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Howie Mandel may be feeling enthusiastic about his latest project, but there’s plenty in the comedy space that has him much less enthused.
The game show mainstay, known for such broadcast hits as Deal or No Deal and America’s Got Talent, is the host of Netflix’s game show Bullshit The Game Show, a trivia competition that is less about whether the contestant gets a question right than whether the individual can convince three other would-be participants that any given answer is indeed the correct one.
“This touches everything in life,” Mandel tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Whether you’re the kid that has to lie to get something passed in school, or you’re the salesman that has to lie to sell whatever they have to do, or you’re just on a dating app and trying to get it, this touches every touchpoint of our society. It was so exciting because it broke the mold of what we perceive as traditional game show.”
Sure, he might be best known for telling people whether they’ve won a lot of money. But Mandel has been a force in entertainment for decades, having established his career in the Los Angeles comedy scene of the late 1970s before breakout roles, including St. Elsewhere opposite Denzel Washington and as the voice of Gizmo in Gremlins. In the ’90s, his position as the creator and titular voice of Fox’s children’s animated series Bobby’s World helped establish the family-friendly presence that he continues to expand upon today.
In a conversation with THR, the star weighs in on debates in the comedy world surrounding Dave Chappelle and Will Smith, how the game show space has evolved over the years, hosting a show on broadcast versus streaming and the current “tough, tough time for freedom of speech.”
What was it about the premise of Bullshit that appealed to you?
First of all, when you give the title, it’s a must-listen, right? But as far as game goes, I’m now the biggest snob and so jaded in game because of my past. And, to be totally honest with you, because of my personal past, as far as the degree of education that I have, I have no interest in trivia because I’m not good at trivia. What I loved about Deal or No Deal is there was no skill. It was just humanity to see how far somebody would go, and when your human instincts are the tools that you use to achieve something in life, that’s the most relatable kind of television. I think that there isn’t a moment that goes by in our day when we’re not trying to size up whether what we’re looking at is bullshit, whether it is as it seems. Anybody of any age will be intrigued to watch this, just to be looking at somebody’s face and telltale signs to say, “Are they lying?”
You’ve been in the game space for a while now. Have you been offered trivia shows in the past?
Many. Personally, I have no interest in hosting trivia. First of all, at this point in my career, I don’t need the job. I work at things that I love doing. So I love playing this game, and as a host, I got to play the game. I don’t know what button they’re going to press; I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know if these people are going to believe them. So that was intriguing. I have no interest in reading questions and then reading the correct answer. That would not fulfill my day. I almost didn’t take Deal or No Deal because I didn’t understand the game. But it was probably the most engaging thing I have done until I did Bullshit because what I found is people are going to be screaming at the set. It’s you as a human being, trying to be a lie detector.
Have things changed since Deal or No Deal in terms of what makes for a successful game show? Do viewers have a different mindset now for what they’re seeking from this kind of entertainment?
Because of the advent of social media, I think the key to any kind of success is one word, and that’s “engagement.” When you’re watching people play a game, and it’s passive, I don’t know if that engages an audience for any length of time. But what I do love about this is it’s not just about the players. It’s about you sitting at home and saying, “Wait a minute, that’s a lie.” Or, “That’s bullshit.” Or, “Look at him; he looks nervous.” And the other thing was, I was very excited to do a show at Netflix, and that is because it’s not ad-supported. We don’t have to cut away from commercials. We don’t have to do recaps. We could just play the game.
You’ve been a part of broadcast shows that have really captured the zeitgeist. Did you have any hesitation or thought about moving to a streaming service, or whether it would change the jokes you’re able to tell?
The thought was a positive thought. I’m not edited. It was the most free experience that I’ve had on formatted television ever, besides doing a stand-up comedy special.
Since the debate over Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special, there have been questions about whether a platform should be the arbiter of the stand-up content that audiences get to see. Has that been on your mind at all?
As somebody who is a stand-up comic, it is really scary. The window is closing on the art form, which I think is really scary and really debilitating. So when somebody like Netflix gives you a forum where you can be creative and have that freedom of whatever that art form is, I believe that’s a necessity in our culture, and that is the ultimate in freedom of speech. Bullshit is not a stand-up comedy special, and it’s not necessarily R-rated, but there isn’t editing. It is definitely not a broadcast network game show.
It’s unfortunate that you think this stand-up art form is changing or going away. Is there any particular reason for that, or just the current sensitivities?
Over-sensitivity. As a comic, I believe there’s no such thing as too soon, and there’s no such thing as too far. I don’t believe there is a line. If you think, as I do, of comedy as an art form, and in the layman’s term of art — let’s just say painting. If painting is the art form, how can you be told that you can no longer use the color black? You need the color black to paint in order to shade it, right? If the painting is too dark, then you could shade and add gray. What I loved, when I got into the game, was I went every night to watch Richard Pryor put together Live on the Sunset Strip. I’m telling you, he crossed the line almost every night, and you’d see when he’d get the laugh, and the laugh would start, but then he shaded it and created what became one of the seminal, most inspirational [specials] — for many stand-up comics up today, including probably Chappelle — Live on the Sunset Strip.
Comedy is based on inappropriateness, from laughing at a clown falling down. From the day we’re born, we’re told, “It’s not nice to laugh at somebody else’s shortcomings.” When you’re laughing at a clown falling down at the circus, you’re laughing at somebody else’s injury or falling down. That’s what comedy is. When two guys walk into a bar, something embarrassing or bad has to happen to one of them to make it a joke. And there is no line. As somebody who suffers from mental health, if you can’t laugh at pain, then you’ll just curl up and die. It’s a great panacea. They say laughter is the best medicine, and now they’re telling us the medicine is becoming illegal. It’s a tough, tough time for freedom of speech and an art form that really is more of a necessity than something that you can leisurely partake in.
How did you feel about the response to Will Smith slapping Chris Rock, particularly given that you’re someone who has been open about health issues?
I believe that humor is subjective, and whether you like it, or it’s gone too far, there isn’t anything that you can say or do, even out of the context of humor, that would make me hit somebody. I don’t know that that’s a discussion about humor or whether the humor was right or wrong. You cannot hit somebody. You just don’t. It’s against the law, let alone against everything that humanity should be about. Violence is never the answer. There’s always many more people that don’t get the joke [or] don’t like the joke. You don’t discuss the humor, but the fact is, that’s what the world is doing now is shutting it down, finding a reason why it shouldn’t be said. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be said. There are reasons why what is said is maybe not considered funny; there’s a reason why what is said might be considered tasteless; there’s a reason why what is said will not be selling tickets. But there’s no reason to shut down what is said. Like, don’t shut down what is written — don’t shut down.
There was a time when I came up where, even if you weren’t a comedian, the phrase, “Hey, I was just kidding,” was enough of a safety net to get you out of trouble. You say something, and then they get mad, and you go, “I was just kidding.” “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were being serious.” So in the face of kidding, it was OK. But not anymore. You’re not allowed to kid anymore. No kidding because it might be not funny. Nine out of 10 of the things that I say, before it becomes an act or before it becomes televised or broadcast, is not good. It’s not funny. It’s not there. People like Dave Chappelle go every night, and nobody works harder than him, trying things out. And that’s why he was the guy who locked up phones before anybody else. He doesn’t want to take it out of context. He wants to hone it. There’s just an art form going away.
As a judge, there’s honesty to your feedback, and you find a way to bring humor into it, but at the same time, there’s a humanity there. Do you make a deliberate decision to help people feel at ease?
It’s not deliberate. I like hosting a show and Bullshit. And I’m telling you that we changed people’s lives. People walked out of there much better off than when they came in. I liked the juxtaposition — their lives got better where the skill was bullshit, and I think it teaches people that the world isn’t black and white. There are gray areas where we’re gonna reward you for something that, for all intents and purposes, the word “bullshit” — it doesn’t sound like a positive. But on our show, it is, and the best bullshitter will walk away with good things. I am loving at this point in my life to be a party to watch people who show up — whether it’s on AGT, with a dream; or whether it’s on Deal or No Deal, just with the luck of the draw that they got chosen; or on Bullshit. Right in front of me, I’m watching people’s lives change forever.
These are human beings with dreams and hopes and families and relationships and wants and needs. And even if I only spend a half hour with you, that’s a half hour more than I spend with somebody I’ll never meet. There is no such thing as another human being that I have absolutely nothing in common with. So I get attached to these people, and I always want them to succeed. Even if they walk out with $10,000 or $5,000 or $500, isn’t that amazing? They showed up on TV, they had a good time and you walked away with $500.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Bullshit the Game Show is currently streaming on Netflix.
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