Howie Mandel on the power of fear
Like so many, national arts reporter Geoff Edgers has been grounded by the coronavirus. So he has launched an Instagram Live show from his barn in Concord, Mass.
Every Tuesday and Friday afternoon, on The Washington Post's Instagram account, Edgers hosts "Stuck With Geoff," a 50-minute show that has so far featured basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, singer Annie Lennox, Bill Nye "The Science Guy" and musician David Byrne.
Recently, Edgers chatted with comedian and "America's Got Talent" judge Howie Mandel. Here are excerpts from their conversation.
Q: I first remember you as the comedian with the rubber glove -- that character. How did you start out?
A: So it was the mid-'70s or the late '70s, when disco was all the rage. I'm not a dancer. I'm not a drinker. I don't play sports. I don't gamble. I didn't have a poker game. I didn't even have friends. I went to this club Yuk Yuk's because there was nothing else to do. And I'd never seen stand-up live.
Q: In Toronto, right?
A: Toronto, Canada. I went to see the show, and the host, Mark Breslin, said, "If you feel like you have this skill or this is something you can do, we host an amateur hour." Somebody sitting at my table went, "You should go up." So I went, no thinking, no prep.
Q: You had no routine?
A: No, nothing, and I'm from Toronto. There's nobody I know in show business. It's ridiculous to think that I could even be in show business. I wasn't in school plays. It was nothing I aspired to be. If I had to analyze, I thought, that's the joke -- I'm not a comedian. I'm just going to get up and I'm going to have somebody say, "Ladies and gentlemen, Howie Mandel." And that's funny. And then this goofball will just get up onstage.
Needless to say, Mark Breslin says, "Ladies and gentlemen, Howie Mandel," and I walk out. And then I realize, well, there's no joke to this. Who's the joke on? The joke's on me? This is stupid. Then I look out and I'm blinded by the spotlight. And I look in the front and there's faces of strangers who are just sitting there, waiting. Like, "OK, do something." My adrenaline started pumping. Fear started. My analogy of what I do in comedy is I like thrill rides. And the scarier it is and the higher it is and the closer to death I believe I'm coming, the better it is.
So I just became fearful and realized that these people were waiting for something. I had nothing. I'm 23 years old. I was stuck going, "OK, OK, OK. All right. OK. All right." Then I put my hands in my pockets. I carried latex rubber gloves because I didn't want to touch things. I've always been a germaphobe. I've always had OCD. So I had a glove in my pocket, and I just pulled it over my head and over my nose, and I started breathing and the fingers were going up, and it popped off my head, and they applauded. And I said, "Good night!" and walked off the stage. Then Mark says to me, "You've got to come back tomorrow night."
Q: So, you have mysophobia, which is the intense fear of germs or an irrational fear of germs.
A: I have OCD and mysophobia. People always come up to me and go, "I've got a little OCD." Well, you can't have a little. You either have OCD or you don't have OCD.
You know, the germs for me or just the handshake, the hand is a trigger. If someone has a sweaty hand, or you saw them sneeze 10 minutes before and they covered their mouth, and then they extended their hand and you wanted to be polite, so you shook their hand. You go, "Oh, my God, this guy's snot is all over my hand." Which would be the same thought as anybody else. I would run into the bathroom, I'd wash my hands like anybody else, and then I'd walk away, and I'd go, "I don't think I got it all." And I go back in and I wash my hands even more. Then I go back out, and I go, "Oh, my God, the water probably wasn't hot enough." And then I'll do the scalding water. I could get caught in that loop of having to wash my hands, you know, hundreds of times. So much so that it will, you know, stop my life. I can't move on. I'm stuck at the sink for hours and hours and hours.
Q: I remember this report that David Muir did on you, I think on "20/20," where your wife said you had to turn back from a trip to the airport when your daughter's shoe brushed your pants.
A: Intellectually, I understand that what's going on in my head is making no sense. But it's triggered me and I can't get my mind off that. What's on the bottom of your shoe? Now it's on my pants. And what if my elbow touches my pants? I made them turn the car all the way around and go home. And they did. They accommodated me just because they realized the hell they'd have to go through if they didn't. Eventually, it got so bad that my wife said she couldn't do it anymore, that I had to get help. And that kind of saved my life.
Q: Getting help, is that therapy? Is it medication?
A: All of the above. You know, whatever it takes. I don't talk specifically about what I take, but I am medicated and I am in therapy, and I am supported by a loving, supportive family and friends. And I'll tell you something. For me, laughter and comedy is my panacea. It is my bridge to survival, my bridge to success. I need to joke about it. I need to have fun, and I need to laugh.