Seven Questions With Howie Mandel

The comedian on the value of therapy, his 'Committed' documentary and how social media has changed stand-up 

howie_mandel_courtesy_WEBWhat can fans expect when you perform here?

I’m always up front facing the wrong way and I’ve never had a chance to see me, but I hear I am fantastic. A lot of what I do is off the cuff and in the moment, so anything could happen. It’s like a giant party, and I’m just trying to be the center of attention.

When it comes to obsessive-compulsive disorder and touring, how does your condition manifest itself when you’re on the road?

It’s no different than when I’m at home. I try to stay busy. I’m doing 200 live dates a year just so I don’t have to sit and focus on me. OCD is always there as I speak to you and as I’m onstage. I’m well medicated, and I go see a therapist often. So right now, I’m highly functioning and having a really good time. Distraction is the best medicine.

Besides reading your book, Here’s the Deal: Don’t Touch Me (Bantam, 2010), what’s your advice for others with the same condition?

Get help. I don’t think there’s anybody alive who doesn’t need help in coping skills in life, whether you have something that is diagnosable or has some consonants that are an acronym for whatever they have. Therapy should be part of our regular curriculum. We take care of our dental health; we don’t take care of our mental health.

There seems to [still] be a stigma attached to that. There’s more people who do talk about it, but in middle America, mental health is something that people shy away from and don’t take care of. You go get an X-ray for your teeth and say, ‘Hey, look, I have no cavities,” but nobody will just sit down with somebody when they’re feeling OK and just talk and check to make sure they’re mentally coping or as healthy and productive as they can possibly be.

You directed, produced and appear in Committed, a documentary
about writer-performer Vic Cohen over the course of a decade, which is set to be released September 6. What made you want to take it on?

I didn’t. I didn’t know I was taking anything on. I didn’t even know that it was a project I set out to do. I just did it. Like my whole career and like everything I’ve ever done, I just did it. When Vic was a writer on The Howie Mandel Show in 1998, I was uncomfortable in my office listening to his very personal stories and I just set up a camera. I did that for 12 years, eventually [put it] together and it became a documentary.

What do you expect audiences to take away from it?

Just commit to whatever you’re doing. Don’t overthink. Just do. Success is about finding something you want to commit yourself to. Success isn’t notoriety. Success is not fame. Success is just being excited about waking up in the morning and doing something that makes you happy.

How has social media changed the dynamic of stand-up and the way you improvise?

The way I create has changed. I used to have a blank slate to go as far as I wanted, with no rules or boundaries. Now with social media and people in the audience with cellphones and ways of recording or writing down and taking things out of context, you can get into a lot of trouble. It’s taken away a lot of the creativity.

One of my biggest influences was watching Richard Pryor every night at The Comedy Store, cobbling together what eventually became Live on the Sunset Strip. Sometimes he overstepped the line and based on the audience reaction, he would go, “OK, I won’t go there. I’ll go here. I’ll go there.” It’s like being a painter—you throw up paint on a canvas, but then you can blend something else, you could pull back or you could shade it. And that’s harder today because with social media, something could be taken out of context and you could be vilified for no reason at all.

How soon is too soon when you are considering a tragedy for comedy?

That’s a question for the audience, not the comedian. The truth is all comedy comes from tragedy, somebody else’s misfortune—whether it’s two guys walk into a bar, something unfortunate will happen to one, otherwise there’s no joke. Or a clown falls out of a car. Depending on how the audience takes it, among comedians, now is now. When can you perform it for the masses, and when will they take it and go, “Oh, ooh, that’s too …” The sooner it is, the edgier it is. What is the template for that edge? In broadcast television, you’ve got to wait a long time. At the deli with your friend, it can happen that afternoon. Too soon has to do with where you are, who is the audience—that’s the litmus test. …

I know my audience. I know what I do on America’s Got Talent is very different than what I’ll do at The Mirage on Sept. 2. AGT and Deal or No Deal are family shows. What I do onstage is a nightclub. It’s late night and it’s a casino and it’s for adults, so I can push that envelope a little further than I can push it on AGT.

On America’s Got Talent, is there any one particular performer who stands out and you’re curious what becomes of them?

Mat Franco is doing really well there. This year, my golden buzzer is going to be a star to be reckoned with in the future—[12-year-old singer/ukulele player] Grace VanderWaal, who [fellow judge] Simon [Cowell] said is going to be the next Taylor Swift. She’s an original, wonderful talent who seems to be beyond her years. You don’t know what it is and why. It’s that ‘It’ factor. Talent is subjective. Taste is subjective. When you see it and watch somebody do it, you just know a lot of people are going to like this.

What does St. Elsewhere and your character, Dr. Wayne Fiscus, mean to you 30 years later?

While it was happening, I didn’t realize what it was. But from the perspective of years past, you go, “Boy, that was a gem.” That was something that you’re lucky if it happens once in a lifetime where you’re given a script and you’re surrounded by people that talented. It’s still held in high esteem by those who are familiar with well-written television.

Looking back in your career as a comedian, TV actor, host, judge, voice-over artist, producer and author, what has given you the most satisfaction?

Stand-up.  And it always will. Regardless of everything I’ve done, stand-up comedy is my primal scream at the end of the day. There are no marks to hit, there are no lines to recite, no commercial to throw to, no editing to do. Just go out there and have fun.

Aces of Comedy Series

Howie Mandel, Sept. 2, 10 p.m., $40, The Mirage, 702-792-7777,