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The Last Word: Howie Mandel

An exclusive interview with comedian and Bell Let's Talk spokesman, Howie Mandel

by Hugo Fontaine @CanadiensMTL / canadiens.com

This interview with Bell Let's Talk spokesperson, Howie Mandel, originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of CANADIENS magazine.

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He's spent the last three decades in front of the camera, but Howie Mandel first got his start on stage working his way up the ranks of the Toronto comedy circuit. A star on the small screen as a judge on America's Got Talent, Mandel can also be spotted making the rounds in his role as a spokesperson for the Bell "Let's Talk" campaign that focuses on ending the stigma associated with mental illness. We caught up with the 60-year-old comedian to chat about a number of his passions, including his love of Montreal and all things sports.

We've seen you a few times in Montreal for the Just for Laughs Festival. What's the one thing you have to do whenever you're in town?

HOWIE MANDEL: I actually lived in Montreal for a year a while ago, down the street from the Old Forum. I love this town. I love any reason to come to Montreal: Just for Laughs, the food, the nightlife -- Montreal is very alive. Its culture is very much like Europe's, but it has the warmth of Canada. Every time I come back, I have to go to Beautys for breakfast and Schwartz's for dinner.

This will be your second year as a spokesperson for the Bell "Let's Talk" campaign. How important was it to you to be a part of that initiative?

HM: I am thrilled to be involved as a spokesperson, and I was even more thrilled that Bell has made this cause their soapbox. If there is one thing that is the most important in all societies everywhere in humanity, it's mental health -- even more than physical health -- because mental health dictates physical health. I have OCD, I have anxiety and depression, but there isn't anybody who, at some point in their life, doesn't have a mental health issue: dealing with stress on a job, a relationship breaking up, or having a family member diagnosed with an illness. How do you cope? How can you live a productive life and keep functioning when stuff is happening? Let's say two patients have cancer, the fact is that the one with the better attitude will do better. When you look at what's happening with our society with crime, drug addiction, or even overeating, these are all mental health issues. Just like you go for a physical checkup every year, we should be doing the same thing mentally, as well. I think crime would go down, education would go up, productivity would go up. Mental health is so important.

You admitted many years ago that you have OCD and that you can't touch things or shake other people's hands unless you wear gloves. Was it hard admitting that to the world given your status as a public figure? And in your business, since you get to meet many different people every day, how tough has it been to avoid it, or to make people understand it?

HM: It was crazy difficult admitting I had a problem, not because I'm in that business, but because I am as old as I am. The stigma is still here. It's very strong and it hasn't gone away. But being my age and growing up in the '50s and the '60s, you don't talk about this. When I was a little kid and when my shoelaces would come undone, I would leave them undone because I was too afraid to touch the laces that touched the ground. I would rather have everybody make fun of me than tie my shoelaces. I never talked about my problem. I was very alone in my own head. I suffered for many, many years. When I went out and got help, I still didn't talk about it beyond the people who were helping me. It came out by accident many years ago when I went on The Howard Stern Show. He wouldn't let me out the door and I started having a panic attack and I didn't want to touch the door because I thought that it was dirty. I told him it was a real problem and that it wasn't a joke and that I had OCD and was seeing a psychiatrist and that I was on medication. It was only when he opened the door and let me out that I realized we were still broadcasting. I was devastated to think that I'd let that out. I thought I had humiliated myself -- my whole family. I thought my kids were going to go to school and people would tell them that their dad is mental, which I thought was a negative, and I thought that I would never be able to work again, doubting someone would give money to someone who, in their interpretation, is not stable. Luck would have it that when I went to the street after that, someone came up to me who had heard the broadcast and he told me he had the same problem. It was comforting because it showed me that I wasn't alone.

You've also just finished your sixth season as a judge on America's Got Talent. Even after that long, do you still get surprised by some of the stunts you see? Are you stupefied sometimes to see what people would do for one million dollars?

HM: Every day. (laughs) I'm fascinated by humans. That they're willing to come out and stand in front of a group of strangers and dare themselves and show their wares, it's like sports; it's amazing to have that kind of skill. Whether it's ridiculous or whether it's ridiculously fantastic, it's amazing that they've put this kind of time and effort into whatever it is they're showing us. All these things: AGT, sports, mental health, it all comes together. The human condition is amazing. I'm fascinated when I watch a hockey game. You look down on the ice and you think, "My God, every kid in this country plays this game." We all go out on our skates and play, but look at this small group of people who have made it to the NHL. Look at the time, the effort, the focus, and blood, sweat and tears they needed to reach that level. Like in AGT, I saw a guy juggling with a chainsaw and 10 balls and I have a hard time catching one ball. (laughs) Regardless of whether I enjoy it or whether I think he or she will win the competition, I'm fascinated.

You replaced David Hasselhoff as a judge on AGT. If you could have replaced him on another series, would you have preferred Knight Rider or Baywatch?

HM: Are you kidding me? I'm not going to answer! Would I rather have a car or Pamela Anderson? One of them is a much better ride. (laughs)

Can we write that?

HM: Of course you can write that, that's what you're supposed to do!

Are you a hockey fan?

HM: My sport is football. I think by virtue of being Canadian, hockey is just engrained in me. And I know you're based in Montreal, but I grew up in Toronto. As a Canadian, it's not how good your team is or who your team is; it's about who you are. Hockey is part of our DNA. Hopefully I haven't turned off every reader of this magazine. (laughs)

Any chance we can convert you? You'd look good in bleu-blanc-rouge

HM: If you offer me a Habs jersey, I'd wear it out of my Canadian pride.

Which hockey player do you think would make the best contestant on America's Got Talent?

HM: Mike Fisher is married to Carrie Underwood, isn't he? He could just stand there and let his wife sing. He could dance beside her and let her sing.

Was hosting Deal or No Deal the easiest gig you've ever had?

HM: The easiest thing I did was AGT. Deal or no Deal was hard in the sense I had no control over what the people were doing. To see a real human standing five feet from me and saying "no deal" to $200,000 when they had told me just before that they had no health insurance, they've never owned a home, they have three children, and they don't have a car, it was really hard for me not to say to them: "Are you an idiot? Take the money and get out of here so you can change your life." I feel privileged for AGT because this whole judging thing doesn't really feel like a job. I love to sit and watch shows, to be honest. The hardest part of that is to tell somebody something negative. I try to be positive as much as I can, that's the hardest part. Deal or no Deal and AGT sure didn't compare.

You've been in show business for more than 30 years. How amazed are you that you're still going strong since making your debut as a standup comic in Toronto?

HM: Nobody feels more amazed than me. I feel lucky that after my first night at Yuk Yuk's that I would be there the following week. To be here 35 years later talking to you is really a surprise and a blessing and I feel pretty lucky.

You've made your mark as a TV host, standup comedian, producer and author. Is there something that you've never been involved with that you would like to try in the future?

HM: The answer would be yes, but if you ask me what it is, I don't know. I'm constantly getting called to do things that I hadn't planned on, and I hope other calls continue to come where somebody would offer me something and I would reply, "I've never done that before, I would love to do that." Right now, one of the most recent things I was asked to do was to be a spokesperson to remove the stigma of mental health for Bell.

You played Superman nemesis Mister Mxyzptlk on an episode of Lois & Clark. Do you feel you don't get enough credit for this when people cite other standout supervillain performances in recent years?

HM: You don't think I get enough credit for that guest appearance? (laughs) That was the pinnacle of my career! Everything else is just extra. I think I deserve much more credit for that Lois & Clark guest appearance than I do get. If you mention nothing else in this article, that's the thing I'm most proud of.

Do you still, occasionally, inflate a latex glove over your head for old times' sake?

HM: Just around the house, not on stage anymore. I do it from time to time. I throw nothing away.

Head to letstalk.bell.ca/en to learn more about Bell "Let's Talk," or follow Howie in real time on Twitter, @howiemandel.

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