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HOWIE KAZOWIE : Mandel Graduates From Class Clown to Producer, Writer, Actor, Husband and Dad

<i> Glenn Doggrell writes about comedy for The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

When Howie Mandel performs on New Year’s Eve at the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim, he’ll be breaking new ground for his Southern California fans.

Certainly the 31 costume changes and the typically unpredictable antics are impressive in themselves, but Mandel is going the full Cleveland for this show.

“It will feature four things done with cheese that have never been seen before,” Mandel, 38, promised in a recent phone interview from his home in the L.A. hills.

He also promised the same thing before a recent show in Montreal, so we’ll have to assume that Mandel, being an honorable comedian, has added to his original list.

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Such brainstorms shouldn’t surprise Mandel’s fans. His earlier shticks include stretching a surgical glove over his head, then blowing it up with his nose, and making prank calls trying to book his hamster acrobats.

All this comes naturally to the comic. In school, he was the class cut-up who took his inspiration from cartoons.

“Everything I got expelled for, I now get paid for,” he said with a tinge of pride.

But before tackling comedy for a living, Mandel was in carpet sales, owning two outlets in his native Toronto. He is still a Canadian citizen.

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“I had a career change at 23 and went into comedy, which was next on the Rolodex anyway,” he explained.

Until recently, Mandel performed extensively on the road, mostly one-night stands except for the casinos, where he’d spend two or three nights. But now he wants to cut back.

“I was doing about 200 dates a year, but no more. My schedule is just too hectic,” said Mandel, who is married and has three young children. “It’s constant work. When I’m not working, I’m just being a family guy.”

A large part of his schedule includes being executive producer for “Bobby’s World,” the Saturday morning cartoon show about a squeaky-voiced 5-year-old boy, a character he created early in his career. The series is in its fifth year on the Fox Network. He’s also working on another Showtime special (this will be his third for Showtime, to go with five for HBO) and just signed a deal to do something for ABC, though Mandel wouldn’t characterize it as a development deal.

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“It’s Howie’s deal,” he said. “We’re not sure what we’re going to do.”

In fact, Mandel isn’t big on locking himself into anything, underscoring his oft-repeated phrase that he has “the attention span of a gnat.”

“I don’t know if I’d like to end up anywhere,” said Mandel, who was calm, courteous and almost business-like for the interview--nothing like his frantic and off-the-wall stage persona. “I’d just like to continue working and doing many things. Producing, writing, voice-overs, acting. All of them are equal. I have no interest in doing the Leno stuff. That’s a life-consuming job. I couldn’t go to the same place day after day and be excited about it.

“I love the ability I have to do all these different things. I like to spend time on a movie set, etc. You can’t do any of that if you’re doing a talk show.”

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On stage, Mandel prefers to work without a net, eschewing a scripted set.

“I like to make each and every night fresh. I like to involve the crowd, and I enjoy them. I love to go off on tangents . . . and experiment.”

Mandel’s rise to success was quick. During a 1979 business trip to Los Angeles, he took the stage at the Comedy Store to entertain a few pals. He was seen by a TV producer who signed him for a spot on the comedy game show “Make Me Laugh.”

Next up were club dates, a TV pilot, talk-show appearances and opening for headliners, including Diana Ross. In 1982 he began a six-season run as Dr. Wayne Fiscus on NBC’s Emmy-winning “St. Elsewhere.”

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“I’ve been really lucky,” Mandel said. “With ‘St. Elsewhere,’ that kind of exposure got me out of clubs after two or three years.”

Over the past 11 years, Mandel has performed in venues ranging from 3,000 to 13,000 seats. But he says size isn’t the determining factor in booking a hall.

“I prefer to play any place they’re facing me, and they’ll show up.”

* Who: Howie Mandel.

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* When: Friday, Dec. 31, at 8 p.m.

* Where: Celebrity Theatre, 201 E. Broadway, Anaheim.

* Whereabouts: Take Harbor Boulevard south from the Riverside (91) Freeway or north from the Santa Ana (5) Freeway and head east on Broadway. The Celebrity is on the left, just past Anaheim Boulevard.

* Wherewithal: $40 to $45.

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* Where to call: (714) 740-2000 (TicketMaster).

MORE COMEDY

IN ANAHEIM: ANDERSON AND NEALON

Louie Anderson and Kevin Nealon will perform Friday, Dec. 31, in a New Year’s Eve extravaganza that includes dinner, party favors and dancing to Billy Vera and the Beaters until 2 a.m. at the Anaheim Hilton, 777 Convention Way. $120, $145 and $175. (714) 740-4590.

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IN IRVINE: HENRY CHO

Cho, a full-blooded Korean with a Southern drawl, could easily dwell on that contradiction for laughs, but he prefers to simply point it out and move on to stories that reflect his life. The Tennessee native performs New Year’s Eve at the Improv, 4255 Campus Drive. (714) 854-5455.

IN FULLERTON: JAMES STEPHENS III

A comedy-circuit veteran, Stephens’ accomplishments include appearing in Fox’s “Ray Charles: 50 Years in Music, Uh-Huh!” Through Jan. 9, he brings his impersonations and characterizations to Standing Room Only, 126 W. Orangethorpe Ave. (714) 870-4400.

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