Howie Mandel: Opportunity Knocks

Howie Mandel is on a plane about to land at New York’s JFK airport when he finds out the aircraft is equipped with Wi-Fi. “I’ve got an urge to tweet. Here I go.…” But before he can start, the jet begins its descent and a flight attendant asks passengers to turn off electronic devices. Mandel manages a quick retweet about his new show, Mobbed, then tweets: “I’m sooo sneaky.” He doesn’t elaborate; we assume he’s tweeting surreptitiously now. Several quick ones follow, then this: “We are circling over ny due to weather. If the question of weather is weather or not I’d like to land now the answer is yes.”

Before the end of this long day in late January, which ends with a standup performance in Dover, Del., Mandel will fire off some four dozen tweets and retweets. He passes along fan mail about Mobbed and retweets requests ranging from a shout-out to a fan’s husband deployed to Afghanistan to prayers for another fan’s sick newborn. He takes a good-natured jab at Piers Morgan, his former America’s Got Talent co-star. And he can’t resist responding to the many random tweets that seem ripe for a punch line. (“Can you give my wife a tweet?” a fan asks. “It seems wrong to tweet another man’s wife,” Howie responds. To “How often do you shave your head?” he replies, “Every time.”)

Mandel isn’t just partial to Twitter. The Canadian-born carpet salesman-turned-comedian, actor, TV host and producer is a voracious consumer of all media, social and otherwise. “My customer is the masses,” he explains in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “I like to have my finger on the pulse of what’s tickling people’s fancy so I’m out there reading.”

Mandel follows everything posted about him through Google alerts, which ding all day long with postings ranging from him being the voice of Gizmo in Gremlins to being a judge on America’s Got Talent to discussions about why he shaves his head. He reads the good, the bad and everything in between with equal interest. Staying on top of what’s trending constitutes market research for Mandel, which has been key to his remaining relevant through the years. “I sit on planes for hours reading articles, blogs and watching YouTube. I sleep very little. I watch TV 24/7, even non-English television. Even infomercials,” he says.

Mandel’s fascination with social media led to the creation of the new Fox network show Mobbed, which combines the surprise of reality TV and sensation involving large groups of people connected through social media who spontaneously congregate for short bursts of entertainment. “I was thinking that this is a phenomenon that people are interested in so how can we market it and put it on television? So for the last five years networks have been trying to do a flash-mob show and pilots have been shot, shows pitched, and they just couldn’t get their heads around it. Fox was nice enough to put all of this money up on television produced without a net,” he says, referring to the unpredicability inherent in the mob concept.

In addition to Mobbed, Mandel has more than a dozen other projects in development. With the success of NBC’s Deal or No Deal, which he’s hosted since 2007, he found himself in a power position when it came time to renegotiate his contract. Rather than simply asking for more money, he negotiated his own production company, which provides him with an office and a staff. Although he’s not in many of the dozen-plus shows he’s developing, he enjoys working to create them, especially those that might have worldwide appeal like Deal. “I love coming up with ideas and selling them,” he says. “It’s not much different than the carpet business I started out in.”

Growing up in Toronto, the son of a real estate agent and a lighting manufacturer, Howie Mandel describes himself as an incurable-attention seeker, particularly after the birth of his little brother, Stevie. While that trait probably contributed to his later success as a comedian, it didn’t serve him well as a student. The story goes that when he was in high school, he was expelled for impersonating a school board member and authorizing the construction of an addition to the school. While not exactly college material, Mandel clearly had an aptitude for sales.

After selling carpet door to door, he eventually developed his own carpet business. On the side, he performed standup at Toronto’s Yuk Yuk’s club. On a trip to Los Angeles in 1979, he performed a set during amateur night at The Comedy Store, which resulted in an invitation to perform there on a regular basis and ultimately to being discovered by a producer who hired him for the comedy game show Make Me Laugh. An opening act for Diana Ross in Las Vegas followed and then a role on the critically acclaimed St. Elsewhere brought national exposure.

Howie Mandel wasn’t selling carpet anymore, but he didn’t cease being a salesman, continually marketing, getting feedback from the customers and honing his pitch and his product. That’s where technology has helped a lot. “Technology actually gives me more interaction,” he says. “If you Google my name, you’ll see all kinds of comments, whereas I would have never known about it before if it was negative—but, by the same token, positive.” Positive because the feedback, good or bad, helps him make adjustments as needed.

But there’s a downside to being so plugged in, Mandel admits. “Everybody is self-conscious, but I can tell you that every day I read something negative about myself. As many people as there are who enjoy what I do, there’s many more people who don’t enjoy what I do, and because I’m in the public eye, it’s written in a public forum. It’s embarrassing and it’s hard to take—and it can beat you down.”

Even with all his accomplishments, Mandel finds it hard to just shake off the criticism. “The longer you’re in [show business], the more perceived success you have, the harder it is. You feel like, ‘How much do I have to do to get through this?’ and you never get through this.”

Mandel is candid about these challenges, just as he was in his 2009 best-selling memoir, Here's the Deal: Don't Touch Me, when discussing daily struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and mysophobia, which is an irrational fear of germs. “We all get kicked, we’re all rejected, things don’t work many more times than they do work, and as much as you see me on TV right now doing things, I’m telling you that I get told no and publicly humiliated and I get hit much more than I experience those positive things. But those positive things are overpowering.”

Mandel’s passion for what he does propels him past all the negatives. “If I filled myself with the thoughts of, ‘I hope everybody likes this,’ that would be paralyzing, so I just get up in the morning and do things that I enjoy, that I think are neat, things that I want to do. The acceptance, the paycheck—that’s just the gravy. That’s not the thrust that gets me going.”

Although admittedly an attention-seeker as a child, Mandel says he’s not motivated by ego or a desire to be famous. “It was never even about getting noticed. Some people get joy in showing up at the gym and picking up a fast game of basketball, but they never dream that they’ll be in the NBA. They just go and it’s fun for them and their friends. It’s something fun to do. [Comedy and performing] was my fun. It was my passion. It wasn’t that I was pursuing it; it pursued me. I never tried to make a living out of it and had I thought about it, it’s just crazy.”

After several decades in the business, though, Mandel is not content to kick back. He wants to keep going with the same fervor he started with when he first hit the stage at an open mic night at Yuk Yuk’s. In fact, Mandel still performs more than 200 nights a year as a standup comedian. “When you find something you want to do and you’re passionate about doing it and you have the opportunity to do it, that’s my definition of success.”

And that requires something else: “I believe that success—and it’s happened throughout my whole life and career—is just being open to whatever opportunity. We always find a reason to close every door: ‘I’d like to do this or I really feel like this, but I won’t do this because look what could happen.’ There’s always a bigger reason why not to do something, but you’ve got to just take that leap. I imagine there’s a lot more people out there who are much more talented than I am, funnier than I am or better than I am that could do a lot more than I could do, and the only reason you don’t see them is because they just don’t. As Woody Allen once said, ‘Eighty percent of success is just showing up.’ ”

Mandel says one more important component is a great team. “I have great people working with me. I get a daily schedule. After this I have a pitch meeting, then a voiceover. After that I go to the office and go into a meeting to see where each show is at. I have a great time at work and at home, and I’m thrilled it continues.

“I never dreamed that day that I went on at Yuk Yuk’s that I would be here today talking to SUCCESS magazine 30 years later. It’s who you surround yourself with. They are just as much, if not more, a part of what the result is as much as you are. The only autonomy I have is on stage as a standup. That’s it. That’s what I love about it—that’s pure and clean me. Anything else you see is a team of people and I’m a small part—a cog in the wheel. Everything takes a team. Even marriage—I’ve been successful in marriage 31 years this year. I have a great wife [Terry], a great family [three children] and a great therapist—a great team.”

As for not getting beaten up or bogged down or off-track, Mandel offers this simple advice: “I live by Nike: Just do it. There’s no reason not to do it. Well, there’s a million reasons not to do it, but if you don’t do it, nothing will happen. If you have an inkling, thought or dream, just do it. Something never comes out of nothing, but if you do it, you may get something.”

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