Amidst the quarantine of pandemic, artists have been forced to pivot.
For stand-up comedian, actor and host Howie Mandel, 2020 marked his first extended break from the stage in about 45 years, as live performance venues became some of the first COVID closures early in 2020.
Driven by fear and curiosity, Mandel has, alongside his children, embraced platforms like Twitch and TikTok, launching the new podcast Howie Mandel Does Stuff, with new episodes set to drop each Tuesday following today’s initial release.
Driven by the uncertainty brought upon by pandemic, like so many, Mandel craved some sort of human connection. Now available online via streaming platforms like Apple Podcasts, Spotify and more, Howie Mandel Does Stuff features the comic, alongside his daughter Jackelyn Shultz, in conversation with family, fellow comedians, influencers and more, breaking down the minutiae of everyday life via compelling conversation and the hilarity of his trademark prank calls.
I spoke with Mandel about today’s launch of the new podcast, the career changing course set forth by hosting the NBC game show Deal or No Deal, the potential impact of pandemic upon comedy and his role as the longest tenured judge on America’s Got Talent (season 16 premieres June 1, 2021 on NBC). A transcript of our phone conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows below.
What’s it like working on the new podcast with your daughter?
HOWIE MANDEL: The truth of the matter is, the reason it happened was because, during COVID, my daughter and I were on the phone for hours many times a day. She’s as neurotic as I am, if not more. I’ve been very open about our mental health issues. So the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
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But we would be locked down in quarantine in our respective homes. She’s married with children. I’m married and she’s my child. But we would spend hours on the phone just trying to distract ourselves from the hell that we have to deal with each and every day. We’d be making prank calls and we’d go on Instagram Live. And then we would loop in another friend or somebody we knew. Or we would argue about something and then try to prove it, Google together. We just spent all of this time doing stuff.
We’d be laughing and screaming and my wife would always come in and go, “What are you guys doing?” And we would say, “Nothing. Just doing stuff. We’re hanging out and doing stuff.” And she said, “But there’s no audience. And this sounds like it’s kind of good. Just record it.” So we said, “OK. We’ll do a podcast.” And it is just Howie Mandel Does Stuff.
Ultimately, this is our therapy. And hopefully it’s an escape for the odd person out there who wants to hear it and needs some escape time too. Because that’s what we were using it for – not doing it for – but we were using it for our escape from our own minds, you know?
The podcast sounds like it’s a very interactive thing. How important is that element?
HM: Well, I’m a reactor – and not an actor. I was an actor. But I’m saying I need – and I think both of us need – that outside stimulation, to bounce off of and go down a tangent, whether it’s somebody who’s performing live at the moment on Instagram or they’re in Clubhouse or they can talk and add to the conversation.
I have three kids. We’ve been doing this for years. My kids – and me – try to get people to do inappropriate things in public places. We talked about this on the [podcast] already. We’ll call mom in the middle of it or call another comedian or an influencer – it’s just kind of this free flowing stuff that I get to share with my family and friends. So it’s been a lot of fun. I’d do it anyhow even if it wasn’t going to be broadcast. I was doing it anyhow. And now they’ve just recorded it.
I’ve said this my whole life. In interviews, I’ve said, “Everything I was ever punished for, expelled for or gotten in trouble for, is what I seem to get paid for as an adult.”
You’re podcasting. You’re on Twitch and TikTok. How important is it to you to embrace all of these new platforms and technology?
HM: For me, my two fuels throughout life have been fear and curiosity.
Fear fuels my energy. I don’t act on fear, I just am fueled by it when I’m on stage. Curiosity… there’s something new! There’s something out there! And if I find out the name of it – and then I see that somebody garnered like 50 million clicks on this – it especially draws me in if I don’t understand it. “How did that get 50 million people? What is the magnetism in this thing?” Learning new rhythms, new ways of doing things.
It’s interesting to trace your career progression. Because you’ve taken on so many different roles now in the entertainment industry, whether it’s podcasting or hosting or acting or anything else. How did stand-up comedy kind of prepare you for all of the other roles that were to follow?
HM: I don’t know if it’s stand-up comedy as much as it’s just who I am.
It did because of the way that I navigate through stand-up comedy. Somebody dared me to get on stage. I was an audience member at a comedy club. And it could be considered a disability but I don’t think of ramifications. I don’t think. I just say yes. I live by Nike’s rule: Just do it. So when somebody said, “Get on stage…” I went, “OK!” And thought, “Maybe that’s the joke…” I don’t think I thought even that far. And I wasn’t even a comedian, you know? I just kind of let things unfold in the moment. And then I was standing there and realized, “Oh my gosh. All of these strangers are waiting for me to say something…”
If you watch my first Young Comedians special – it’s me and Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Lewis, Harry Anderson – these were guys who had been working on material. I had nothing. I had no material. But I was authentic. I told [the audience] when I was terrified. I told them when I was going blank. I told them I don’t know what to say now. I’ll try this…
I had OCD. My hands were in my pockets and I grabbed one of my rubber gloves – which were there because I don’t want to touch things because I’m a germophobe. Out of having nothing to do, I pulled it over my head and started breathing. The fingers went up and then they went down. The audience started roaring – I inflated it with my nose, it popped off of my head and they roared. I said instinctually, this must be a closing… “Good night!”
When I walked off stage, Mark Breslin, who owned Yuk Yuk’s, said, “You’ve got to come back tomorrow.” And I said, “For what?” He goes, “Do that again!” I said, “I don’t know what this is… But I will.” It was kind of fun.
It’s just been about being authentic. But being authentic and engaging all of the time. In stand-up, obviously, after 45 years, I have a plethora of material. But I look to be taken off of that path, you know? I’m prepared, without any preparation, just to kind of jump into anything. And I always say yes. Even when I don’t want to, I say yes. And however it turns out, it turns out.
I didn’t set out to be a comedian. From a comedian, the natural progression probably would’ve been a sitcom. It wasn’t to be on something like St. Elsewhere. I never thought of doing anything in Saturday mornings – then I ended up getting [the cartoon] Bobby’s World. Or voiceovers like Gremlins.
I didn’t want to be a game show host. That was a joke to be a game show host when your currency is irony. At that time – if you think about 2005 when I did Deal or No Deal – my career was almost over as far as stand-up and that. I wasn’t selling a lot of tickets. I wasn’t really filling houses. I hadn’t been on TV for a long time. I was auditioning for little, small parts as a guest star someplace. I’d be sitting on folding chairs in casting offices.
Then I got the call – which I thought was a joke – and my wife talked me into doing it. And that became the biggest success of my career – as a game show host. So much so that they thought that they should hire comedians. The next comedian they hired was Jeff Foxworthy to do Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? They started hiring comedians to do Family Feud – Steve Harvey has a bunch. Yes, there was Groucho Marx who did You Bet Your Life – but that was in the 50s and 60s. Comedians weren’t hosting game shows in 2005. There was a leap.
So I just said yes. And I’m prepared to be unprepared. In the same way as I talked about with this podcast. We were just doing stuff. I was on the phone with my daughter. I’m OK with awkward discomfort.
I think one of the reasons that people so took to you, in a way they don’t with the average game show host, is because they could tell you were very much in the moment. You were invested in the contestants trying to win potentially life changing money. Just as you’re invested in the people trying to make it on America’s Got Talent…
HM: That came by accident. I always say yes. And then I’m terrified. And I said yes to it thinking, “I just made the biggest mistake that anybody could possibly make. This is the nail in the coffin of my career.”
When I signed the contract to do Deal or No Deal, it scared the sh-t out of me because there was nothing. It would’ve been easier if I had trivia questions to read. If I had something. When you look at it, the only thing the host does is say, “Do you want this money? Are you gonna take it? Deal or no deal? Open the case. Pick a case.” I had three lines! For two hour programs that were going to be broadcast on network television five days a week. Which hadn’t been done before when they launched that.
So I said to them, “You know, I’ll do it… But can I hire my comedy friends and we can write something?” So, if nothing else, I’ll be on network TV at night and maybe I can be a little bit charming and really funny and it’s a showcase – and maybe this is even more eyes than an HBO [comedy] special was at the time.
So I hired and sat through the entire weekend and wrote and wrote and wrote. We had some funny lines that had to do with cases and deals and models. And then I showed up on Monday – and I’ve told this story before but it fascinates me more than anybody else. I was all prepared and they go, “Ladies and gentlemen, Howie Mandel…” I walk out on the stage and the lights go up and I go, “Welcome to Deal or No Deal!” And I have to introduce the first guest. Remember, I’ve done 500 episodes of this now – but I still remember this like it was yesterday. The first guest was Karen Vann. Karen Vann comes up and I’m standing like three feet from her. I’ve been on a set before with people who aren’t in show business. She’s now in Hollywood – she’s not from Hollywood. She has three kids, she’s a single mother, she’s never owned a home and doesn’t have health insurance. She explained all of this. She said, “I think today I could change my life.”
It started dawning on me that, unlike anything else I’ve done, where I’m given lines or I’m on stage interacting with the audience, this is a real person. She’s a single mother and her kids are there, their eyes are there. And she’s kind of not really focused – just in a glaze of being on a Hollywood set. And it’s the first time that I realized, “This is real life. This is her real life.”
And then it started bothering me. I did one little joke and I saw her laughing. She was giggling and thinking about the joke. I thought, “Listen, I’m trying to entertain the people at home but you – I need you to focus!” So I threw away the jokes. Because, first and foremost, I’m a human being. I’m a husband and I’m a father. And in that moment, I thought, “Here’s a girl who’s in a much tougher position than I’m in. All I want is you to leave in a better position than you came in. That’s all I want.” I remember that’s what was going through my mind. So I slowed down my cadence and threw away every joke, everything we had written that weekend. I just focused. And I just talked to her. They made fun of me on Saturday Night Live.
And what happened was, when I finished doing the show, taping the episodes, I got on a plane and I flew off to the Caribbean. I didn’t want to be any place where there was going to be a TV. I thought I was going to be publicly humiliated. Because it was the first time I was ever in a public forum – on a stage, on television, anywhere – where I wasn’t doing my comedy act. I wasn’t reciting lines like a script. I wasn’t doing funny voices – I was just being myself. And my only goal on that show was to, hopefully, be there and witness, and not get in the way of, somebody kind of bettering their life financially.
So it was really scary. I felt like I was on TV naked. I didn’t feel like I was witty or funny. I took away show business and was trying to explain the gravity of these decisions that you are making. Every decision. And that was my whole goal.
But when people liked it, and it exploded, I went, “Wow!”
I felt during the quarantine of early pandemic like I had lost my sense of humor. But I feel like it’s coming back. And I attribute that to vaccinations and a little bit of relief – to less concern over something as simple as going to the grocery store. What do you think pandemic will ultimately do for comedy once we’re through it?
HM: Well, there’s a yin and a yang to that. The yin is, yes, I think people are going to explode.
I for one, like you, believe that I lost my sense of humor. And I don’t know. I’ve been doing stand-up comedy for 45 years and, up until last year, the longest time that I had never been on a stage was two and a half weeks. Whether I’m getting paid to do a concert or what, I’ll have dinner and drop in at a comedy club. When I’m doing a concert out on the road, if I’m staying overnight, I’ll ask the driver, “Is there an open comedy club?” And I’ll show up at two in the morning when there’s three people left.
I just need that connection with humanity. And I kind of lost that. I’m trying to do it online – but it’s not the same as somebody sitting in the room and feeling the vibe and that heart rate and hearing that laughter. I need that. And I lost that. So I think that people are going to need it and explode more than ever.
That being said, the cancel culture and politically correct pendulum? That’s the yang. So the thing is, people want to hear it – people are going to want to laugh – but the judgement pendulum is crazy now.
America’s Got Talent is back in June, right? You guys persevered and figured out a way to film safely in 2020. Any idea yet how this new season will shape up in terms of navigating the pandemic?
HM: June 1 it premieres. I’m at a taping today. This time around, I think you’re going to love it.
I sense, to hearken back to the last question, when people are showing up on stage – we’re doing the auditions now – you can tell there was kind of an explosive talent bottled up. These are people who have just been juggling in their basement or doing magic or singing and people are more exuberant to just be out there on stage. Nobody’s had that.
So there’s more of an excitement and electricity this season than I’ve ever seen before.