When you line them up, Howie Mandel’s list of accomplishments is as odd as it is eclectic. Blowing up a rubber glove on his head. Talking in a seizure-inducing high-pitched voice for children’s television. And now, that unavoidable, exaggerated phrase, “Deal … or no deal,” which has become as common as “Where’s the beef?” once was. For Mandel, the success of his NBC game show “Deal or No Deal” came as a shock, but given his career’s unusual route — from stand-up comic to “St. Elsewhere” star to kid’s show creator to talk show host to game show host — nothing should surprise.
Bankrate spoke to Mandel about the appeal of “Deal …” and what it’s meant for his career.
Bankrate: Why do you think that comics like yourself and Drew Carey have become the game show hosts of our era?
Howie Mandel: I think the creators realize that if you work in front of a live audience each and every day, ultimately you’re the master of ceremonies of that room. People who can be witty and quick, and who can host and bring people through an evening of comedy and storytelling, can certainly bring people through an evening of game playing.
Bankrate: How did you wind up doing this?
Howie Mandel: I got a call from my manger saying that NBC and Endemol were doing this big game, and I said “No, thank you,” because I’m a stand-up comic. I thought it would kill that end of my business. He called me back 10 minutes later and said, “Did they explain the game to you?” I said, “Does it really matter? It’s a game.” He called me back again and asked if someone could just sit down with me and show it to me.
So the guy came and we played the game, and it had looked like an 8-year-old had done this project. But they told me it was this huge international game in 65 countries, and NBC was gonna devote five hours of prime-time television in one week to it, which hadn’t really been done. And then he said, “You’re perfect for it.” I said, “As much as I’m flattered, what is it about me? I don’t know why you think I’m perfect to be a game show host.” I didn’t take that as a form of flattery. He said, “With this game, there are no stunts, there are no trivia questions, it’s very in the moment. We want someone who plays in front of a live audience and can improvise; who has the ability to act, so they can underline the drama in the moments where there is drama; and who can interview and talk to people.” So I was flattered by that.
Then there was the success of “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” with Regis Philbin. That was the first time I can remember where somebody from another realm, who wasn’t a game show host, did it, and it went through the roof. I didn’t think this would go through the roof, but I thought, at least I won’t be as embarrassed because I could say, “Well, Regis tried it.” So I taped the show and had a lot of fun doing it.
Bankrate: What’s the appeal of hosting this show for you?
Howie Mandel: I’ve never been in a forum before where I can just be me. If you see me in a comedy special — obviously that’s me, that sense of humor, that’s who I am on stage — but at a comedy concert, I have to constantly have something entertaining to say. Here, I don’t always have to be funny. There’s no pressure. People come up to me and say, “You felt bad last night,” and I really did. It’s so weird for me. That’s the hardest part, being almost naked and showing my true colors. That’s the biggest issue I have, and the toughest part of the game.
Bankrate: Why do you think it’s been such an incredible hit?
Howie Mandel: I think what works for it is the relatability. You probably relate to the contestants and what their hopes and dreams are, but even if you don’t, you relate to the amount of money and what you would do with it. Or, to how they’re playing the game versus how you would play it.
People tell me they were screaming at the television because they were so angry that a person turned down the money. It’s very interactive. Any other game that may have some trivia in it … for me personally, for example, I have no talent in geography. If someone gets a geography question in any other game, I’m out of it. Or if you have to eat five worms, I wouldn’t eat the worms. With this show, I’ll watch it when it airs and go, oh my god, why is he going one more time? That’s why I have people 4 years old and 84 years old coming up to me, because even kids get the odds and the numbers, and it’s fun to search for that one case — the treasure hunt for the million dollars.
Bankrate: What do you say to those contestants who bite off more than they can chew, and go home virtually empty-handed for it?
Howie Mandel: That I understand it. I wouldn’t do it, but I do understand it. People who go too far and go all the way, what they’ll think is, I got a 1-in-26 shot at hitting a million dollars. Even if you have three cases to open and someone’s offered you $100,000, the million dollars is still up there. So I understand why people go in. If it’s a million, 10 dollars, five dollars and one dollar — four cases left — and you have three cases to open and one of them has a million dollars, I would never go for it. I would take the money that was offered. Because if you don’t get the million, the most you can go home with is ten dollars. But from their point of view, you have a one-in-four chance of having a million dollars. And you know what? That “go for it” attitude is what made this country great. No pain, no gain. No risk, no reward.
Bankrate: Now that the show’s a hit, I’m guessing your fears about it hurting your stand-up comedy business were unfounded.
Howie Mandel: Yes. In fact, more people wanna come and pay money and see me do what I do.
Bankrate: Your stand-up material is actually pretty adult-oriented. Do you ever get complaining parents after a show?
Howie Mandel: No. There are usually signs posted, and if we see kids in the crowd we’ll send somebody out and say, “Listen, there’s language. I don’t think this is appropriate for children.” If they make the choice to stay, they’re not gonna complain, but it’s not comfortable for me if there’s young people in the audience.
Bankrate: Your career has taken some sharp twists and turns. To what extent were these planned?
Howie Mandel: I owned carpet stores in Toronto, and then I got into stand-up. If you had said, “Are you gonna be a dramatic actor?” I would have said no. That came by accident. I was pursuing a sitcom, because I thought that’s what you should do, and I got on “St. Elsewhere,” and I was happy to do that and stand-up.
Then people saw that I did voices, so I started doing voice-over. I was Gizmo in “Gremlins.” Then, when Fox was putting together a Saturday morning block, they approached me to do my “Bobby” character, and that show was on for nine years.
Then my friend Michael Gelman, who produces “Live with Regis and Kelly,” had me fill in a lot for Regis, which I still do, and then I got offered my own daytime talk show, which I wasn’t looking to do. And then, if you would have asked me two and a half years ago if I’d be a game show host … well, I was asked, and I said no.
So every day, my wife and I look at each other and go, this is 180 degrees from where I believed I would be. I never dreamed of being in show business, or of doing anything I’m doing, including stand-up.
Bankrate: Besides the show, what else do you have coming up?
Howie Mandel: I’m trying to relaunch “Bobby’s World,” so I’m in the midst of that, and I’ve got a production company at NBC/Uni (NBC Universal), so I’m looking to do more projects that I’m just going to produce, shows I’m not necessarily in but want to be part of, in genres from drama to reality. So I’m busy.
Bankrate: At this point, is there anything you’d still like to do in this business that you haven’t done yet?
Howie Mandel: No. People always say, “What do you want to do five years from now?” I hope I continue to be busy, and I hope that I have the foresight, or am around people who have the foresight, to allow me to take these dangerous steps into blind opportunities, careerwise.
Because my first instinct with this game show was to say no, and I don’t know what the next offer is gonna be. It’s scary to say yes, because in this business, if you succeed, it’s great, it’s like a big celebration. But if you fail, it’s incredibly public. And it’s scary to say yes to things because everything is a collaboration, and you don’t have control over anything, particularly how it’s perceived.
I think the show I’m on right now is one of the best-produced shows. If you really look at it, there’s a lot of work in picking the right contestants, and the look of the show. I feel like this is my lucky day. So I hope I keep taking all these opportunities and don’t get scared. And the more success you have, the scarier it is, because I’m gonna wanna match this kind of success with the next thing, and that’s gonna be hard to do. Nothing lasts forever.
Larry Getlen is a freelance writer in New York.