Q&A: Howie Mandel
Over the years, Howie Mandel has proven as versatile an entertainer as there is in show business, working on television and in film as an actor, voice-over artist, game show host and talent critic. But ask Mandel what brings him the most joy, and he’ll promptly tell you it’s when he’s onstage cracking jokes in front of an audience, which he’ll be doing Aug. 4-5 when he returns to The Mirage as part of the Aces of Comedy series, this time teaming with fellow stand-up David Spade. Mandel recently spoke with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Jacob about his first time performing in Las Vegas, becoming an America’s Got Talent judge and being discovered by a rock star.
You’ve enjoyed great success throughout your career in a variety of entertainment mediums, yet you’ve never abandoned your standup roots. What keeps you coming back to the stage?
I never leave the stage. Regardless of everything else I do—and I enjoy doing other things—the stage is my home. That’s the one place where there are no rules, no boundaries, no marks to hit, no lines to recite, no commercials to throw to, no editing to be done. It’s freeing—just the purest form of whatever it is that I do. The stage is where I started, it’s where I live, and it’s where I’ll end.
Is it that instantaneous reaction that has always appealed to you?
Well, I love the immediacy of (stand-up) and the kind of adrenaline you get from being live and in person and interacting with real people. When you’re doing television, you don’t really interact with (the audience) until months later when they’re watching it and then tweeting about what they saw. Being onstage is just the most real, fun, scary, exciting, dangerous place to be. It’s great that people get to see me on America’s Got Talent or Deal or No Deal—those are great family shows—but doing stand-up, I don’t have to edit myself. You don’t bring the kids to my live shows.
How often are you performing stand-up these days?
Probably 200 nights a year.
Wow, so you’re as full time onstage doing stand-up as you are doing anything else?
I’m full time, all the time. And you know, (stand-up) informs everything else I do. Because I do stand-up, I think I’m a good judge on a talent show, because I’m aware of what people all over the nation are responding to and reacting to and enjoying—you get a sense of that when you’re performing in their town. That’s why I love Las Vegas more than any other town, because it’s like being everywhere all in one place.
Speaking of Las Vegas, one of your big career breaks was serving as the opening act for Diana Ross at Caesars Palace. Do you recall how you landed that gig?
Absolutely. I did a show called Make Me Laugh, which I got as a fluke when I was on vacation down in Los Angeles. That led to a spot on the Merv Griffin Show. Well, at that time Diana Ross was dating Gene Simmons of KISS. Gene Simmons saw me on Merv Griffin, called my agent and said, “I’d like him to come and open for my girlfriend.” I said, “Sure!” It was the most terrifying three weeks of my life. But she was so supportive—much more supportive than the audience! The audience hated me. They were not prepared to see anybody but Diana Ross. But you know how they say if you can just make one person laugh, you’re doing your job? I did. And it was only Diana Ross. Nobody else in the room laughed. You know what? One of the things I have in my office right now is the center booth from the old Caesars Palace showroom, which they destroyed when they started to build The Colosseum. They weren’t doing anything with (the remnants), so I took the center booth. I have the booth I performed in front of right here—I’m looking at it as I speak to you.
That’s great! Did you make off with anything else?
Yeah. I also have the sign that says, “Caesars Palace is not responsible for the items left in the dressing room.”
What was it like the first time you performed in Las Vegas, where so many comedy icons had come before you?
Opening for Diana Ross was my first time ever in Las Vegas. What an entrée into that town. Obviously, with the advent of social media and television and the Internet, everyone now knows what Vegas looks like. But back then, as a 22-, 23-year-old kid showing up on the Strip and seeing all these bright lights and fountains and buildings like nothing I had never seen before, and then going backstage at Diana Ross’ show at Caesars Palace—I couldn’t breathe. I have a picture from one night where I’m wearing a suit, and you can see the sweat stains coming through the suit. Las Vegas holds a special place in the heart of anyone who has any dream of being in show business. If you watch America’s Got Talent and you ask (a contestant), “What’s the dream?” Besides wanting the million dollars, we always get the same answer: “I want my own show in Las Vegas.” And that’s always more exciting to them than the million dollars.
You’re teaming up with David Spade for two nights at The Mirage. How did that partnership come about?
I love David, and I’m a huge fan of his. I think we’ve worked together before, but I’m sure this was the hotel’s idea, and when they asked me, “Would you like to work with David?” I jumped at the chance. There wasn’t even a thought.
What can the audience expect from this show? Have you worked on bits together, or will it be mostly improv?
David and I are both kind of loosey-goosey. I just look at these (shows) as giant parties, and I’m trying to be the center of attention. So, expect the unexpected. I don’t know what I’ll do; I just know we’ll have a great time, and it’ll be a night like no other before and like no other ever again.
You’ve been a judge on America’s Got Talent since 2010. Was that a job you pursued, or did you have to be talked into it?
I didn’t pursue it, because I didn’t even realize there was an opportunity. Deal or No Deal was over, and NBC said, “Hey, we have an opening. Come and do it.” I go to all kinds of shows—even when I’m in Las Vegas, I’ll go to lounge shows off the Strip—because I love entertainment. And I’m a huge fan of the show; I’ve never missed an episode of America’s Got Talent, even before I was on it. So when I was asked to do it, I thought, “You’re going to pay me to do what I do anyway, at home in my underpants on my couch?”
You mentioned your appearance on Make Me Laugh, in which you performed in front of TV cameras and had your work critiqued by professionals. Now, nearly 40 years later, you’re on the other side of the table judging the talents of others. Do you ever have that “Wow, my life has come full circle” moment?
Every moment of the day. This is 180 degrees from where I dreamed I would be. I got into (comedy) on a dare, and every opportunity that came my way was something I didn’t even know existed. When I came out to L.A. and my friend got me up at The Comedy Store and somebody said, “There’s a producer in the audience from a show called Make Me Laugh,” I had no idea what that was. I went and did Make Me Laugh, then Merv Griffin called, then Mike Douglas called, then Gene Simmons called. … I never knew what was going to happen next, so I just lived by Nike’s rule: “Just do it.” I’m always at peace with what I’m doing.
You’re in your eighth season on America’s Got Talent, making you the longest tenured judge in the show’s history. Does that come with any power?
Zero. I’m sitting two people down from the boss who has all the power: Simon Cowell.
Can’t leverage that longevity at all, huh?
No. I asked for a raise. He said no.