A New Deal

Howie Mandel has a little piece of Las Vegas in his home office.

When they tore out the old Circus Maximus showroom in 2000, the comedian claimed a booth. "I think they were just ripping 'em up and tossing them," he says. Now, "If you come and sit in my office, you sit in the center booth."

The booth has no shortage of symbolism. Las Vegas has been a major part of Mandel's career since 1980. He survived a shaky start in that old Caesars showroom as an opening act for Diana Ross, and since has become a perennial headliner.

"I've spent more time in Las Vegas than any other city, almost including L.A. where I live," he says. He goes off-Strip to visit friends in the suburbs and "I have business there. I dabble in real estate development and have been doing that there for 20 years."

Mandel worked the MGM Grand so often in the past six years, fans could almost take him for granted. Not anymore. Hosting "Deal Or No Deal" keeps the comedian so busy that this weekend at The Mirage is the only sure thing for him on the Strip this year. "I didn't book anything further," he says, "but it doesn't mean I won't."

The bald, goatee-sporting TV host who can work any crowd is a far cry from the bushy-headed young comic plucked too green from the tree in 1980. Mandel says flop sweat was visible under the arms of a khaki sports jacket when he was thrust into the spotlight as opening act for Ms. Ross.

"I hadn't done television and I wasn't really known," he says. A few lucky breaks in a row promoted him beyond his means. A Comedy Store stretch in Los Angeles won him air time on "Make Me Laugh," a cable game show in which contestants tried to keep a straight face while comedians taunted them. That led to a Merv Griffin booking, which led to a 20-minute set at Caesars Palace.

"Not 21, not 19," he was instructed in those days of showroom acts timed to the minute. So Mandel asked a stagehand to stand behind the curtain and "bang your foot on the ground" when it was time for his closer: pulling a rubber glove over his head and inflating it (his signature bit for years, until he perforated a sinus).

The showroom announcer welcomed the audience to an evening with Diana Ross, and the crowd roar "was deafening. I had never heard anything like that in my life," he recalls. But then came the rest of the announcement, about first welcoming special guest star Howie Mandel.

"I walked out, this goofy little guy with a handbag, and everyone was kind of disappointed, like, 'What is this?' I thought of myself as an extra little added bonus. They certainly didn't. I remember just the anger and the disappointment that filled the room."

His routines were greeted with "silence, silence. It just seemed like an eternity. It felt like I'd been up there 21/2 days. Lo and behold, I hear, finally, the most glorious sound I'd ever heard in my life" -- the foot stomp behind the curtain.

He went into the rubber glove routine and even that failed to get a reaction. "I was hoping it was just thicker latex than usual." Mandel went to make his exit, only to find the curtain was held shut from behind.

"Ten more minutes," came a whisper.

Turns out, "The signal I had was a bad idea. It wasn't the signal. Somebody had walked by," he says. "I had to stay out there in agony for another 10 minutes."

But, as he says, "that was just the beginning." A few nights later, Ross summoned him to her dressing room, not to fire him as he suspected, but to rehire him for her next stint.

"St. Elsewhere" debuted on NBC in 1982, and Mandel's role as Dr. Wayne Fiscus meant he would never be unknown on the Strip again. By the time he returned to Caesars as a headliner in 1987, the comedian had honed his current style, in which he seems to be winging it for much of the act.

Again it goes back to those early gigs, when the silence was deafening or someone would yell up, and either way he couldn't ignore it. "I found that those (comebacks) were getting the response. They knew that wasn't part of the set act, and they knew it was real. That moment had never happened before."

Nowadays, his set can seem so casual you might think he came with no prepared material at all. Not true.

"I think the difference is rather than taking that material and giving it a specific order, and saying, 'Regardless of what happens I'm going to stick to a specific order,' I'm more willing to just veer off," he explains. "And maybe on that particular night, never even get to it."

His career took a new path in early 2006 when he was offered "Deal," a show he admits his wife was more excited about than he was. "Number one, I didn't even want to be a game show host. And number two, I didn't even understand what this game was. No skill, no strategy ... I didn't see how you fill an hour."

Now he is hosting both the prime-time version and the new syndicated edition that starts taping this summer. "I've come to learn the entertainment value comes out of who these people are, and what this means to them," he says of the game.

"What a great study in humanity," he says.

Not unlike a young comedian dying onstage at Caesars.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.