tv review

In His First Special in 20 Years, Howie Mandel Surfs the Crowd

Howie Mandel. Photo: Comedy Dynamics/YouTube

Howie Mandel’s first special in 20 years, Howie Mandel Presents Howie Mandel at the Howie Mandel Comedy Club, feels a lot like its relatively anodyne name. There’s no concept title to tie the set together (see Kevin Hart’s Irresponsible or Amy Schumer’s Growing), no key idea that becomes the set piece for the whole hour. Or if there is, that key idea might be the one repeated twice in the special’s title: Howie Mandel is performing at his own comedy club, and many of his jokes center on the specific weirdness of being Howie Mandel.

There’s buying anti-fungal cream while being Howie Mandel, congratulating a friend on her casino winnings while being Howie Mandel, standing in an elevator while being Howie Mandel. The punch lines of those jokes tend to land about where you’d expect them to (something like “And there I am … Howie Mandel!”), and the revelations contained therein are also about what you’d imagine: It is strange to live your life as the recognizable host of such popular reality-TV franchises as America’s Got Talent and Deal or No Deal. It is strange to be famous.

The most interesting bits of Mandel’s special (which aired on Showtime earlier this year and which Comedy Dynamics released for streaming this week) are those that deal with the other part of the show’s title, the apparently innocuous part. This is a special “at the … Comedy Club,” and Mandel spends huge chunks of the hour focused on all the other people inside the Comedy Club. It starts with a single audience-member shout-out in an early joke about political correctness — Mandel points to a black man seated in the theater and jokes that unlike the last time he recorded a special, it’s now not considered polite to walk up to a black man on a beach and kiss his belly. Then, as Mandel transitions into another joke sequence, a woman from the back shouts out that the backlighting behind Mandel is too bright and should be turned down. “I’m shooting a fucking special, lady, and you want to relight it?!” Mandel is indignant and delighted.

Slowly the energy shifts as the audience members realize Mandel is more than willing to play with them, and various spectators quickly become characters in the set as participants and subjects for him to bounce off of. None of the topics are all that surprising (I wish I could say this was the first I’ve heard of someone sticking a gerbil up their butt, but it is not), yet Mandel is skilled at playing with the people who volunteer, and he has an impressive ability to thread connections between the audience’s stories on the fly, weaving them all together as he goes. There’s an unsurprising game-show-host quality to it; everything feels as if it goes on for exactly 20 seconds longer than any reality-show format would allow, but the same DNA is there. “Who are you? Where do you come from? Okay, let’s get ready to play [insert game name here]!”

At one point, the crowd work nearly tips over the line into messiness when a woman starts yelling at Mandel about some unusual variety of parrot and he can’t quite hear what she’s saying. The exchange goes on for too long before Mandel finally yells at her to just shut up about the damn parrot already. As it’s happening, though, you begin to realize that he has invited the crowd in but that somewhere there’s a fast-approaching outer edge where they feel too entitled and start to take over the whole joint.

Mandel never lets that happen. The shaggy crowd sections are eventually tucked back in so they feel as if they belong, and they’re buoyed and buffered by the bits in which Mandel shifts into known territory. And there’s no escaping that. Some of the more scripted sequences are groaners: Mandel likes to look at hot women; his wife is a bitch sometimes; when women age, they start making excuses about why they don’t want to have sex. That last one is particularly worthy of epic eye rolls. After a windup, Mandel lands on that old chestnut about how women complain that they don’t want to have sex because they “have a headache.” This makes no sense to him, he says, because that’s not the body part he’s interested in. The line is delivered, apparently without shame, and Mandel moves on.

For his first recorded special in 20 years, a joke like that could be almost self-referential, an example of a bit ported in from an earlier era. I don’t think it was intended that way. But the larger impression of Howie Mandel at the Howie Mandel Comedy Club comes from his interaction with the audience, the way he makes participation into spectacle. You get the sense that Mandel has been standing on that stage doing a show for a long time and that he’ll stay there waiting for the next crowd to file in so he can go to work on them. His energy in some scripted parts feels restless and rushed, but when he works on the audience, he almost leans back, preternaturally relaxed and comfortable. Whatever you might think about prompts like “Is there a doctor in the room?,” Mandel is obviously most himself when he’s pinging his energy off someone else.

The special doesn’t have an ending. When the allotted time has passed, Mandel declares, “Could you just start rolling the credits?” He does this at a moment when the audience-participation element once again is trending toward the raucous. As requested, the closing credits appear onscreen as Mandel does a performative “Ta-da!” move. It’s a winking kind of gesture, a way for him to say, “Look at this delightful mess I’ve made.” And there is something sort of delightful about it — in how deft he is at wrapping the audience up in a nice bow and presenting them back to themselves. The elderly woman in the front row whom he told to cram a glow stick up her butt seemed to have a lovely evening.

Howie Mandel Surfs the Crowd in His Return Stand-up Special