Don't ask Howie to describe "Howie."
"There's no way to describe it," says funny guy Howie Mandel of his series of four CBS summer comedy specials. "I don't know what it is. It's everything I've ever wanted to do, and CBS allows me to do it."
"Howie," which debuted this week in the 8:30-9 p.m. Wednesday slot, is culled from several special performances before a theater-in-the-round audience of 3,000. It features stand-up, improvisational skits, surprise guest shots (some involving animals) and a band with sax-man Clarence Clemons.
"This is very, very unstructured TV," says Mr. Mandel, 36. "When things went wrong, we left them in. The audience had no idea what they were going to see. A lot of times I didn't even know what would happen next. It's a throwback to the old-time TV shows, like 'Your Show of Shows' or Jackie Gleason's show in Miami.
"On this show, you 'see' the set being put up. You 'see' the prop guys walk by as I'm working on another piece. I don't have a problem with that. I think what's behind the scenes is intriguing. That's raw TV. It involves the audience more. Everything doesn't have to be slick to be funny."
"Howie" grew out of a 1990 Mandel concert at Valley Forge Music Fair, he says. That led to a "Howiewood" special for Showtime, which led to "Howie" for CBS. Originally ordered as a one-shot special, "Howie" expanded to four segments after CBS Entertainment chief Jeff Sagansky saw the first show, Mr. Mandel says.
Although he loves "Seinfeld," "Cheers" and "Murphy Brown," Mr. Mandel says it's Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donahue and Sally Jessy Raphael who really crack him up. He's addicted to the daytime talk shows.
"The more serious the topic gets, the more I end up laughing at it. I don't understand what comes over someone to come on national TV and talk about their chafed thighs.
"I sit and watch with my mouth agape. I love it. It's a blessing I don't know any of them.
"It's like slowing down for a car accident. I know it's probably silly and stupid, but I can't stop watching them. I'm sitting there trying to write something funny and there's a woman who left her husband for a hamster. These are real people! I could never make up anything that funny."