressed she offered him a spot within days on Tonight as her guest. Carson saw the appearance, loved it, and booked Mandel two weeks later.
The Canadian comedian took one of those risks that could have backfired big time. Sitting next to Carson, he asked the host to put on a pair of 3-D glasses.
“Just as an experiment, tell me if this works,” he said. Then he threw a stuffed animal into the King of Late Night’s face.
Carson cracked up, and Mandel had a career.
“I did 22 of those,” recalls Mandel of his US late night talk show appearances. “With Johnny and Merv [Griffin] and Mike [Douglas] and all those shows I grew up watching.”
These days, he says, “I’m getting a chance to do all those things I never dreamed I’d get a chance to do, with people I never dreamed I’d meet.”
That includes his fellow AGT judges Simon Cowell, Mel B and Heidi Klum; Tyra Banks is host.
“This season we have so many Canadians,” says Mandel, now the longest-serving AGT judge. “This wasn’t even a job when I was younger,” he points out. “There was The Gong Show, but that wasn’t a legitimate star maker.”
For three decades plus, that has been Montreal’s Just for Laughs comedy festival. Mandel is very excited to be part of a consortium to have taken control of the annual fest. He was a headliner there in July.
“I’ve always been cognizant of the fact that Canada doesn’t get its fair due,” he says. “I want to put it on the map for the world to know that the mecca of comedy is right here in Canada.”
After a lengthy hiatus, Deal or No Deal is also back before the cameras with Mandel as host. Thirty new episodes of the game show revival were shot last month for CNBC in Orlando, Fla.
If that doesn’t leave him dog tired, Mandel has another deal hosting and producing a series for cable network Nat Geo called Animals Doing Things.
The series was inspired by an Instagram site where people sent in bizarre videos of their domestic pets. “I thought it was funny and said this should be a show,” says Mandel, who began curating some of the weirder pet performances. “It’s actually become a problem and somewhat addictive for me.”
On top of everything else, Mandel still books 200 stand-up performances a year at venues across Canada and the United States.
“Stand-up is the be all and end all that informs everything I do,” says Mandel. “That’s the primal scream at the end of the day; that’s the place where I’m right there in front of real people. It’s electric; it’s immediate.”
Just don’t expect any Trump or Trudeau jokes.
“If you want to escape the news and you just want to have a fun time for a night come see me. No politics.”