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Orono’s got Howie! CCA hosts comedian Howie Mandel

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Orono’s got Howie! CCA hosts comedian Howie Mandel (photo by Joey Carman)

ORONO – A comedy legend is coming to the Collins Center for the Arts.

Comedian Howie Mandel will be performing at the CCA on the University of Maine campus in Orono on Nov. 1.

While recent years have seen Mandel gain added fame for his stretches as game show host (“Deal or No Deal”) and talent show judge (“America’s Got Talent”), he was a major figure in the entertainment realm long before either of those gigs came along.

His stand-up career began in the late 1970s in Toronto, but it wasn’t long before his combination of wry observation and unabashed absurdity made him a hit here in the United States. One of his signature bits – a bit that countless fans (including yours truly) attempted to imitate – involved him putting a latex glove over his head and inflating it by exhaling through his nose. It sounds absurd – and it definitely was – but it was an iconic part of 1980s stand-up.

While his comedy career flourished, he was also a major figure on television shows both live and animated: his big break was a six-year run on the acclaimed medical drama “St. Elsewhere,” while he did voiceover work for animated shows like “Muppet Babies” and adapted part of his stand-up act into the cartoon “Bobby’s World,” which had an eight-year run in the 1990s.

He did movies as well, with late-80s offerings like “A Fine Mess,” “Walk Like a Man” and “Little Monsters” making him a familiar face to an entire generation that grew up with those films in heavy rotation on HBO.

“Deal or No Deal” was a massive hit in the mid-2000s and landed him squarely in the middle of the zeitgeist once again. Mandel hosted the popular game show for four seasons, from 2005 through 2009.

It was during his time at “Deal or No Deal” that Mandel revealed to the world his lifelong struggle with symptoms springing from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Those symptoms include obsessive compulsive disorder and significant mysophobia (a fear of germs). He has worked to raise awareness of adult ADHD and went in-depth on the subject of his own battles in his 2009 autobiography titled “Here’s the Deal: Don’t Touch Me.”

Mandel’s time in the current pop culture spotlight continued when he joined the judge’s panel on “America’s Got Talent” in 2010, a job he holds to this day. He has become a beloved part of the show, bringing an infectious enthusiasm and unwavering support to the many acts that appear before him.

And through all of this, Mandel remains committed to his first love – stand-up comedy. No matter what other projects he might be involved with – and there are many – he always finds time to get back out on the road and make audiences laugh.

“I’m out on the road a lot,” said Mandel during a phone interview. “I get out there whenever I can. For me, it’s more important than everything else that I do.”

Stand-up comedy is a very different animal than working on television. In many ways, TV can become a very isolating thing. Mandel spoke about how much he values getting out and engaging with audiences directly.

“I can’t be in a bubble,” he said. “I like to get those immediate reactions from audiences. I’m all about engaging with real people in real places. It informs everything else that I do.”

It’s a world of difference from the insular TV realm. There’s a directness to it that is miles away from what you get when the cameras are rolling. The stage is a place that is far more flexible, both in terms of what you say and to whom you say it. And it’s a place he tries to get to every chance he gets.

“The stage is something totally different. Standup is a completely free space for me. There are no marks to hit, no lines to learn – I’m just out there. Every week, I’m out – I’m doing hundreds of dates every year.”

Hundreds of dates? How does he find the time? It’s easier than you think, according to Mandel.

“TV doesn’t take any time at all, in the grand scheme of things,” he said.

Mandel clearly still loves doing stand-up, but he does want to make one thing clear: the relative family-friendliness of a show like “America’s Got Talent” isn’t necessarily going to translate to his stage act.

“I tell people ‘Don’t bring the kids,’” he said. “The stuff I do on TV is more family entertainment, but I got my start on stage in comedy clubs in front of adult audiences. There’s a lot more freedom when I’m up there. Sometimes, things will pop into my head when I’m on set that aren’t appropriate for the setting. When it happens on stage, those things can come out. That’s the beauty of stand-up – it’s all about finding those lines and figuring out when I can cross them.”

The comedian embraces his time on stage wholeheartedly, making sure to enjoy every moment in the spotlight. But he isn’t bound by any predetermined idea of how the show is going to necessarily proceed. This isn’t about the repetition of a collection of pre-packaged jokes and stories; Howie Mandel is about going where the room takes him.

“It’s like I’m at this great party and I’m the center of attention,” he said. “Sure, I have this plethora of material, but I’m not attached to it. I’m always looking for any opportunity to be taken off the beaten path. I love to the engage with the audience; the results often leave everyone pleasantly surprised.

“The truth of the matter is that it is so much more exciting to try and come up with new things on the fly,” he continued. “Maybe there’s some sort of technical issue happening, maybe someone in the audience says something unexpected – whatever it is, I acknowledge it and include it. There’s an electricity to that, when something happens and you know that it never happened before and it will never happen again. It’s fun for everyone to be able to watch the process.”

That sort of improvisatory élan is a huge part of who Howie Mandel is as a comedian. And that attitude extends to not just specific shows, but the generation of the material that ultimately makes up his performances. Every comedian has their own method behind the madness, but few of those methods seem quite as mad as the way Mandel does it.

“My time on stage is when I write,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll find something and tap into it and maybe bring it into the act. Doing it this way, I know right away if something works. I’m not someone who is going to sit in a room, writing jokes on a page. Just because I think something is funny doesn’t mean other people are going to think it’s funny. This way, I know immediately.”

It’s astonishing to think that someone as beloved and gifted as Howie Mandel has built his career on such a foundation. Being funny is HARD, yet Mandel is confident enough in his abilities that he can mold and build his act in real time. It’s almost impossible to articulate just how difficult that is. And yet, he just … does it.

But while stand-up remains his first love, Mandel has a lot of affection for his current gig on “America’s Got Talent.” The beloved reality show has become a ratings juggernaut for NBC since it premiered back in 2006, and while Mandel hasn’t been a part of the show since its inception – he came on board in 2010 when David Hasselhoff left – but he is the longest-tenured judge in the show’s history.

It’s clear in talking to him that it has become a lot more than just another job over the course of his nine seasons on the show. The joy that he derives from being part of it is palpable; it’s the kind of gig rife with rewards both large and small.

“There’s something really amazing about the energy of that show,” he said. “We get to encounter all of these incredible people, people who will surprise and excite and inspire you. And really, we get to sit there and see dreams come true. We’re watching the lives of these people change before our eyes.

“And we’re going to see some of our favorites again,” he continued. “‘America’s Got Talent: The Champions’ is coming in January and we’re bringing back all the past winners for another go.”

(Note: “America’s Got Talent: The Champions” premieres on NBC on January 7. Check local listings for times.)

And in case you hadn’t heard, “Deal or No Deal” – the show that brought Howie Mandel back into the pop culture consciousness just as he was considering walking away from it all – is going to be making a return to the airwaves as well. When I asked him how long the process to bring the show back was, he was very forthcoming.

“Ever since it went off the air,” he said with a laugh. “We’ve been clawing our way back for years. And finally, CNBC pulled the trigger. The show is going to be bigger and more exciting; we’re back and better than ever.”

(Note: The new “Deal of No Deal” will be airing on CNBC beginning on December 5. Check local listings for times.)

So yeah – you could say that Howie Mandel has got a lot going on. And yet, being busy suits him. He’s not someone interested in standing still, as one can see from his response to being asked about what he does as a break from work.

“Work is my break,” said Mandel. “Quiet time is definitely not good for me. When I’m doing stand-up, I’m basically just moving from one party to another. It’s great. And when I’m not doing that, or TV work, then I sleep. My work and my family are all that I need. I’m not looking for hobbies or anything like that. Heck, everything I used to get in trouble for when I was a kid? I get paid for that now.”

In turbulent times such as these, we can all use a laugh. And that’s what keeps Mandel on tour, doing what he does. He wants to give people the chance to laugh and forget about the world for a while.

“I’m trying to help people find a fun, silly escape,” he said. “That’s what I’m doing. I’m not about the current climate; my act has nothing to do with that. I just want to give people that escape.”

(Howie Mandel will be performing at the Collins Center for the Arts in Orono on November 1. The show is at 7 p.m. Tickets are available at the CCA website at www.collinscenterforthearts.com, by calling (207) 581-1755 or (800) 622-TIXX, or by visiting the CCA box office between 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.)

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