How Howie Mandel got his start in comedy, and what keeps him going

This legendary comedian’s advice: get famous at home in your underwear.

This legendary comedian’s advice: get famous at home in your underwear.

When you think of Howie Mandel, you might think of him as the serious host of Deal or No Deal, the judge on America's Got Talent, or maybe even way back to being Denzel Washington's co-star on the medical drama St. Elsewhere.

The Canadian comedian's unlikely career trajectory spans movies, TV game shows and an animated series. It also began with an unlikely story. 

Watch: Legendary comedian Howie Mandel talks about his first time getting on stage, and day jobs that he had before making it big.

Mandel's start was in Toronto in 1977, when he was dared by a friend to go up for an amateur stand-up comedy night at YukYuk's comedy club.

"The point was that I wasn't a comedian, and therein lies the joke. Then when I first realized that they were looking at me and waiting for something, I got uncomfortable. That fear is what I shared [...] that discomfort is what they were laughing at."

Unsure of what to do, he reached into his pocket and grabbed one of his latex gloves  which he carried because he suffers from a fear of germs  and pulled it over his head. 

"I was breathing and the fingers were going up, the audience was laughing and Boom! I had an act."

He was asked to come back, and kept this zany act going over the years, slaying audiences with his hyper character and asking innocently, "What? What are you laughing at?" 

According to a 1978 Toronto Star article, he was billed as a "wild and crazy borderline psychotic," but what started as a fluke led to stints like opening for David Letterman's 1979 comedy tour and for Diana Ross.

He was later cast in the network TV drama St. Elsewhere with hardly any acting experience.

"I've just fallen into everything, and that's become my credo," says Mandel, who believes it's important to say yes to every opportunity. 

There's enough people who are going to say no to you, you should never say no to yourself.- Howie Mandel

Interviewed before the pandemic, Mandel said that he didn't think he had gone two or three days without being on stage. 

"Whether it's a big concert, theatre, arena, casino, corporate day, or I find some stage at 2 a.m. and ask if it's still open. I just love my time on stage." 

Howie Mandel tours the playground

39 years ago
Duration 8:11
The zany actor/comedian chats about his cartoon voices, playing a doctor on TV and the relaxing properties of "fish riding."

With most live performances hauled back and international travel on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, starting a comedy career may seem daunting. These days, Mandel says, following his path and going to New York and Los Angeles  is not necessary for international success because of digital streaming and YouTube.

In fact, Mandel says if he was starting out today, he would probably have stayed in Toronto. 

"You could sit in your room alone in your underpants, and if you do something brilliant the world is going to know and give you a brand deal and make you a star," says Mandel.