Mandel memoir exposes funnyman's inner terror
Last Updated: Monday, December 7, 2009 | 5:55 PM ET
When Howie Mandel, the Canadian-born standup comedian and host of Deal or No Deal, agreed to write his memoir, he pictured it as a series of light, funny anecdotes.
Instead, he has combined those anecdotes from a career in show business with an examination of his struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
"I was just commissioned to write a memoir," Mandel said in an interview aired Monday with CBC's Q cultural affairs show.
"I thought I had a light, kind of funny look at my life, my career, with great little anecdotes that would be kind of funny….and then I realized, I know that I deal with OCD and anxiety and ADHD each and every day, and I didn't realize how much it informed everything that I do."
He defines his OCD as an "anxiety disorder" that manifests itself as a fear of germs, such that he cannot bear to shake hands. Thus the title of his book. Here's the Deal: Don't Touch Me.
Toronto-born Mandel began his standup career at Yuk Yuk's in Toronto, took his act to Los Angeles and had roles in Stephen Spielberg's Gremlins movies, and the television shows Bobby's World and St. Elsewhere.
His memoir says he didn't think much of the offer to do Deal or No Deal, but his wife talked him into it.
His comedy has included routines in which he wears a rubber glove, or wears doctors scrubs or does a fist bump instead of a handshake.
"In that darkness and terror of mental health issues, I happen to find humour and I always have because that seems to be my life preserver," Mandel says.
Mandel was the kid who couldn't focus, who never knew the answer and never quite followed the plot. But he says he grew up in a home with a lot of laughter and he started to learn what a difference humour would make in his life with the TV show Candid Camera.
He became an inveterate prankster and then a standup comedian, with a career in Hollywood that never fails to surprise him. Mandel said he has mechanisms to help him cope with his OCD, to calm him down so that he doesn't hyperventilate. But it's easier just not to touch other people.
"Intellectually I know there's nothing to be concerned about. I could shake your hand right now and I know I wouldn't die," he told Q's Jian Ghomeshi.
"But I would have an obsession about the amount of germs there are on my hand and I could possibly be triggered — I would have a compulsion to wash it and once it was washed, I would need to go back and wash it again and that would consume me."
One of the anecdotes he tells in Here's the Deal is about being on the Howard Stern radio show at the same time as another performer who does tricks with his penis. This performer left the show first and then Mandel could not bear to open the door, because he did not want to touch it. That became a joke for Stern, who refused to open the door for him.
"It went on so long that the veil of entertainment dropped. I started to feel anxious. I had to say, 'I suffer from OCD. I go to a therapist. You have to open it for me,'" Mandel recalled.
When he got out on the street, "I thought, 'What have I just done? I don't know how people will react, I've just admitted to a mental illness on national radio.' Even before that, the stigma was so strong I never wanted to admit it to myself," he said.
The experience has helped him overcome that stigma. And so has surprising sympathy from other performers and even members of the public, who will not insist on touching him now they know how he feels about it.
Mandel says the only time he doesn't feel anxious is when he is performing.
"When I'm on stage and the centre of attention is the only time I have comfort, that is the only time I'm in the now," he said.
As for Here's the Deal: Don't Touch Me, it does succeed in being funny as well as touching.
"I didn't mean to put it in a book. If there is an overwhelming feeling, it's embarrassment. I don't know if I'm going to be able to make eye contact after people read this book. But it's out there; I can't take it back."
He even admits to being "terrorized" and under medication for his book tour — as he can't shake hands and doesn't want to meet the fans who might turn up for autographs. At signings last week in New York, he was wearing a mask and gloves.
"What are the chances that my book would come out and I'd have to do some signings in the midst of the only national pandemic I'm personally aware of — H1N1," he said, joking about his own fear of germs.
Mandel, 56, lives with Terry, his wife of 26 years, in Los Angeles. The couple have three children aged 20-25.
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