Meet TikTok's Unlikely Hero: Howie Mandel

Last summer, Howie Mandel’s son gave him some instructions: Turn around and clap. Film it. Put it on TikTok.

The result was a viral meme that came and went as quickly as any other viral memes on TikTok, but for Mandel, it was enough to get millions of hits in a few hours. “That was the Pandora’s box for me,” he says. It rasised questions he still doesn’t have the answers to: “Who are these 12 million people? What did I just do that made them watch?”

At 64, the veteran actor is keeping up with content creators a quarter of his age, reeling in younger viewers with his goofy dad takes on the popular “Renegade” and “Say So” dance challenges (“I didn’t even dance at my wedding!”) and dueting with stars like Rebel Wilson. Mandel, who gained popularity as a stand-up before appearing on hit shows like St. Elsewhere, Bobby’s World, and Deal or No Deal, has long been an early adopter of new platforms (he claims to have been the first person to tweet live on television). “A lot of people my age have a tendency to lose our curiosity,” he says. “You hear old people say, ‘That’s not music. You should hear the music we had.’ But I’m always fascinated about not only what [young people] are listening to and what they are watching, but how are they watching it.”

Mandatory stay-at-home orders have forced the comedy world to catch up more quickly with technology. Mandel hosts a live show on Twitch every weekday evening and has watched Jeff Ross do live roasts on Instagram. As a partner for the popular comedy festival Just for Laughs — a two-week, NYC-based showcase that draws 2 million people — he’s been having daily conversations about how to embrace technology and grow the festival. “One of the things that brought Coachella to the forefront of the world knowing that name [is] they started working with technology,” Mandel says. “The Tupac hologram was big for everyone, regardless of whether you went or not. Beyoncé doing her performance live on YouTube. Whether it be music or comedy, people are learning they got to do something. They have to. There are different ways of capturing a wider span of the audience that’s not so localized.” 

Mandel has always been fascinated by the way content moves in the entertainment industry. He sees TikTok as the successor of the comedy clubs where he cut his teeth as a young comedian in Los Angeles, like the Comedy Store. Beginning with YouTube, the internet has opened up the discovery floodgates beyond anything he could have imagined when he was coming up. “I entered into the business where, for lack of better terminology, longform was all that existed. Our attention span slowly diminished. You have to catch someone with clickbait, for lack of a better term. You have to be fast and furious.”

While being home means that he has more time to keep up with TikTok trends, it has also made him hungry to go back to where it all began. “I just want to hit the stage,” he says. “I like being onstage.” 

A version of this story ran in Rolling Stone‘s annual Hot Issue, out now.

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