High-school prankster, stand-up comic, TV star … now meet Howie Mandel, the newly minted mogul.

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 helium-voice 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 wise-cracking 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.

Howie Mandel
Photo: Chris Chapman.

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 stand-up 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 Candid Camera. 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 Comedywood 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.”