Howie Mandel: Gloves, Gremlins, and Game Shows

That’s right. Howie Mandel (b. 1955) wanna make something of it?

Mandel first made his mark 40 years ago in the most uncharacteristic way possible — he was cast in the groundbreaking medical dramedy series St. Elsewhere (1982-88) playing a young doctor named Wayne Ficus. Though the character was funny and goofy, it was also dramatic. The role called on him to hold his own as a thespian with the likes of Norman Lloyd, William Daniels, and Ed Flanders, which he did terrifically. But goofiness will out.

Mandel was a stand-up comedian, and he had just begun to appear on talk and variety shows in the months leading up to St. Elsewhere. His most notorious stunt was placing a rubber surgical glove over his head and exhaling to inflate it, a prop comedy stunt to rival early Steve Martin. He was so associated with it, I often half-believed that’s why he was hired for St Elsewhere — his trademark was medical gloves. Most of the words we used to use to describe a performer like Mandel have gone out of fashion as being derogatory to people who literally have the conditions: hyper, manic, compulsive. In Mandel’s case it’s especially tricky because he has literally been diagnosed with those conditions. He’s also a germ-o-phobe, which also makes the hospital drama seem appropriate. He was masking long before the rest of us. So…it’s tricky needle to thread talking about a guy like that. To what extent was he performing? And aren’t most comedians compulsive and hyperactive? Will it stop being a spectacle at some point? Some guys gets up and starts acting out for laughs, and everyone will just shake their head and say “Tsk tsk, the poor man is off his meds”? How far would Milton Berle have gotten? “That poor ill man. I know a nice quiet rest home for him in the country — in the Catskills!”

In any case, for a brief minute in the ’80s Mandel was tried as a movie star, in all three cases teamed with fellow TV actors: Blake Edwards’ A Fine Mess (1986) with Ted Danson, Walk Like a Man (1987) with Christopher Lloyd, and Little Monsters with Fred Savage (1989). He also provided the voice of Gizmo in Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984) and Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990). He provided voices on the animated cartoon shows Muppet Babies (1984-85) and Bobby’s World (1990-98), which he co-created. He co-starred on the short-lived sit-com Good Grief (1990-91).

But by the early ’90s, he — or someone — seems to have decided that acting wasn’t his jam (though, as I say, he was pretty great on St. Elsewhere). It may have been a question of discipline, arising out of his various conditions. He was always bouncing off the walls. So he concentrated more on a straight-up performing. He had his own comedy and variety specials, was the center square on Hollywood Squares, did The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (and later with Leno), as well as Letterman, Arsenio, etc

In the new century he reinvented himself — as a game show host. This is a very old school choice, and it’s one I respect. It seems to suit his gifts. And he possesses a likeability so terrific it exceeds his sporadic obnoxiousness. In this capacity he is best known for hosting the long running Deal or No Deal (2005-19) and for being a judge on America’s Got Talent (2010-present). Shorter-loved shows he’s hosted have included Mobbed (2011-13), Funny You Should Ask (2017-19), and his latest, Bullsh*t: The Game Show which launched in 2022.

For more on show business history, including TV variety, please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.