Howie Mandel started out in stand-up comedy and didn’t think he would ever be a game-show host, but then he hosted the surprise hit “Deal or No Deal,” which was on the air at NBC from 2005 to 2009. He also hosted a shortened, syndicated version of “Deal or No Deal” from 2008 to 2009. Mandel has also been an actor and a judge on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.”
Now, Mandel is taking another shot at hosting a game show with “Take It All,” which will initially air on NBC as a six-episode series from December 10 to December 14, 2012, at 9 p.m. Eastern/Pacific Time, and then on December 17 at 10 p.m. Eastern/Pacific Time. If the show gets high-enough ratings, NBC will probably order more episodes. Mandel talked to reporters about “Take It All” in a recent telephone conference-call interview.
How is the “Take It All” game on TV different from what people play in their homes? It is exactly the same? Like, can you bridge the gap for me?
Well, if you play this in your home, I’m coming to your home, because I don’t know that people give away cars and anything from hovercrafts to exotic vacations. This is beyond any gift that Secret Santa would have. And then, what we did was obviously that was the theme of the idea, and I had gone to a few parties and had seen this, and watched the type of the gamesmanship and people play against each other.
So the simplicity of it is everybody comes out. We start with five, everybody comes out with a different price. So if you pick a car and the next person picks a hovercraft, whoever ends up with the least expensive prices gives it back and goes home. And eventually we end with two people that have a veritable cornucopia of extravagant prizes. And then, they can pick cash, a quarter of a million dollars, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and then they have a choice. And I don’t think they do this in the house, but their two choices are keep it, so they can keep everything that they have, or take it all. If one of them decides to take it all, they get everything that they’ve accumulated throughout the hour, plus what their opponent has accumulated and they end up with tons of money and prizes and cash.
But here’s the catch: If they both decide to take it all, they both end up with nothing. And neither of them knows what other is going to do, so it’s great gamesmanship, because it’s like poker. They get a chance to face off of each other and against each other what they’re going to do. It’s the most surprising social experiment I’ve ever been part of. I thought “Deal or No Deal” was an incredible social experience. This takes it to the next level.
It sounds kind of like “Deal or No Deal” meets “Showcase Showdown.” Is that accurate?
It’s “Deal or No Deal” and “The Price is Right,” because you don’t know what the gift that you’re opening is. You walk out there and contestant, like in your home, is opening the price and they’re sitting there with a brand new Mercedes.
And you can decide the range of value in that round. You can say, “I’m going to take their Mercedes away from them.” Or you’re going to take something that’s unopened, so that’s the like the case.
You don’t know whether you’re opening something of more value or less value, did you just make a great decision? Did you blow it for yourself? There are more decision points in this game than there is in any other game I’ve been a part of.
And then again, you don’t really just steal. There’s no trivia, there’s no stunts, there’s no nothing, so you watch people, the range of emotions, people are fainting, people are crying, people are screaming, and when you’re getting a visceral reaction that you hoped to get, and I hadn’t seen it before. Only on “Deal or No Deal,” like this amount of emotion, and now we have that.
Part of the fun of a Yankee Swap in homes is that people tend to bring kind of dud gifts, so somebody ends with a dud. Is that an element of the show?
No, absolutely not. There are no duds. Well, the only dud, if you want to call it a dud, is you end up out. And I say that a couple times on the show, in one of the beginning rounds when the amounts are lower, where there’s a range from $15,000 to $100,000 in one round, and if you end up holding the $15,000 prize, which for all intents and purposes is a really nice valuable gift, that could end up being the dud because that could send you home. You have to give that back. You give back everything you’ve accumulated up to that point. So in that way there are no duds.
That being said, prizes are like characters in themselves. You will see things that you haven’t seen on any other show … things like hovercrafts and jet packs and things like you’ve never seen before, so they’re all amazing. I’m just as blown away as the contestants when the gifts are revealed and I go, “Oh my, God, this is amazing. I want one.”
Is there chance that this show will go on beyond the holidays?
That’s a question for NBC. It’s not a question for me. And the last time I was involved with an event of this magnitude in this way was “Deal or No Deal.” When I was presented with “Deal or No Deal” they said, “We’re going to give you five nights in a row on a network, and we truly believe in this. We think it’s a fun holiday event.” And that fun holiday event turned into 500 episodes.
So I would love that, but I take each take as it comes. And when we played the game in the room with NBC, and I said, “If you ever decide to do this, this is the one time I want the host.” I’ve been asked since “Deal or No Deal” to host everything that’s come along in the way of game and is said, “This is fun,” because this is about people, it’s about gamesmanship. Can you play, can you bluff somebody, and you create a story from this?
You play it like poker, because if you receive a gift and go, “Oh my, God, this is a top gift,” and then somebody else doesn’t know what the value is believes what you just said and says, “I want to steal their gift.”
And we’ve had people that go, “I know I’ve got, that’s not the top-valued gift,” and they got taken. I just love the gamesmanship and kind of size people up, and when I played the game in the room they just went, “This is great. We want to run this for five nights,” and I went, “Wow.”
So a roundabout answer to your question, I came in the room and showed them a game. I had no idea where it would go from there. And the fact that it’s seven hours of television now, and I’m thrilled. And if becomes more, I’ll be even more thrilled.
“Take It All” is least the second game show you’ve hosted. What have you learned about people’s natures from doing this, whether they have the test to win these big money prizes?
I’ve learned that I know nothing. I’ve learned that you cannot judge a book by its cover. I learned that I’m fascinated with the human condition. I’ve learned that you put people in different environments and they probably don’t even know what they’re going to do. What happens is they get up there and there’s hundreds of thousands of dollars cash in front of them, diamonds, boats, gifts, and real estate, and you watch their eyes glaze over and you become a different person.
And I think that’s true when you get into a casino, so I’m fascinated by what happens. All I try to do as the host is just direct the traffic and hope that I keep them as clear as possible and as focused as possible, so that they can, manipulate whatever plan they have of attack in the clearest possible way.
And what kind of game player are you? Are you good at games?
No, not at all. I’m not a player of games. I’m fascinated by watching somebody play games, and this kind of game, more than any other kind of games. Trivia, for the most part, and physical things that people have to do is kind of exclusive. If I’m watching a show or part of a show where they’re asking trivia questions, if I don’t know anything about geography, then number one, I’m not interested, and number two, I can’t even participate.
These kind of games where it’s just humanity, it’s just everybody in this game that shows up is making life-changing decisions and moves, and I’m fascinated by that. And I watched, right in front of my eyes, somebody’s life changed forever. Somebody shows up and they just graduated college, and then 40 minutes later they’re standing there with hundreds of thousands of dollars, millions of dollars, just their value, their worth monetarily has gone up. And with that, their life is not the same as it was when they walked in. I find it fascinating.
I don’t have the guts. If I showed up some place and somebody handed me like five bucks, I would leave with my $5 and be thrilled that I got my $5. So it’s amazing to me the guts that people have to play a game, to keep going on, and to push it to the limits.
You said that turned down other game shows. Was there something specific about “Take It All” that you said, “I have to do this”?
I think I’ve answered that somewhat in the sense that having been to a party where people played Yankee Swap or White Elephant or Secret Santa, you realize the reason that we’re playing it in people’s homes is because it’s a great form of entertainment, and it’s a great interactive, social, fun game.
I have no interest in saying, “All right, Question No. 2 is this,” and reading questions. It’s not what I do, and that’s not what I’m interested in. When I saw how this game can be developed for television, it’s entertainment first and foremost. This is the kind of television and not since, for me personally, not since “Deal or No Deal” have I seen the kind of television.
And people told me when they were watching it, where you’re on the edge of your seat at home. The whole family can sit and watch. You could scream at somebody at the screen. You could have a visceral reaction to what’s happening on TV. You could yell, “No, no, no, no just take the car. Just take the car. Why is he taking the car when he can take? He’s lying. He’s going to take it all. He’s going to take it all. He’s lying.”
When two people are looking at each other in the face and says, “I’m going to trust you. We’re both going to keep it. I trust you. I believe you.” And you could sit at home going, “I don’t trust him,” that’s why.
So that’s what I loved about it. I loved that it’s more than game; it was humanity. More than game; it was social. More than game; it was visceral. I got talked into “Deal or No Deal.” I did not want to do it. I didn’t want to be a game-show host. My wife made me do it, and she was right. She’s being saying, “Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah,” ever since.
But what I loved about that is what it become. And it became this intense, kind of party environment that I just wanted to show up to every day. On some days I left incredibly frustrated and emotional because I watched somebody crash and burn, but on those days when people, won and did well and played well and changed their lives, there was no better high in the world. And I saw that opportunity here with this game.
And then, if you look at the promos that are airing you’ll see that people are screaming. I mean, there are games, people have to keep their wits about them and answer questions and be contained. It’s impossible to remain contained in this game.
What kind of game shows were your favorites when you were growing up?
I wasn’t really a fan of game, because I didn’t play. It was my favorite things growing up. I don’t know if you can make the connection, but that’s why I went into comedy was “Candid Camera” and it was Allen Funt. But what I loved about that, more than standup comedy, more than anything was real people’s reaction to uncomfortable situations.
And if I can make the leap, I can say that’s what you’re getting with “Deal or No Deal,” that’s what you’re getting with “Take It All” is because … you sit there and you go, “I wouldn’t react like that. Oh, I wouldn’t be out here. I would do that.”
So it’s not about knowledge; it’s not about physical prowess. It’s about how would you react in this really hyper experience, environment that we create for you, when all this is put in front of you? So, in a way it is “Candid Camera” in kind of a competitive game-show environment.
As a host of game shows and talent shows, are you able to maintain sort of a professional distance from the contestants, or do you find yourself getting emotionally involved in what they’re going through and sort of secretly root for them?
Well, yes. First and foremost I’m a human being and I’m a father and I’m a husband. So yes, the professionalism lies in you. You can tell that I root for people and you can tell that I care, and it’s really hard. The hardest thing is to maintain, and I guess that’s what they pay you for, to maintain my professionalism when I see, in my mind, just like you the viewer, I can go, “Oh, no, no, no, no, this is bad move. This is a bad move,” but I’m not allowed to say that.
And I can think it, but I can’t tell you I’m thinking it because that may sway you. And then again, I could be wrong. So yes, I am very involved. I can’t totally remove myself from it. I hope that I maintain a professional stance as the host. I’ve seen some parts of it and I think I do a fantastic job.
Do you know anything about a possibility of a “Gremlins” reunion or a remake of the original movie? And would you be interested in participating in that?
I know nothing about it, but if they do I hope they give me a call. I would love to be part of it.
What is it about the game show format or competition format that appeals to you in general? And could you ever be a contestant on a game show, like “The Celebrity Apprentice” or something like that?
No, I have no interest in being a contestant on any game shows, I don’t play games, and it’s not even the game show genre. I feel that “Take It All” is in a world on its own. Just like “Deal or No Deal,” it wasn’t really a game. It’s more about humanity, so it’s not a game, though there is strategy. There is gamesmanship. There is bluffing. Some people just out and out lie. And that’s fun to watch and that’s what draws me to that, much more than any game.
I’m offered a lot of games where trivia is involved or stunts are involved or whatever, and I haven’t said OK to do those. I have no interest in doing those, but I do have interest in this. Just like I’m telling you that if I wasn’t the host of this and somebody else came up with the show and it was on, this is the show I would watch. And I’d be watching it because I’m fascinated by how people react, and how people, even though it’s playing that this is how they are in life. This is a great example of who we are and how people play the game of life. And that’s basically what you’re doing in “Take It All.”
As far the audience and the contestants, are we all on the same page or does the audience at home know something that the contestants don’t know?
No, we’re all on the same page. In fact, not only are we all on the same page, I’m on the same page. This is why I wanted to play it and maybe it’s not like any other host: I’ve never gone into the prize room, so I said, “I want to be blown away by these prizes too,” so I don’t know what’s coming up.
I want have the fun. Is the hovercraft worth more than the Mercedes? Is it worth more than a jet pack? I don’t know, so I’m having fun with that. And the other thing is, I know nothing about the contestants until I ask the questions. So they’re obviously, as there are in every show, a casting process, as far as people showing up and applying to be on the show, and they fill out applications, I don’t know anything about it.
So you may think you know something. I don’t want to know something. I don’t want to know what their background is or how they play or what their strategy is. We learn and it unfolds in front of you. But as an audience member it’s fun to find out. At home you go, “I don’t trust this guy, or she’s lying, or she’s bluffing. She’s bluffing. She’s going to …” And that’s what’s fun about it.
Are the contestants just picked from the audiences or is there a certain way where the constants are picked for the show?
Yeah. The constants are picked in the traditional way, as far as game shows go. I would imagine that there are alerts that go out on NBC.com and on local stations and at specific events booths are set up that if you want to be part of a game show … And then, they’re contacted and they show up and they play games, so it’s audition process.
No, they’re not picking out [contestants] from the audience, from the live audience right there. No, they’re pre-chosen and people from all over the nation can apply. They’re looking now. That part of the production is still open, so they’re looking now. If you have any readers, listeners that are interested in being part of it, go to NBC.com and find out how they can apply to be on the show.
Was White Elephant something that you’re family did when you were growing up?
No. We didn’t do it, but having grown and been to parties over the holidays. I’m Jewish, so we didn’t play Secret. Santa … When I went to work and you worked at companies, and we had holiday parties and things like that, I had seen it, and I was fascinated by it. It was always the highlight of every party, especially when people became competitive and upset and angry. It was so much fun to watch people steal from another person. And it always tickled my fancy, but didn’t have it as a child though.
You had the great run on the medical drama “St. Elsewhere” many years ago. Do you ever see yourself opening the option to return to episodic television again?
I would love to, so if you hear anything, please let me know. Everything I’ve done in my life has been because I said yes to these opportunities, and they’re nothing that I planned. And I didn’t plan to do “St. Elsewhere.” I was a stand-up comic, and then I did that. And I certainly didn’t plan to be a game-show host. I fell into “Deal or No Deal,” and it was such a great experience.
And I should mention that with “Take It All,” we have reassembled pretty much the whole “Deal or No Deal” team. Scott St. John, the executive producer [of “Take It All”], was the executive producer of Deal or no Deal, and we have a lot of the staff, and the same people that built that and everything. And we gel together and it’s just the best team I’ve ever worked with, and I think that if you love “Deal or No Deal,” you’re going to go crazy for this.
Howie. from a career standpoint, after “Deal or No Deal,”like how did you have to change your perception of a game show host was to fit who you are?
I didn’t. It was the other way around. I said before “Deal or No Deal,” I did not want to be a game-show host. In fact, as somebody who [came from] stand-up comedy, the irony of being a game-show host is probably something that I would make fun of more than I’d want to be.
And what happened was when I was presented with “Deal or No Deal,” I had all these plans of how I would do it and how I would approach it, and I hearken back to when Groucho Marx did his game show. Johnny Carson did a game show …
And then, what happened is that first day on the set when I was looking in the eyes of a real person, I realized there’s so much at stake for the constants that any plan I have to be “a host” fell by the wayside, and I just became myself. And I ended up using every tool that I have garnered throughout my career and all the different aspects of what I do from, first and foremost, being a standup and having to, react in the moment and improvise, because what’s happening is happening live. You have to react to that. And whether it’s humor or not, you have to have a quick response to what’s happening to acting.
And as far as creating drama for the game, how many different ways can I create drama in how to open a case? And by the same token, this show, revealing who has the least expensive gift, who’s going home, and who’s moving on. That comes from my acting jobs that I began on “St. Elsewhere.” I’m a producer and I have produced many shows in the past, from innovation to understanding how a show is put together and what is needed to create whatever the show becomes.
So what I took away from it, in answer to your question, I didn’t become a host. I just happen to be hosting a show. And I realized what has worked best for me is to just remain myself. And the truest form of who I am each and every day is who you saw in “Deal or No Deal,” and who you will see on “Take It All.”
And it’s not me doing stand-up. It’s not me acting. It’s just me. And it’s funny, the first time I did, it garnered me the most notoriety I had had to date. I have been in the business for over 30 years. And yes, I had success with “Deal or No Deal” and “Bobby’s World” and touring and cable specials, but I never had the recognition that I garnered from “Deal or No Deal.” And it’s funny, the first time that I was just being myself and not acting like anything else — and the same holds true for “Take It All.”
This sounds like a really fun job, but what have you found the most challenging?
The most challenging is to hold my emotions in check and my knee-jerk reaction in check when I believe that the person standing within arm’s length of me is making grave mistake that will impact the outcome of the game, and eventually the impact the rest of their life. I don’t have delusions of grandeur, but the truth is if somebody walks out of a room with half a million dollars more than they walked in, I think their life just changes drastically.
And sometimes it’s very obvious to me that this vision that you’re making is not really the best decision. You may want to take another minute and think about it, but I can’t do that. I can’t sway them.
So that’s really hard, because as I said earlier, first and foremost, I’m a human being and a father and a husband, and you just want to go, “Wait, wait, this is a game and you’ve got a chance here to change your life.” Everybody has a story, everybody has a situation, and everybody wants a better life for themselves. And when you show up on one of these games, this is truly an opportunity publicly to really change your life.
How is this show different, production-wise, from “Deal or No Deal”?
We’re using a lot of the same production team, but this is very, very different. It’s a lot of moving parts on this. This plays on different levels — and that is gamesmanship, the prizes.
You have to be cognizant of what the value of something might be. You have to have a strategy. There are many more decision points for a player, and for the audience for that matter, because you decide to keep what you have … or somebody may want to steal your prize and you don’t want them to take it. But if you don’t want them to take it that’s, for lack of a better term, the one “lifeline” you have where you can block once.
Well, if you block that once you can never block again, and then you’re vulnerable for the rest of the game. You’ve got to make that decision. You have to make a decision, about how you’re going to in the end the game, are you going to take it all? Are you going to trust what the person is saying or they act? Are they who they say they are?
In this game, part of the rules, it states, and the producers tell them, “You’re allowed to lie. You’re allowed to lie about anything. You can come out and say that you’re the mother of three and you’re terminally ill, and this and that, so the people feel bad for you and they trust you, and then you can pinch everybody for everything. You’re allowed to that.” You have to guess, “Is this true? Is this real?”
If somebody wins a lot of prizes, but then after the show is over they realize they don’t really need a hovercraft or a jetpack or whatever, are they allowed to exchange the price for a cash value, or how does that all work?
I don’t know how that works. That’s not my area of expertise. I don’t know. I assume that they have to take the prize.
You’re also the executive producer of “Take It All,” so what are your duties as executive producer?
[He says jokingly] Mostly hosting and craft services. [He says seriously] No, I helped develop the game and I helped reassemble the group that did “Deal or No Deal,” because I think that’s there’s nobody better in the business. I’m really good at delegating, handing off the duties of whatever other people’s expertise are to them.
I’m not involved in the casting, because I don’t want to meet anybody until I’m standing on stage with them. I’m not involved with the prizes, because I want to be surprised with the prizes … I put my two cents in on the set. I put my two cents in on our staff. But beyond that, we have the best staff and I’m just focused on hosting.