Howie Mandel's shtick is largely improvisation and wild sight gags


July 28, 1991|By Mary Corey

Peter Pan has nothing on Howie Mandel.

so maybe the fictional hero can fly and vow never to grow up, but can he put a surgical glove over his head and inflate it with his nose? Or slip a fire extinguisher under a woman's dress at a Howard Johnson's?

Keep the one-way ticket to Never Never Land, Peter. Howie's staying put in Hollywood, where acting like an eighth grader can bring big bucks.

Just don't ask him to explain how or why.

"I do things because I think they're funny," the comedian said simply during a recent telephone interview from Los Angeles.

What exactly he may find funny on Thursday when he performs with Dennis Miller at the Pier Six Concert Pavilion is anybody's guess. Including his own.

"Most of my act is improvisation," he said. "I'm inspired for the moment. Standing there in front of 2,000 or 3,000 people you don't know can be pretty inspiring."

If he holds true to form, you can expect the signature crowd-pleaser, where Mr. Mandel fits a surgical glove over his face and inflates it by exhaling through his nose. You also can prepare for a brand of humor that may involve the comedian sticking his hand into a goldfish bowl, pretending to be poked by a cattle prod or pulling noisemakers from a huge plastic handbag with five fingers. (Get it? Handbag.)

But what really distinguishes this concert tour from previous ones -- "Hooray for Howiewood" and "Howie Mandel's North American Watusi Tour" among them -- are the cameras that will follow him behind the scenes. At the end of the six-week tour, he's planning to make a documentary spoof of his summer adventure for Showtime. (No airdate has been scheduled yet.)

"It's our version of [Madonna's] 'Truth or Dare,' " he says. "I'm filled with blond ambition."

Ambition, however, isn't always enough to ward off his preperformance jitters. "But it's a lovely fear," he said. "People go on roller coaster rides. They flip around. They go backward. They throw up, and they say, 'I loved it.' . . . It's like that for me."

If Mr. Mandel delights adult audiences, he's also captured the younger set with his latest endeavor: "Bobby's World." The Saturday morning show on Fox is based on a favorite character from his stand-up routine. On the program, Bobby -- a squeaky-voiced 5-year-old who's the youngest member of the Generic family -- must deal with being teased by his siblings, reprimanded by his parents and smothered by an adoring aunt. Ms. Mandel, the voice of the cartoon character, also plays his father in live-action segments.

It originally took some convincing to get the comedian even to consider doing the show. "At first I said, 'No, I don't want to get up early on Saturday mornings,' " he said.

But now he excitedly describes his plans for next season, when "Bobby's World" tackles a cartoon taboo: pregnancy.

Bobby's mother gets pregnant, and he goes to his dad for an explanation. His father gets flustered and tells him they'll have a man-to-man talk later. But Bobby realizes he's not a man, so he goes looking for one to speak to his father.

"When he sees the milkman, he says, 'Dad wants to talk to you because Mom's pregnant,' " Mr. Mandel said.

So far, the episode has been a hit with his 6-year-old daughter. His 1 1/2 -year-old son, however, has yet to register an opinion.

"Everybody who works on the show either was a child or has children, so a lot of the concepts are very reality-based," said Mr. Mandel, 37, who lives in Malibu. "But it's not just for children. It also entertains adults."

Although he grew up loving Saturday morning TV, Howard Mandel never planned on becoming part of it -- or having anything to do with show business.

Born and raised in Toronto, he quickly developed a reputation as a prankster. When he was 16, he played a stunt on a woman by putting a fire extinguisher under her dress at a Howard Johnson's. Similar jokes won him the affection of his classmate, Terry, who is now his wife, but they also got him expelled three times.

After getting his high school equivalency degree, he began what he thought would be a quiet career, selling rugs door to door and eventually buying two carpet stores.

But all that changed during a business trip to Los Angeles in 1979.

With some free time on his hands, he and some friends stopped by the amateur night at the Comedy Store. Egged on by his pals, Mr. Mandel got up, told a few jokes and heard a few laughs. End of story, he thought.

But a man in the audience happened to be a TV producer and thought otherwise. He approached Mr. Mandel about appearing on his comedy game show, eventually signing him for 15 segments.

"I had no idea he was there," Mr. Mandel recalls. "I was in my own little world."

From there, he went on to open for Diana Ross in Las Vegas, Nev., and in 1982 received his big break: the role of the free-spirited Dr. Wayne Fiscus on the Emmy award-winning "St. Elsewhere." When that show was canceled six years later, he began doing cable specials, tours and even a feature film, "A Fine Mess," with Ted Danson.

Today he relishes the opportunities he has to expand his talents by doing tours, TV and movies.

"I love the fact that I can work on everything," he says, sounding an awful lot like the dreaded "A" word -- adult. "It keeps things fresh."

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