If it's summer, it must be time for another season of NBC's "America's Got Talent." And while the series has cycled through a few hosts - from Regis Philbin to Jerry Springer to current ringmaster Nick Cannon - season five marked the first judging change in the show's history as David Hasselhoff left the show and actor/comedian/host Howie Mandel stepped in to fill the empty seat next to returning judges Sharon Osbourne and Piers Morgan. When our Jim Halterman talked with Mandel last week, he found that Mandel more than just taking on another job to go along with his game show duties over at "Deal Or No Deal" but excitedly shared a kinship with both the seasoned and the outrageous performers that get time on the "America's Got Talent" stage. Mandel talked about his love for the insane, his level of empathy for the performers on the show and whether he'd ever want to venture back into dramatic scripted television like his early career work in "St. Elsewhere."
Jim Halterman: Were you a fan of "America's Got Talent" before you took your job as judge?
Howie Mandel: Absolutely, the biggest fan! I never missed an episode. I'm such a fan of everything but this is kind of the culmination of everything I'm a fan of. From the time I was a little boy I've watched TV 24/7 and not only do I watch TV, when I got older I'd go watch acts and I'll go watch the lounge shows in Vegas and I go see bizarre circus acts. I'm just fascinated. I didn't even know I wanted to be in show business but I'm fascinated by everything fantastic and everything horrific. If it's just bad there's something to be said for that and I'm fascinated by that.
JH: What's been the biggest surprise since you started working on the show?
HM: That I can be surprised. I think after 30 years [in the business] and after 54 years of seeing everything I thought 'You're not going to surprise me.' I think the surprise is how easy it is to annoy Piers! I embrace things that he would not embrace. I love insanity and I think there's a place for that. I don't know if it will win our show but I grew up watching that on TV. I love characters like Tiny Tim, Irwin Corey and I love Andy Kaufman and anything he did. Was it totally manipulated or did he have control over it or was it just him? Regardless what that answer is, we celebrated the oddity of what it was. Whether he was wrestling women or having people come up in a line at the Improv and have them squeeze his boil. We celebrated that. Or Larry 'Bud' Merman.
Sometimes I see these characters come on the stage here and for face value, if you talk about Tiny Tim, he's not the best looking guy, he kind of has an annoying voice but the oddity is so great. You can't take your eyes off of him! That's why one of the biggest ratings Johnny Carson ever got was his wedding because people will show up. I think as a judge of America's Got Talent, you can't define what talent is; that's subjective. I think ultimately the American public will make the decision who goes through to the million dollars but you can't deny the fact that we do as a viewing audience celebrate these kind of characters. We will show up to watch it and sometimes buy a ticket! This show brings you that in every form!
JH: Would you say that because of your own comedy background that you probably have more empathy for the contestants than Piers or Sharon?
HM: I would imagine there is no measure of empathy. That was my biggest fear coming to the show. I want to be - and I am - honest. I'm not there to entertain. It's about the acts. It's not about being liked but the thing is that on all these stages where we see these people I also perform regularly. I still do over 200 dates a year and I am a performer and I know what they bring to the table in their hearts and their minds. Rejection is hard to anybody but public rejection on this platform in front of millions of people is hard. I do think after 30 years I do have something to add. I really think I've seen this business from every angle. I think just beyond being critical I can be helpful. I think I know what it takes to bring people to the party. Sometimes my empathy allows me to push someone through it that normally wouldn't get through it.
JH: Is it true you were thinking of quitting the business right before you started hosting 'Deal Or No Deal?'
HM: Right before 'Deal Or No Deal' I thought 'I've done it. Nothing is really coming my way at this point' and then I got the call to do 'Deal Or No Deal' and I thought 'I am definitely quitting the business. I have been asked to be a game show host!' In my mind, that was the nail in the coffin of my career. I was a guy who left retail to make a living putting a rubber glove on his head. My wife said 'You idiot! Take the deal!' I did and nobody is more blessed, thrilled and surprised than I am for, number one, what became of that show, and the opportunities it has opened up.
JH: I've talked to some other comics like Paul Provenza and Craig Robinson about whether it's tougher or easier to break into stand-up now compared to when you first started out. What do you think?
HM: I think both. It's easier because there are more opportunities in the way of YouTube or Facebook or MySpace. You can, without help, get your brand out there. You can do something funny on video at your home, get it on YouTube and maybe it will go viral and you'll become known and there will be other opportunities. It's harder because when I was starting out and I was seen at the clubs or even did 'The Tonight Show,' my career blossomed the next day. It was huge with all the opportunities I had and all the recognition I had but that was at a time when there were three major networks that were signing off at midnight. Now, in any given home, you have access to 400-600 stations not to mention the Internet and they all run 24 hours a day. So to be something that breaks through the noise that is out there is hard. There's probably more opportunity now for exposure but harder for that exposure to get noticed.
JH: Do you miss dramatic acting like you did for six years on 'St. Elsewhere?'
HM: Absolutely. I would love that opportunity but I don't know if being the host of 'Deal Or No Deal' or a judge on 'America's Got Talent'... I don't know if that kind of exposure has inhibited people's choice in choosing me as a dramatic character in their piece. I would hope that it doesn't. I do miss it and would love the opportunity to do more. I kind of just have that devil may care attitude in as far as whatever comes my way I'll say 'I'll do it!' Why? Do you know of something?
JH: I don't but I'll keep my ears open for you! Now, if you hadn't gone into show business what would you be doing?
HM: I'd be talking to you about shag. I was in the carpet business. I was a door-to-door carpet salesman. Also, I worked with my father in the lighting business - not theatrical lighting but in retail. I was already in my mid-20s when I started comedy. In the mid-70s, there was a comedy boom and I went to a comedy club and the host said 'Does anybody want to try something' on amateur night. One thing leads to another and here I am.
"America's Got Talent" airs on NBC on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 9:00/8:00c.