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Howie Mandel dabbles in discomfort on the stand-up comedy stage

Howie Mandel may be best known as a host on “Deal or No Deal” or a judge on “America’s Got Talent,” but his first love is standup comedy. He brings his act to Northern Quest for two shows on Sunday. (Chris Pizzello / Invision/AP)
Howie Mandel may be best known as a host on “Deal or No Deal” or a judge on “America’s Got Talent,” but his first love is standup comedy. He brings his act to Northern Quest for two shows on Sunday. (Chris Pizzello / Invision/AP)

You probably know him best as the host of “Deal or No Deal” or as one of four celebrity judges on “America’s Got Talent.” And if you’re a little older, you might recognize him as the rambunctious Dr. Fiscus on “St. Elsewhere,” or as the voice of little Gizmo in the 1984 film “Gremlins.”

But Howie Mandel’s career started on the stage. You may recall his most famous bit, in which he stretched a latex glove over his head and blew it up with his nose. As a comedian, Mandel still tours the country regularly, and he’s performing at Northern Quest on Sunday

In the days before his Airway Heights stop, Mandel talked with The Spokesman-Review about the versatility of his long career and whether his approach to comedy has changed. (The interview has been condensed.)

The Spokesman-Review: Are you on the road a lot these days?

Howie Mandel: I’m kind of down, but I’d imagine some people would consider it frequent. I do about 200 nights a year, but for 30 years, it was 300 nights a year. Now it’s 200, because I’m producing and sometimes appearing on television. But my first love is stand-up. That’s where I get my freedom. There are no lines to hit, no commercials to throw to. It’s free and unedited and fun. Most of what I do on television is family oriented, but I wouldn’t bring the kids to see me live. Not that it’s blue or anything, but I don’t edit myself. I look at it like a giant party, and I’m just trying to be the center of attention.

SR: Do you think that’s the case with most comedians, that they need that attention all the time?

Mandel: I don’t know why they do it. For me, it’s more of a primal scream. … I don’t know if it’s about a need for attention as much as it is that immediate reaction. It’s more about acceptance than attention.

SR: Are you back in small comedy clubs frequently?

Mandel: I do casinos and theaters and private events, but I don’t think a couple of weeks go by where I don’t drop into a club. That’s how I write, in front of people. If I have an idea during the day, I like to drop into a club. If I’m on the road and staying overnight, I find out there’s a comedy club in the area and I’ll drop in and try things out after I do a concert.

SR: In all the years you’ve been doing this, would you say your approach to comedy has changed in any way?

Mandel: Not my approach or the way I write, but it’s always different. It’s very interactive and improvisational and in the moment. You know, my point of reference and where I am and who I am is very different than what was happening in 1977. So yes, but it could change from night to night, because I let the audience be a part of it.

SR: The audience is your barometer, basically.

Mandel: Yeah. I’ve always said, everything I was ever punished for or expelled for is what I seem to get paid for.

SR: “America’s Got Talent” is returning for its 12th season this summer. What’s the wildest act you’ve seen as a judge on the show?

Mandel: Well, there’s always weird and crazy. There was a guy named Horse who had the ability to get kicked in the genitals as hard as possible and not feel anything. But then I don’t know if that’s weird. And what’s wild is my Golden Buzzer from last season, Grace VanderWaal. (The Golden Buzzer allows each “AGT” judge to automatically advance a performer to the next round once per season. VanderWaal won the show’s 11th season.) To have somebody who’s 12 years old and so prolific and so mindful. Simon (Cowell) said she’s the next Taylor Swift, but I think she’s more than that. … I think she’s going be the biggest star to ever come out of any talent show. You just wait and see.

SR: It seems that younger generations know you primarily from “Deal or No Deal” and “America’s Got Talent.” Are they ever surprised to find that you started as a comedian?

Mandel: Yeah, but throughout my life, it’s kind of been (like that). I started as a stand-up comic, and then I got on “St. Elsewhere.” I can’t tell you how many letters I got a week saying, “I have a bet with my husband that Fiscus is the same guy that puts the rubber glove on his head.” So there was a “St. Elsewhere” audience and a stand-up audience. And then I did “Bobby’s World,” and people who were young parents never watched me on HBO, didn’t watch “St. Elsewhere” and didn’t know I was a stand-up comic. And then when I came to everyone’s attention on “Deal or No Deal,” I was just known as a game show host. … My career has been filled with people who are surprised to find out I’m the other guy.

SR: Is there anything that you haven’t already done that you’d maybe like to try out in the future?

Mandel: No. The truth is, a lot of people have a plan for themselves and they blaze a trail. I just kind of follow this path. I didn’t know I was going to be a stand-up comedian. My friends took me to a comedy club, and the host said amateurs could get up after the show, and it was a dare. Did I ever think it was going to be a career? No. It just happened. … We all have opportunities, but we figure out ways to avoid them, because it’s easier to avoid things that could possibly go wrong or make you uncomfortable. I’ve grown really comfortable in my life with discomfort, so if there’s anything I want to dabble in, it’s more discomfort. There’s nothing more uncomfortable than hearing, “Ladies and gentlemen, Howie Mandel,” and seeing a bunch of strangers in a room waiting for me to make them laugh. That’s my favorite discomfort.

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