'Howie Do It'

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Howie Mandel, the improbable "it" guy of the moment thanks to the monumental success of "Deal or No Deal," tosses his hat into the hidden-camera arena for NBC's "Candid Camera"/"Punk'd" offshoot that leaves the starting gate looking like a reasonably entertaining piece of whimsy.

We could do without the overly loud snickering of the host — who annoyingly reacts to his own jokes — but clearly it's too late to change Howie. The play-on-words title that's sung going in and out of the breaks ("This is 'Howie Do It!' ") also proves grating. But again, the situations are fairly clever, and the marks are treated with a quasi-humanity.

You find yourself laughing at this stuff even as the undeniable cruelty of the situations plays out. There are the guys who think they're trying out to be anchors on a new cable weather channel who are "tested" during their auditions by having water and wind sprayed repeatedly all over their faces and bodies. But that's nothing compared to the poor schmo working for a singing telegram service who is sent, in a bunny suit, to what he discovers is a funeral (actually a setup with actors). The look on his face when the deceased leaps up to tell him he's on a hidden camera show is truly priceless.

Mandel does a lot of the heavy lifting in the skits himself, only to reveal his identity at the conclusion. He looks to be having a good time, the victims slightly less so. But there have been far nastier hidden-camera efforts than this; better ones, too. Yet to be sure, in the opening hour, "Howie Do It" at least delivers laughs more often than it inspires groans. (partialdiff)
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