The arc of Howie Mandel’s career, which is still thriving, has bent toward this moment in the culture – the moment when we are all worried about catching something awful and we are all germaphobes.
Howie Mandel: But Enough About Me (Monday, CTV, 9 p.m.) reaches a powerful climax when Mandel talks about his mental health. Specifically, that he’s been diagnosed with OCD, ADHD and anxiety. Long known as a germaphobe who doesn’t shake hands, it is still something of a shock to hear him talk openly about the issues and how he copes.
The two-hour documentary, made by Barry Avrich, isn’t only about those issues, of course. It’s a charming, funny and often deeply endearing journey through his life and career. By its end, though, you do understand better, as Mandel does, how his career, anchored in a surreal kind of antic joviality, is connected to his mental-health issues. “Distraction is my coping skill for life,” he says near the end. “I don’t sleep really well, I work until I can’t function any more.”
Before the program gets to that point, we are treated to a very pleasant, revealing and very funny, down-to-earth trip through his life. He visits the school he attended in Toronto, causing a little mayhem, as he did so often when he was a kid and was told to leave. He’s hilarious on his first job selling carpets and then comes his first outing as a comic at Yuk Yuks in Toronto.
His act, from the start, felt like a dare: He wasn’t polished and he didn’t have a set of prepared wisecracks. He just acted compulsively and kept going. “When people laughed, nobody was more shocked than me,” he says. We get all the dope about his marriage – there’s a very Mandel scene where he enters the restaurant where he proposed, which is no longer the deli it was then, and the current staff are totally discombobulated by this guy.
Then there’s Los Angeles, a rapidly gained reputation for manic comedy and work on the comedy game show Make Me Laugh. From there it was an upward trajectory to TV series, movies and the triumph of his run as the eccentric emergency room doctor Wayne Fiscus on St. Elsewhere. As he explains, the bosses wanted him to quit doing stand-up because St. Elsewhere was a serious TV drama. He finds that funny now.
Mandel is also quite open about the low points in his career. He hosted a daytime talk-show that never quite clicked with audiences or critics, and when it was cancelled in 1999, the offers of work just stopped. Eventually, and at first reluctantly, he took on the job of hosting Deal or No Deal, which was such a huge hit he was back in the spotlight. In one sequence he explains that Meghan Markle was a “briefcase model” on the show but he has no memory of her because the models were always standing behind him on the set.
There is an enormous amount of story here, about his family, his fears, and he includes some very distressing memories as he recounts the past. He can be a disconcerting figure and he knows it. (I’ve met him twice, not that he would remember, and he is distinctly unlike most actors or comics in person. I’ve also met his mom, in an entirely non-journalism setting and she told me a story about him that he repeats in the doc, but not with as much relish and detail as she tells it.) Mostly, mind you, his aim is to entertain you.
The making of the documentary went awry when the pandemic struck, something Mandel finds both amusing and apt. Now we all know the worries that he has lived with his entire life.
No celebrity is going to be fully and entirely open in a documentary such as this. Yet it’s hard to be skeptical about the Howie Mandel we meet here. And as a Thanksgiving special the program is perfect. It’s funny, heartwarming, bittersweet and it has a dose of bliss, because Mandel, a grandfather now, seems utterly at ease with himself and the course of his career and personal life.
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