Q&A: Howie Mandel on the Definition of Talent

'America’s Got Talent' returns June 4 for its eighth season on NBC

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Virginia Sherwood / NBC

He’s a stand-up comedian by trade, but Mandel, 57, is about to spend a lot of time sitting down—behind the judges’ desk, when America’s Got Talent returns June 4 for its eighth season on NBC. Here, Mandel shows TIME his talent for talk.

Do you mind if I record this phone call?

No, no. Do you mind if I have a sketch artist?

To sketch our interview? That might be hard over the phone.

Sketching me! I like to get sketches of myself during interviews.

Do you have a collection?

I’m a huge fan of mine. [Laughs]

Has being a talent-show judge made you more judgmental in general?

It’s the opposite. I went into this business trying to garner an audience and create something and entertain. Knowing full well I was doing it for people sitting at home in their underpants, on the couch, judging me, going this is funny or I don’t like this or let’s turn the channel. Then, lo and behold, this is a job, where they give you a pair of pants and a paycheck and you do what you’d been doing on the couch. The only difference is, I come at it with 30 years of empathy for every person who tries to put themselves out so publicly in front of our audience. It’s like throwing yourself to the Romans.

So you’re less judgmental than the person sitting at home in his underwear.

I just think that’s what we do each and every day. I’m no different than I’ve always been and I can’t believe that this normal fact of life—of observation and critiquing and hopefully complimenting and helping other people—has become my job.

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What’s the most fun talent to watch?

Anything that I can’t put into words. Anything that’s absolutely new. ‘What is that?’ is even more exciting, when I don’t even understand what it is that I’m looking at — or why it is I’m enjoying it. Sometimes these things that are so joyous for me to see don’t really fall under the category of entertainment. But it does entertain me.

AGT pro tip: Confuse you.

That’s the beauty. There’s a plethora of talent shows out there, but we are the last bastion and the only island of true variety. Variety was the seed that started television. Where does that exist now? The only place it exists is on America’s Got Talent. And there are no rules. Talent is subjective. Who’s to say what you’re doing is not a talent? There’s no age, there’s no gender, there’s no restriction in any way.

That’s a very broad definition of talent.

Talent is subjective. That’s the thing. The highlight of my career was doing two sold-out shows in one night at Radio City Music Hall, and looking out from backstage from the window onto Manhattan and seeing 7,000 people walk out, 7,000 people walk in, 14,000 people that night who came to see me. And it was the most humbling, wonderful experience of any live performance I’ve done. By the same token, at the same moment, I realized in New York there’s 10 million people and only 14,000 came to see me. Everybody else decided I wasn’t worth the money, they had no interest in seeing me, so that being said—talent is subjective. If you are lucky enough to garner more people than the people sitting around your Thanksgiving table who usually have the same last name as you, you probably have a talent.

Three of the four judges have first names that sound alike—you, Howard Stern and Heidi Klum. Does that lead to confusion?

Howie and Howard. But there’s nothing wrong with being part of the triple-H club. And if you look at us there’s absolutely no confusion. We show up as a visual aid. That’s the beauty of television.

And three quarters of the judges are not American. Does being Canadian give you a unique perspective on American talent?

I have my citizenship and I’ve raised my kids here and they’re all American. I think Mel B also is an American citizen. Maybe Heidi isn’t, I don’t know. But I think always being from the outside looking in certainly gives you a wider viewpoint of what is going to sell. As Howard continually says—and I believe it—we can find, and are looking for, someone who can be an international star.

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You also have a prank show coming out this summer, Deal With It.

My production company—I’m not hosting it but I’ll appear on it from time to time. It’s an Israeli format that already exists and it’s a huge hit over there. I saw it and I had to have it. We set up cameras in restaurants and bars, unbeknownst to all the patrons. We have a “waiter,” somebody working for us, who asks customers, ‘Would you like to be part of a focus group?’  He pulls people away and we ask them if they want to be part of a game show. If they want to win money, we put an earpiece on them and send them back to a table. And me, my friends, other celebrities, whatever, can challenge them—through the earpiece—to do the most embarrassing, weirdest things, based on whatever relationship they’re in with the person at the table. For cash prizes. Imagine a mother sitting there with her son and you tell her to tell him she’s pregnant — and it’s not her father’s.

That sounds like quite a show.

It is.

And under your definition, playing a prank like that might also be a talent.

I believe the word “talent” is an under-used word. Whatever we do in life, everybody has a talent.

There were some rumors a while back about Gremlins 3. Have you heard anything about that?

Only on Twitter. I would love to be part of it. I hope they call me. I can still do the voice. I can’t fit in the suit any longer—but I can still do the voice.

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