FUNNY MAN

High-school prankster, stand-up comic, TV star … now meet Howie Man­del, the newly minted mogul. The Cana­dian comic dishes with Jim Slotek on busi­ness, fam­ily and pho­bias, all jokes aside Pho­tog­ra­phy Chris Chap­man

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LOTS OF VIP COMICS at Montreal’s leg­endary Just for Laughs fes­ti­val de­mand lux­ury wheels. But you won’t see many be­ing driven right on­stage in a gleam­ing Rolls Royce.

A Rolls is a boss’s car, and – as Howie Man­del re­minded the au­di­ence re­peat­edly at his gala at the Place des Arts in July – he, Howie Man­del, is the fes­ti­val’s new owner.

He told them a heart­warm­ing story about be­ing un­able to sleep the night be­fore his de­but gig as an owner. When he fi­nally fell asleep, he said, he dreamed he needed to uri­nate and, when he woke up, he dis­cov­ered he’d peed the bed.

“So, you see,” he told the crowd, “dreams DO come true.”

Though it got plenty of laughs, the “fa­mous new owner” bit came from a not-so-funny place. Ear­lier this year, Just for Laughs was dam­aged goods – fallout from the #MeToo move­ment. Af­ter 36 years, JFL went on the mar­ket as, frankly, a dis­tressed prop­erty af­ter its founder, Gil­bert Ro­zon, faced sex­ual ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions and even­tu­ally a class ac­tion suit.

Howie Man­del, the now-bald curly-haired kid from North York, who be­came fa­mous for in­flat­ing a sur­gi­cal glove on his head, be­came the white knight in the res­cue of ar­guably the world’s most fa­mous com­edy fes­ti­val.

I talked “boss strat­egy” with the 62-year-old Amer­ica’s Got Tal­ent star the next day af­ter a fist-bump greet­ing (the stan­dard “al­ter­na­tive hand­shake” for the comic, a germa­phobe, who’s been open about his ob­ses­sive-com­pul­sive dis­or­der for years).

“Here’s the anal­ogy,” he says. “My thought and my part­ners’ thought is that this fes­ti­val is a finely tuned ma­chine that can drive a much big­ger ve­hi­cle. Rolls Royce came up with an en­gine. Rolls Royce en­gine tech­nol­ogy can run a jumbo jet. So right now, this is a Rolls Royce.”

So, the Rolls on­stage was not just a bit?

“No. I like sym­bol­ism,” Man­del says.

Man­del won’t talk about Ro­zon’s al­leged wrong­do­ing but ad­mits, “We got a good deal. I think we got some­thing worth far more than the in­vest­ment.”

And for its part, Just for Laughs got a com­edy le­gend for an owner.

But to be clear, there were three part­ners in the Just for Laughs pur­chase, two Cana­dian and one Amer­i­can. The Cana­dian part­ners – Bell Me­dia and the CH Group (own­ers of the Montreal Cana­di­ens) – own 51 per cent. The other 49 per cent is owned by a con­sor­tium led by ICM tal­ent group in L.A. Man­del is a ma­jor in­vestor in that part of the bid.

HIS FRIENDS like to com­pare Howie to the late Robin Wil­liams, which is valid, in­so­far as they both, in their prime, played like un­leashed kids bounc­ing around the stage.

But at times like this, talk­ing busi­ness with Man­del, I’m re­minded more of Jerry Lewis, who, like the early Howie, played the man-child in front of au­di­ences, with ju­ve­nile voices (Howie turned his he­li­umvoice into both the “Bobby” car­toon char­ac­ter and the voice of Gizmo in the Grem­lins movies). And they are re­mem­bered for en­dur­ing non­sense phrases. Lewis had “Ladeee!” Man­del had, “What? What?”

And where Wil­liams tended to be “on” off­stage (an irony, since he pri­vately strug­gled with de­pres­sion), Man­del, as Lewis did, switches it off and turns se­ri­ous. (Which is not to say Howie is in any way the ob­nox­ious mon­ster that Lewis could be. He is po­lite and oblig­ing and an­swers ques­tions, how­ever drily.)

As the “name” owner of the most cov­eted com­edy stage in the world, Man­del is now ar­guably Canada’s most in­flu­en­tial comic. But where does he fit in the pan­theon of great Cana­dian comics?

Jim Car­rey is by far the most in­ven­tive and risk-tak­ing. Mike My­ers has had the big­gest im­pact on pop­u­lar cul­ture. Rus­sell Peters is the most glob­ally pop­u­lar on the strength of his stand-up per­for­mances alone. (Howie is no slouch in that re­gard, hav­ing sold out New York’s Ra­dio City Mu­sic Hall, but Peters broke the stand-up at­ten­dance record at Lon­don’s O2 Arena.)

Per­haps think of Howie Man­del as Cana­dian com­edy’s A-list util­ity player, a guy who’s man­aged to take all the tools at his dis­posal and stack them atop each other to ex­tend his fame. Howie the prop comic, Howie the prac­ti­cal joker, Howie as wise­crack­ing Dr. Fis­cus on St. Else­where, Howie the voice of Gizmo and the star of a bunch of non-starter fea­ture come­dies in the ’80s (re­mem­ber Lit­tle Mon­sters or A Fine Mess?).

Howie the mogul is a rel­a­tively new in­ven­tion. He’s par­layed his vis­i­bil­ity as a judge on Amer­ica’s Got Tal­ent and the host of the game show Deal or No Deal into a pro­duc­tion com­pany with as many as 40 projects in de­vel­op­ment at a time. I tell him his ca­reer these days re­minds me of Merv Grif­fin, who be­came fa­mous in front of the cam­era as a talk show host, and rich

be­hind it as a pro­ducer. Turns out I stum­bled on one of Howie’s role mod­els.

“I love Merv Grif­fin, and I knew Merv Grif­fin!” Man­del en­thuses. “He also bought a lot of real es­tate and I dab­ble in real es­tate as well. Merv’s ex­am­ple is that life is like driv­ing. We put our­selves in life in a lane. But you can change lanes.”

And Howie Man­del has done a lot of lane chang­ing over the years. He hit the com­edy world in the late ’70s via Canada’s Yuk Yuk’s chain as the afore­men­tioned kid. There was the in­flat­able glove (which he orig­i­nally kept in his pocket in case he needed to shake hands), his “Bobby” voice, and his habit of grin­ningly punc­tu­at­ing each act of ran­dom silli­ness with “What-what-what?” as if ev­ery­one in the au­di­ence was in on the joke but him.

A great way to get a sense of what he was like as a manic younger comic is to watch a clas­sic SCTV sketch called “Maudlin O’ the Night,” in which Martin Short plays an ut­terly be­fud­dled, all-over-the-place prop comic named Howie Sou­zloff.

“That was a great hon­our,” Man­del says of be­ing spoofed by Short. “My blow­ing-up-glove days, that was fear. I played with fear. And when you look at what I did orig­i­nally on stage, without much prepa­ra­tion, I re­al­ized I didn’t have much to of­fer. So, I was ex­cited and gig­gly and scared like you are on a roller coaster.

“And the au­di­ence tuned into my fear and ex­cite­ment and en­ergy and started laugh­ing at it. And I would say, ‘What-what-what?’ But I was le­git­i­mately ask­ing them what they were laugh­ing at.”

His long-time friend and vet­eran open­ing act Lou Di­nos says the crazy was real back when they met in Toronto in the late ’70s. “Even when he wasn’t on stage, he’d do things like put cot­ton in his mouth and cre­ate a char­ac­ter, and then step out into Bay Street and stop traf­fic. He did that, then got into the back of a cab on the pas­sen­ger’s side and came out on the driver’s side. There’d be hun­dreds of peo­ple on the street watch­ing him even­tu­ally, watch­ing him be funny. He’d do it just for the laughs.”

OF COURSE, Howie Man­del’s suc­cess as a comic didn’t just spring from getting up on the stage and act­ing goofy. Most comics will in­ter­act with the au­di­ence. Many of Man­del’s in­ter­ac­tions sprung from his love of prac­ti­cal jokes, of put­ting peo­ple on the spot.

At his Just for Laughs gala, he sin­gled out a woman who’d ap­par­ently at­tended his shows for years and had her stand at an exit door hold­ing a Sug­ges­tion Box. It was a good gag, but he kept it go­ing for an un­com­fort­ably long time, even send­ing her back to the door when she snuck back to her seat at one point.

It’s not my favourite sort of com­edy. I feel like it car­ries a cruel streak to­ward peo­ple who are sim­ply mind­ing their own busi­ness. But in the end, for a fan, getting punked by Howie is a badge of hon­our, like getting “zinged” by Don Rick­les.

Howie knows where this ten­dency comes from.

His re­ac­tion-seek­ing com­edy has its roots in his child­hood in what was then the Toronto sub­urb of North York. His par­ents, Al and Evy Man­del, were com­edy fans. “They lis­tened to al­bums, watched standup on TV. And most of it made no sense to me. This man would be talk­ing on TV about his mother-in-law and, at four years old, I didn’t even know what a mother-in-law was.

“My first en­trée into un­der­stand­ing what com­edy even was was sit­ting with my par­ents on Sun­day night and watch­ing Can­didCam­era. Allen Funt would say, ‘Here’s what’s go­ing to hap­pen. We’re go­ing to tell this lady she’s a re­cep­tion­ist. And her only job is to an­swer the phone. And she thinks if she misses a call, she’s go­ing be fired. We tied a rope to the desk, and every time she tries to an­swer the phone, we’ll pull the rope and the desk will pull away.’

“So, as a kid, you un­der­stand that what’s funny is the look on her face. There was no joke, no set-up and punch­line. Shock, fear, em­bar­rass­ment. This was re­ally re­lat­able to me. This felt good.

“It also made me a pariah,” he adds. “I was not the class clown. I was the school spec­ta­cle.”

By his ac­count, Man­del was ex­pelled from school three times for prac­ti­cal jokes. These ap­par­ently in­cluded the old chest­nut of float­ing a choco­late bar in a swim­ming pool and a more elab­o­rate stunt that in­volved ac­tu­ally hir­ing con­trac­tors to build an ad­di­tion to the school.

Not sur­pris­ingly, in 2008 he’d go on to pro­duce a prac­ti­cal joke re­al­ity show, Howie Do It, that clearly had Can­did Cam­era in its DNA.

“Yuk Yuk’s was the first place that didn’t throw me out for stuff I did. They em­braced me. That club in Yorkville was my com­fort­able, warm place. But in or­der to do this for my life and make a real liv­ing, I had to go to Cal­i­for­nia. And I re­sented that. I would come back and do jobs when­ever I could.”

Be­sides miss­ing Canada, Man­del missed his fam­ily. But un­like a coun­try, you can bring fam­ily to you. It may be a com­bi­na­tion of so­cial anx­i­ety and the fidelity of a nice Jewish boy, but Man­del prefers the com­pany of his fam­ily to strangers, even when he’s on the road.

As we talked, we were both about to fly to Toronto. He had his nephew’s wed­ding to at­tend the next day. His “posse” nearby in­cluded his brother, Steve, and his son-in-law, Alex Schultz (who’s mar­ried to Howie’s daugh­ter Jackie). Terry, his wife of 38 years, was some­where close as well.

His at­tach­ment to his ex­tended Toronto fam­ily is well known. He treats every­body – aunts, un­cles,

nieces, neph­ews – to an an­nual lav­ish va­ca­tion. If your name is Man­del or you’re re­lated to one by mar­riage, you could find your­self on a group trip to Hawaii next Christ­mas.

“I’m a fam­ily per­son,” he says. “My mom lives in Toronto, and I’ve called her each and every day.”

And re­ally, if you were look­ing for a per­fect #MeToo an­ti­dote in an owner, you couldn’t do bet­ter than a fam­ily-friendly act who ac­tu­ally trav­els with his fam­ily.

MY FAVOURITE Howie Man­del “mo­ment” came one night at a now-de­funct in­de­pen­dent com­edy club called Com­edy wood in Man­del’s old neigh­bour­hood. It was a slow night – maybe 30 or 40 peo­ple in the place – but I was there at the in­vi­ta­tion of the owner, the hyp­no­tist Boris Ch­er­niak (who could not, ap­par­ently, hyp­no­tize enough peo­ple to buy tick­ets to keep the club afloat).

Hav­ing just shaved his head for the first time (be­cause it made him feel “cleaner”), no one rec­og­nized him or be­lieved he was Howie Man­del. What on earth would he be do­ing here?

Their re­fusal to be­lieve he was“that guy” en­er­gized him. He grabbed the cell­phone from a woman who said her mom was a fan of his, di­aled up the mom and played with her. By the end, still only half the crowd was con­vinced, but they were all laugh­ing.

“I do that all the time,” he says. “I was in Toronto the other night, a place called Cor­ner Com­edy, and they have a ca­pac­ity of, like, 16. And when I walked in, there were prob­a­bly seven peo­ple there, and we had the best time we’ve ever had.”

Mean­while, back in Montreal – and depend­ing on whether you pre­fer a boss to be far away, mind­ing his other busi­nesses – there could be worse bosses than Howie Man­del. It was a work­place en­vi­ron­ment that was un­der­stand­ably stricken by re­cent events. Ro­zon had never been a hands-on boss (ex­cept, al­legedly, in a bad way).

But Man­del served no­tice early he’d be dif­fer­ent.

“We all went through a very dif­fi­cult time this year,” says Just for Laughs pres­i­dent Bruce Hills af­ter the deal was done. “Howie came into this build­ing and spoke to every sin­gle em­ployee. That was a great, mo­ti­vat­ing thing to do.”

“He’s a co­me­dian and a busi­ness­man and he uses both those mus­cles, and that’s been very help­ful for me. Howie helped me book one of our hosts, gave me notes on things. He was ex­tremely con­struc­tive.”

Hear­ing about him fist-bump­ing an en­tire of­fice staff brings up a ques­tion that still puz­zled me. What at­tracts some­one with so­cial anx­i­ety to a ca­reer that sur­rounds you with peo­ple?

“I’m not com­fort­able in pub­lic but I am com­fort­able on­stage,” he says. “There is a sepa­ra­tion be­tween the stage and the au­di­ence. For me, what­ever my men­tal health is­sues are, my mind is over­work­ing, ‘What if… What if… What if…’

“But when you’re on­stage and the light hits you, you can’t think that. You’ve got to be in the mo­ment. That’s my cop­ing skill be­cause all I’ve got is, ‘I’m here now and what’s go­ing to hap­pen next?’ I can’t worry about what I worry about when it’s dark and I’m alone and I’m ly­ing in bed with my eyes open.”

Iron­i­cally, the two big­gest breaks in Man­del’s ca­reer – Amer­ica’s Got Tal­ent in 2010 and the 2005 Deal or No Deal (which is be­ing re­booted this fall) – didn’t ex­actly float his boat. He even turned down the lat­ter ini­tially.

He’s the hired help as a judge on AGT, along­side Mel B., Heidi Klum and Si­mon Cow­ell. “So many times, I’ve sat there on Amer­ica’s Got Tal­ent go­ing, ‘This is not a job. There are no lines to mem­o­rize, no marks to hit. I’m sit­ting in my seat. There’s no prepa­ra­tion be­cause I’m see­ing it for the first time the way the au­di­ence is see­ing it.’ So, I didn’t un­der­stand it.

“And, ya know, that’s what hap­pened with Deal or No Deal. At first, I was em­bar­rassed be­cause I felt naked not be­ing funny, not be­ing a co­me­dian, not play­ing a char­ac­ter,” he says of the show where con­tes­tants would choose from a num­ber of brief­cases con­tain­ing var­i­ous amounts of money. In 2016, the show re­ceived a flurry of at­ten­tion af­ter it was re­vealed that the now Duchess of Sus­sex was dat­ing Prince Harry. Turns out that Meghan Markle had paid her early Hol­ly­wood dues as a “brief­case girl.”

Of not play­ing a char­ac­ter, Man­del now says, “My hu­man­ity kind of took over. I’d be three feet from a per­son whose life would change depend­ing on how this game turned out. It was all about mak­ing sure I could lead them to the best de­ci­sions. That even in­formed my ca­dence … ‘The of­fer is … ten thou­sand dol­lars … ten thou­sand dol­lars … deal … or no deal?’ I would do it like I was talk­ing to a child. You want to make sure they un­der­stand.”

It was an epiphany for the comic af­ter 30 years of sin­gle­mind­edly go­ing for the laugh. It also had the un­ex­pected side ben­e­fit of soft­en­ing the edges of his im­age, mak­ing him a good fit for any­thing that came his way there­after.

“What I didn’t fore­see was that it would bring all my au­di­ences to­gether, my com­edy au­di­ence, my [an­i­mated chil­dren’s se­ries] Bobby’s World au­di­ence, my act­ing au­di­ence. Deal or No Deal led to all these other things, in­clud­ing Amer­ica’s Got Tal­ent. It’s why I try not to over­think my de­ci­sions. The one time I did over­think was when Deal or No Deal came up.

“I said no. My wife said, ‘You’re an id­iot. Take the deal.’ And be­cause I lis­tened to her, I’m talk­ing to you to­day.”

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