Howie Mandel and Theo Von Howie Mandel and Theo Von Howie Mandel (right) laughs with "Deal With It" host Theo Von as Mandel commands a contestant to do increasingly embarrassing things in public. (Photo: Trae Patton /TBS)

Howie Mandel on 'Deal With It' and his love of the hidden camera

The veteran comedian brings the prank show to a new level in its third season.

TV's Howie Mandel is known for a lot of things: 35 years of standup comedy, acting in series like "St. Elsewhere," hosting the blockbuster game show "Deal or No Deal" and being one of the judges on "America's Got Talent." But Howie's also known as a master of hidden-camera pranks, which he's done on "The Tonight Show" and series like "Howie Do It" and "Mobbed."

His latest prank show, "Deal With It," starts its third season on TBS on Friday, Oct. 24. In the show, host Theo Von sits in a hidden room with Mandel or another celebrity as the celebrity commands contestants to do increasingly outrageous things for a growing pot of money. The goal is to watch the horrified reaction of the person that the contestant is dining or going to the gym with; if the contestant can't do it, they yell "I can't deal with it!" and the secret is revealed, which sometimes leads to even funnier reactions.

Mandel spoke with From The Grapevine about the show, his favorite prank, and why he loves hidden camera shows so much.

From The Grapevine: Was "Deal With It" a format that you created or was it a format that someone else created?

Howie Mandel: No, it’s an Israeli format (from Keshet Media Group). And we saw it and thought, oh, my gosh. This is so on brand for what I do. I love hidden camera and I love games. And nothing combines games and hidden camera better than this "Deal With It." So we approached the people who owned the format and said, "Can we do it for America?" And they were nice enough to allow us to do it, and the rest is history.

What caught your eye about the format?

Watching it and not even being able to speak Hebrew, I kind of understood what was going on and was enjoying it. And I thought, this has nothing to do with culture or language, this is just funny and it’s just human. And I love the element of having somebody else, not the producers of the show, but somebody else, somebody close, being the practical joker. And with a full choice and full freedom of doing it. 

You’re sitting there with your sister, we can suggest "You may want to get up and go to the next table and put your face in the chocolate cake." They can choose whether they want to do that, whether it will embarrass their sister or they can say, "I can’t deal with it." So I just love that the control is in the player's hands … and I always love the reaction to hidden camera.

How has the input from Keshet been and how has it been working with them?

I love them. They’ve got a real hold on American television. "Homeland" comes from them, so they have scripted (TV), and I think they have a real sense of what works and what an audience wants. And what I learned ultimately – comedically, dramatically – if it’s good, humans will like it regardless of where you live or what language you speak.

Was it a little surprise to you to know that stuff that works for the Israeli market has worked for the American market?

Not a surprise. I think funny is funny. Things are great across all cultures and all language barriers. So it doesn’t surprise me that Israel is able to come up with formats that work.

One of the things that struck me is that the hidden cameras get in pretty close to the people involved in the prank. How are you able to do that?

Well I think that we have probably, if not the best, one of the best teams in hidden camera. I think hidden camera is a skill unto itself. I think people don’t realize how different it is than shooting any other kind of show. There’s probably 12 to 16 cameras at any given shoot. It’s beyond just the six GoPros, that are hidden so well and so close and the sound is captured. It’s amazing what they can do today as opposed to what they could do 10 years ago. So our technology and our expertise in the crew that we have is just far and above what you see on most television shows.

If you just looked at what GoPro has done to society, you have amateurs just walking down a beach with a camera on a stick and it looks like a travelog. So you can get really good quality shooting in low light. You don’t have to put up big lights so people go, "Wait, wait, wait. Is this a television set?" And that’s the key. We want it to be real. We want people to feel like they’re in an environment that they’ve always been in. We want them to not have a question as to, "Is this a TV show or am I just having lunch?" And they believe it, so it’s fascinating. I’ve been in the business for 35 years and what they can do today versus what they were even able to do five years ago is amazing.

What do you like about the hidden-camera format that keeps you going back to it?

I like it because it’s the most relatable kind of comedy for me. I like it better than standup because if somebody does standup and they’re talking about my mother-in-law or what it’s like to be married or what it’s like with your kids or what it’s like going to college ... as an audience, unless you’re married, you kind of can’t relate to that comedy, or unless you have kids, you can’t relate to that comedy, or unless you’re politically versed, you can’t relate to that comedy. When it comes to hidden camera, it’s unscripted and it’s real people reacting to these unreal situations. So it’s very visceral. As an audience, you sit there and you go, "Oh my god, they believe that" or "Look how they’re reacting," or "I didn’t believe that," or "I wouldn’t ever react that way."

I talked about this as a book a couple of years ago in my autobiography. My parents were very into comedy and I remember as a baby I’d hear laughter coming from the living room because my dad would bring home comedy albums, or they’d be watching "The Tonight Show" and there’s some standup. And I’d go in there and not really have a point of reference or understand what was going on and I’d feel out of it. The first recollection I have of being part of the party was they were watching on Sunday night, "Candid Camera." And Allen Funt explained to us, very simply to the home audience, that he’s going to hire a receptionist to answer the phone in this fake office. And they’re going to tie a rope to the desk, and every time the phone rings, somebody on the other side of the wall’s going to pull the rope so the desk goes away. I get that. And I couldn’t wait, the anticipation to see how the woman would react. Every time they pulled the desk away when the phone rang, just to see her face made me laugh.

So I got it and it was real. And it wasn’t scripted and it’s visceral and you could talk about it. And when I do these shows, like "Deal With It," I tweet live, I like to see people’s reaction to the reactions.And it’s that kind of all-encompassing kind of human comedy that kind of includes everybody.

How did you recruit the celebrities? Because obviously folks like Nick Cannon, you work with?

I have a phone, some are on speed dial, some aren’t. And I say, "Hi, it’s Howie. You want to come have some fun this afternoon?" and some of them say yes, not everybody.

The people who say yes. Are they enthusiastic yeses? Or are they reluctant, because they're not sure what's going on?

The first season they didn’t really know what it was, and a lot of people came because it was a favor to me. I got a new show and this could be fun. But everybody who’s done the show and is doing the show just goes, oh my god. This is the most fun. We say, just come here, spend an hour, there’ll be one contestant, and everyone stays for a second contestant. It’s so much fun to be a puppeteer. They feel like they’re in control. It’s like you’re the Wizard of Oz. And the reactions, even the most mundane thing is just fun to watch. So not only are they running the show, we become an audience, so we end up laughing and enjoying, and it’s just a fun place. So now we’re getting calls from celebrities saying, "Are you still shooting that? Is there any way we could be on?"

What was the funniest, at least to you, interaction between a guest and contestant?

We had the Kardashian girls on, the Jenner girls, Kendall and Kylie, and they were backstage. And not a plan, one of the contestants used the Kardashian name, not in the nicest way. "I feel like I’m crazy like a Kardashian." They were sitting there and they heard it. And it was like, oh my god. My heart dropped into my stomach and I thought this is embarrassing. And they were such good sports. But they said, "So now that she said that, is there any way you good take over the spot here, Howie, and we’ll go out?" Now the Kardashians are going to walk in within 15 seconds of her saying it. To see the contestant's reaction when they walked in, I mean that was just so unplanned, so real, such good sportsmanship, and such a good game. It was a lot of fun.

What is a good example of someone who really got a task at one of the upper levels and just ended up … you didn’t expect them to do it, but they ended up doing it?

Always. That’s almost every show, where you want to say, "There’s no way he’s going to get this done," or "She’s going to ask him to do it." And if she does ask him to do it, there’s no way in 30 seconds they’re going to get them to do it. I mean that’s the beauty of the show. That’s the drama of the show. Will they give this command? And will this command be met? It plays on so many different levels.

They’re all very outrageous, but whether it’s having your wife … you have to get your bare foot on your wife’s face in the middle of a restaurant.

Which pranks have you done over the years that stick out to you?

They all stick out. I’m always most excited about what's next. It’s all about the next one; for me it’s the anticipation. It’s the planning. It’s like the ultimate comedic surprise party. That’s what a surprise party really is. It could be a loved one or a friend. You make them believe that nobody cares. Nobody even remembered your birthday. Nobody cares about your birthday. You know they’re going home alone and they're just going to drown in their own loneliness and then we all make a plan. We’re going to go there. We’re going to park way down the street. We’re all going to hide and then at the appropriate moment we’re going to jump out and surprise them and watch their reaction. And usually the lower that they are emotionally, the higher they are at that moment, and that’s exciting. And for me, it’s not the surprise party I did, it’s the surprise party I’m making now.

For me, my life is hiding behind that couch and waiting for that door to open, and just the anticipation of, will it work? When I did "Mobbed," there was so much at stake. Millions and millions of dollars, thousands and thousands of people, one take. And that’s another thing I love about "Deal With It" and all the hidden camera shows, it’s not scripted. And you can’t say "Let’s try that again. That didn’t work." That excitement and that fun is what works. I don’t even know if I’m going to get the person to reiterate the command that we’re giving them.

Your son Alex is on the show this season. How much fun has it been having him participate in the show with you?

My son? It’s the best. I love it and he actually teaches me. I look at him and go "Is that funny?" And if he says yes, then it's funny.

Who’s the more demented with their commands, you or him?

He will push it farther than me. I’m the conservative one. But he's 25 years old. That’s when I got into comedy, and I kind of trust his taste.

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