Hidden Howie: The Public Life of a Private Nuisance

Let’s imagine Howie Mandell’s agent holding the Bravo boardroom rapt with the following pitch: “So it’s Howie Mandell, right, and he goes around being an asshole to strangers and then we cut to a sitcom where he worries about his son becoming a faggot.” And then let’s remember The Simpsons‘ Halloween episode where Maggie pulls out her pacifier and, in the voice of James Earl Jones says, “This is indeed a disturbing universe.”

Hidden Howie lifts so many premises from other shows, it’s difficult to find in it the slightest crumb of originality. The attempt to blend a prankster’s interactions with non-actors and a situation comedy, comes from Wanda Does It, which stitched improvisational comedy and Sykes actually attempting to learn several different jobs (repo woman, prostitute). That in turn was an extension of her appearances on Curb Your Enthusiasm, borrowing from Larry David’s deadpan realism. Mandell’s efforts to recreate David’s universe fail largely because his personality seems too simplistic, his misanthropy unearned, and his jokes repetitive, like a child saying your name over and over as he tugs on your sleeve.

Mandell’s “pranks” on non-actor strangers have been thoroughly overkilled by any number of shows (Jackass, The Tom Green Show, even Candid Camera). Mandell goes into an auto showroom and turns the radio up on one of the cars and honks the horn until the salespeople just abandon him, hoping he’ll get bored with being a dickhead. Posing as an Avis agent, he tries to copy everything the customer is saying while he’s saying it. He talks loudly on his cell phone next to someone trying to use a payphone, bumping into the man until he justifiably flies into a blind rage. Mandell never achieves the dual identification — with prankster and dupe — that makes pranks funny. You just hate him to the point where you wonder why someone doesn’t up and shoot him.

Full disclosure: I’ve always found Howie Mandell to be extraordinarily unfunny, even back when he was using the Daffy Duck voice and blowing surgical gloves up on his head. He’s bald now, with a Guardian Angels goatee and hoop earrings, a not-so-comedic approximation of the masculine ideal that would get coded Right-Said-Fred gay if Mandell didn’t go so far out of his way to make sure that you know he’s a pussy man.

If you think boredom and loathing make for good entertainment, the sitcom portion of the show offers more bounty for your buck. The plotlines feel like really bad crayon tracings of a Larry David idea. Mandell has an obsessive-compulsive fear of germs, so he lets a television executive’s mother die because she has an ugly cold sore and he won’t give her mouth-to-mouth. His son gets in trouble at school for imitating his father’s annoying behavior. Through a misunderstanding that seems taken from a rejected Three’s Company episode, Mandell ends up looking underneath his bathroom stall while he’s shitting and talking to his fiancee on his cell phone. Part of the problem with this hokey reality-TV hybrid is that the lack of good writing and character development make even the non-prank segments feel like pranks — all set up with no punch line.

It took me two weeks to finish watching 45 minutes of TV that I consumed in bad tasting medicine increments. But not even plugging your nose can make poison go down smoothly.