Come on down!

Mar 1, 2006 at 12:00 am

When I think of TV game show hosts, I think of brittle, Brylcreemed Bob Barker, the king of the game show hill. I think of Pat Sajak — as much as anyone can think about an unctuous, transparent grinning suit. I even think of Alex Trebek, who always seemed a bit too pompous and bigheaded to be reading answers without questions.

But I have not once, not even for a nanosecond, thought of Howie Mandel.

But now I must, because the madcap Canadian comic, who once ended his standup routines by imitating a whiny 5-year-old, is the newest member of the Wink Martindale Emcee Society, as host of the splashy new game show Deal or No Deal.

The show is in the midst of a "five-night event" at 8 p.m. nightly through this Friday on NBC (WDIV-Channel 4 in Detroit), as the network attempts to maintain some of its post-Olympics sizzle. This is called "stunt programming," a tactic ABC used to spectacular advantage in 1999 with the prime-time game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? — and we all know how that panned out.

NBC launched Deal in December with a similar weeklong stunt, and accrued an estimated audience of 50 million. It was a big success; Howie Mandel is a helluva lot more fun to watch than Regis Philbin, and the show will settle into a regular weekly time slot at 8 p.m. Mondays beginning March 6.

But if you're surprised to see the now-bald, soul-patched Mandel, of all people, looking like Mr. Clean channeling Monty Hall while doing the "Let's meet our next contestant" boogie, you're no more shocked than Mandel himself.

"They came to my manager, who calls me and said, 'Hey, are you interested in doing a game show on NBC?' And I said, 'Absolutely not,'" Mandel says by phone from Las Vegas, where he still performs regularly. "Then he calls back and says, 'Let me tell you more about it.' I said, 'I'm really not interested.'

"He goes, 'There's 26 bikini models holding 26 boxes of money.' I said, 'I'm interested in watching that. I don't know if I'm interested in hosting.' Then the producers called and asked, 'Could we just meet you for lunch so we can explain it to you?' At that point I guess I was playing 'Meal or No Meal.'"

He met the producers at a Los Angeles deli, where they spread dozens of pieces of paper across their table, to play a mock version of the game for Mandel.

"They made up all these cards with different amounts of money on them, and people are looking at us like we're idiots, eating pastrami and screaming," he recalls. "But I thought the game was very compelling, because there's no stunts, there's no trivia, it's really easy."

The concept lifted from a wildly popular game show in Italy, Deal or No Deal is as deviously simple as greed itself. The aforementioned gorgeous, leggy models arrive on the set, each carrying a metal attaché case. Inside each piece of luggage is a written monetary amount ranging from one penny to $1 million. (This week, they're upping the ante to a potential $3 million.) The contestant picks one case to keep, then begins selecting other cases to reveal the amounts contained within.

The idea is to narrow down the number of remaining attachés with large cash amounts, while hoping the first case chosen holds the $1 million prize. At various points in the game, as the odds of winning big shift in the contestant's favor, Mandel receives a call from "the banker" — a shadowy figure seated above the stage whom Mandel swears he's never met — offering an enticing but much smaller figure for the player to walk away and quit the game. That prompts Mandel to stare into the contestant's face and deliver the question: "Deal ... or no deal?" — in an ominously game-showy tone, natch.

Unless family or friends in the audience convince the contestants to regain their senses, the players customarily shriek "No deal!" and continue the game to ultimately win or lose it all. Mandel suggests that the response to his query is less about greed and more about the thrill of gambling against the odds.

"I don't think it's wanton greed," says Mandel, now, amazingly, 50 and a long way from Dr. Wayne Fiscus on St. Elsewhere. "Greed is a negative element in the game and, if you get greedy, chances are it will not work for you. You don't have to take a risk. You can't lose; you can only take away less. Everybody's going to go home with at least a penny. And we're always offering you a lot of money, and a lot more than you came in with, to go home."

Jim McFarlin writes about the boob tube for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]