TORONTO — Howie Mandel says he’s doing as well as one can expect a germaphobe to fare during a pandemic.
The Toronto-raised comedy star notes he’s relatively healthy and just finished another season as a judge on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.”
And he’s looking forward to sharing his life story in the new documentary “Howie Mandel: But, Enough About Me,” which airs Oct. 12 on CTV and starts streaming on Crave the next day.
But the 64-year-old — who also has obsessive-compulsive disorder, ADHD and anxiety — can only see his grandchildren from a distance while wearing masks during COVID-19.
He says he deeply misses them and his other “lifeline” that lifts his spirits when he gets down — a live audience.
The JFL co-owner, who will appear in an online version of the Just For Laughs comedy festival this weekend, says he’s “having a really tough time” but considers himself lucky in some ways.
“I’ve done better than I’m doing right now, but I think we’re all coping and dealing,” Mandel said in a recent phone interview from his home in Los Angeles.
“I’ve sent my therapist into a whole new tax bracket and I’ve upped my meds. I’ve been lucky enough to be working, things are good, I have a family around me. But the nightmare I’ve been living for the last 64 years, which was only in my head, is now in the world.”
Canadian filmmaker Barry Avrich directed and executive produced the doc, which details Mandel’s rise from a northern Toronto suburb to the bright lights of Hollywood.
Cameras followed him around at various appearances in L.A. Avrich also drove him around Toronto and surprised him with impromptu stops at his old stomping grounds: his high school and childhood house, the restaurant where he proposed to his wife Terry, and the synagogue where they got married 40 years ago.
Then COVID-19 shut down the screen world, forcing Avrich and Mandel to switch to interviews via video conferencing. Later, they did socially distanced in-person chats, which isn’t that unusual for a germaphobe who keeps a distance from most people anyway.
“If you had been doing this documentary with me two years ago, it wouldn’t have looked that different, because that’s how I roll,” Mandel said. “The world is now rolling along with me.”
The doc has video footage of a young Mandel, who was a prankster as both a kid and a budding comedian, when he would pull a rubber glove over his head for laughs onstage at Yuk Yuk’s in Toronto.
“I didn’t have a lot of friends, so if I could do something outrageous, if I could do something bad and get yelled at, I just wanted to be noticed, because it would confirm that I was there,” he said.
But what started out as a way to make his friends crack up ended up eliciting laughs from the rest of the crowd.
“That laugh was like a warm blanket that I have been chasing every day, every moment since that April 1977.”
After selling carpets to make a living in Toronto, Mandel moved to Los Angeles, where gigs at The Comedy Store led to bookings at larger venues. He then landed TV appearances, including a role as a doctor on the medical drama series “St. Elsewhere” and voicing the title character in the animated series “Bobby’s World.”
“I always resented the fact that I had to leave Canada at that time to pay my rent,” Mandel said. “And any time Canada calls and I can do anything in Canada, I’ll jump. I’ll come home for a Swiss Chalet lunch.”
The former “Deal or No Deal” host opens up about his dark moments in life in the film, including the death of his father, and his OCD, which he first publicly revealed on Howard Stern’s radio show in 2006.
The film also delves into Mandel’s heart condition, atrial fibrillation, and includes footage of him in his hospital bed.
“When I accidentally blurted out my issues with mental health, that gave me the most humility and humanity that you could possibly have, in the sense that you realize that the human condition — the good, bad, ugly, the different — is shared,” he said.
Laughter from a live audience is Mandel’s “panacea,” he said. To fill that void during the pandemic, he’s “grasping at straws,” relying on digital platforms like TikTok to connect with audiences.
“For a guy that doesn’t like to touch anybody, I need to constantly touch a lot of people, and laughter touches me,” he said.
“As a professional, my job is to get noticed. And now it’s really hard to get noticed. That’s my lifeline. Laughter was my lifeline.”
And so are his grandchildren, he said, noting it hurts not being able to embrace them.
“There’s nothing like having somebody run up to you and give you a big hug,” Mandel said. “I don’t have that right now. Nobody does right now.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 8, 2020.
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press